W&M students make historical find in Richmond

  • New links to the pastHeather Huyck, an adjunct associate professor at William & Mary, holds a letter addressed to Maggie L. Walker. The letter is one of the myriad important documents that a group of Sharpe students found while exploring the St. Luke Building in Richmond.

    Photo by Joseph McClain

    New links to the past
  • New links to the pastAmong the documents that the students found were stacks of "death cards," like the one seen here. These insurance cards recorded people's deaths and the related payout information. They hold a wealth of information for researchers.

    Photo by Joseph McClain

    New links to the past
  • New links to the pastAlso among the documents were several copies of the St. Luke Herald, a newspaper produced by by the Independent Order of St. Luke. The order was an organization dedicated to helping improve the lives of African-Americans during the Jim Crow era. Previously only four copies of the paper were known to still be in existence. The students found four more copies.

    Photo by Joseph McClain

    New links to the past
  • New links to the pastThis newly discovered copy of the St. Luke Herald proclaims that the Order of St. Luke had paid all of its death claims to date -- a significant accomplishment for any insurance organization in that time period.

    Photo by Joseph McClain

    New links to the past
Without so much as a map or an "X" to mark the spot, a group of William & Mary students recently uncovered some historical "treasure" that is expected to shed new light on the lives of early 20th-century African-Americans, including Maggie L. Walker, the first woman to found a bank in the United States and a black woman who worked tirelessly to improve the lives of other black women.

The students were exploring the attic of a building in Richmond when they came across piles of 1920s and 30s documents from the businesses owned by the Independent Order of St. Luke, an organization that was dedicated to helping improve the lives of African-Americans during the Jim Crow era. The documents include letters from Walker, insurance papers and rare copies of the organization's newspaper, doubling the number known to exist.

"So when you have these all together, it gives you a fabulous film over time of how people were living and dying in this area," said Heather Huyck, an adjunct associate professor at William & Mary. "It's a really fascinating treasure for historians and for the general public. It will help us better understand all American history."

The find will officially be unveiled during the first-ever Maggie L. Walker Heritage Day to be held at the Maggie L. Walker Historic Site in Richmond April 18 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The event, which is being hosted by the National Park Service and students from William & Mary's Sharpe Community Scholars Program, will also feature children's craft and activities, tours of the home and the first presentation of the Maggie L. Walker Heritage Award.

Heather Huyck displays the 1935 death certificate of Amanda Brooks. It's one of scores of documents found by the Sharpe Seminar.The discovery comes three years after Huyck, a former National Park Service employee, began teaching a seminar on the building and its historical context as part of the College's Sharpe Community Scholars Program. The program takes College freshmen, teaches them about community issues and then asks the students to address those issues through student-generated projects.

Huyck began teaching the seminar in hope of preserving the St. Luke building just off of I-95 in downtown Richmond, which during the early 20th century, served as an economic powerhouse to the Jackson Ward community in Richmond. With the help of the Independent Order of St. Luke, Walker used her entrepreneurial skills to fill needs denied to African Americans during that era, creating insurance, a bank and a newspaper, "the tools and institutions that helped people be middle class," said Huyck. Under Walker's 35 years of leadership, the Order grew to include more than 100,000 members in 24 states and provided professional jobs for African-American women and safe meeting places for African-Americans "in the middle of Jim Crow which sought to thwart their aspirations in every way it could," said Huyck.

Though Walker's home, at 101/2 E. Leigh Street in Richmond, is a National Historic Site administered by the National Park Service, the four-story St. Luke Building, which is now boarded up and vacant, has been largely ignored. Huyck and her students have been trying to change that by working toward getting the site designated as a National Historic Landmark.

With permission the Stallings family, which owns the building, Huyck's students have been allowed inside the St. Luke's before. However, because it is vacant and deteriorated, they had not done much exploring. Huyck knew there were boxes in the attic; however, she had never been up the staircase to investigate them herself.

At the end of February 2009, a group of Huyck's students were videotaping Ron Stallings as he gave an oral history of the building. They explored the basement and then decided to climb the narrow stairway and look at the attic as well. At first, they saw some old props and an aisle seat from the building's original center auditorium. They also saw boxes full of documents from when the building housed a daycare in the 1970s. As they continued to explore the space by the light of their flashlights, a cell phone and a light for their video camera, one student picked up a piece of paper that would change everything.

It was a "death card" -- an insurance card that recorded someone's death and the related payout information - from the 1930s.

"We got really excited, and we started moving boxes out of the way and picking up stuff," said Amy Clinger ('11), a Sharpe Fellow who was leading the group of students that day.

When the students began moving aside the boxes of 1970s documents, they revealed stacks of papers from the 1920s and 30s.

"At that moment, my first thought was one of disbelief," said Lindsey Nicolai ('12). "After we had learned (in class the previous semester) that many people thought these documents were lost forever, I thought it impossible that we had discovered even a few of those long-lost documents."

Among their findings, the students discovered four copies of the St. Luke Herald. Previously, only four were known to be in existence. They also discovered stacks of the death cards, letters from Walker to other organizations and various other documents from the businesses that once existed in the building.

"It was like a big treasure hunt," said Clinger. "We were excited -- very, very excited. We were on a high all day long."
 
Huyck had told the students to let her know when they were done in the building that day. She was shopping with her husband when her cell phone rang.

"It was a delirious Amy and I could hear all this giggling in the back," said Huyck. "I had lightly said to them if anybody finds another copy of the St. Luke Herald, I would take them to dinner at the Williamsburg Inn. This was a mistake. I had to renegotiate that dinner - it'll be at our house instead."

With the permission of Stallings, the students removed six boxes of documents from the building that first day. Stallings stored those documents in another one of his buildings, and the students took a few samples back to William & Mary with them to show Huyck. She immediately realized how much they could tell about African-American women's lives.

Later that week, the students returned with Huyck and several National Park Service employees to remove the rest of the documents from the attic. Altogether, the students removed 31 boxes of documents from the attic.

Once they were all removed, the group had to decide what to do with them. That process showed the students about doing history work in "real time," said Huyck.

"They've been in an attic for 80 years, with zero climate control and zero security, but somebody had carefully placed the St. Luke documents under the newer papers to protect them and had carried all those boxes up the stairs," said Huyck. "They go from non-existent to being sacrosanct, and we're trying to figure out how to make that transition. We want to do what's best for the documents and for the students' education. The students found these documents!"

Finally, it was decided that the documents would be given to the National Park Service, but the students would get them for about a year to work on copying them so that scholars can have access to them. Because the papers have been in the attic for decades, they are covered with soot and dust. With training from the Park Service, the students will begin using a lab at William & Mary to do their work in April. Because of the number of documents, which are being stored in the Swem Library's Special Collections Research Center, the students believe the work will continue through next semester. The project now has two Sharpe fellows, and they hope to have summer interns.

Serendipitously, most of the six students who made the discovery are part of the seminar's document team. The other two teams include one that is enhancing the Maggie Walker National Historic Web site and another that is producing a folder on the St. Luke Building. Originally, the document team was hoping to, at best, find old newspaper clippings and documents from members of the community.

"This is the kind of stuff we thought we'd never find, or we thought we'd find like one letter," said Clinger. "But instead we found something much more important."

Huyck said the documents hold a wealth of information for both the students and other historians to explore.

"In terms of value, it has incredible research value," said Huyck. "These are not materials that are easy to find, easy to share, nor were they kept. They tell us about the groups' interworking, and we see the correspondence between Maggie Walker and various people. It tells us about the insurance part of this multifaceted organization. It tells us how people died. It tells us where people actually were. It tells us how everything actually worked and not just, oh, we had this. African-American women's history needs much more documentation and recognition, and this helps."

Clinger said that going through the documents -- seeing the information on the death cards and letters signed by Maggie Walker - has helped her and the other students see the personal aspects of both Walker's life and her businesses.

"I know history can be kind of boring to people sometimes," she said. "But this brought a sense of adventure for the students, which I think is really beneficial because history can be exciting not just in researching it but in these kinds of finds and processing them and getting to know this historical figure as a person -- someone who did write letters, someone who did write to her coworkers, signed her letters, sealed them and worked with these people that were going through these really difficult times. Just for (the students) to see how exciting that can be and just to see the humanity that is there I think is really, really beneficial and important."

Nicolai said she hopes that the discovery will help "improve understanding of the true trailblazer who was Maggie Walker."

"Many textbooks completely ignore Walker and her significant achievements and contributions," she said. "However, these documents and facts about her life reveal her integral role in Richmond, in Virginia, and in the United States.  I hope that one day her name will be mentioned in the same sentence with names like Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony, and Harriet Tubman to name only a few."

Nicolai said that the experience has given her a "real, tangible appreciation of the history of Maggie Walker as contained in the books we read in the first semester."

"I feel that I am part of something significant, something that has the potential to influence the way historians understand history, the way teachers teach history, and the way students learn history," she said. "It is hard to believe that as a freshman I can be involved in something as unique as this discovery. What a great start to my William and Mary career."