A Piece of Civil Rights History Found in the Archives
It is amazing what you can discover in the archives – sometimes a piece of history itself! In 2014, History Associates archivist Valerie Vanden Bossche was working to organize and preserve the archives of the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site in Washington, D.C. The Council House was the first headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), founded by Bethune and led by Civil Rights icon Dorothy I. Height. In this house, the NCNW spearheaded strategies and developed programs that advanced the interests of African American women.
Vanden Bossche was working on records from the NCNW when she discovered an unusual fountain pen tucked into the files. It had an elegant nib and a clear lucite barrel etched with the words, “The President – The White House.”
The pen was found among news articles describing the historic bill signing ceremony for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, along with a photograph of the ceremony showing Dr. Height in attendance. The engraving and the photograph offered tantalizing clues about the artifact’s origin, but did they also suggest this pen was part of American history?
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964 – only hours after it was passed by Congress. Hundreds of guests gathered at the East Room of the White House to witness the historic event. President Johnson used more than 75 pens to sign the bill that day, and gave out many more as mementoes of the occasion. You can watch a newsreel video of the ceremony on C-SPAN.
Intrigued, Vanden Bossche put on her detective’s hat and searched the president’s daily diary. His notes confirmed that Dorothy Height did attend the ceremony as well as a strategy meeting afterward.
As a prominent leader of the Civil Rights movement and one of the organizers of the March on Washington, it is very likely that Dr. Height received a commemorative pen from the president. She carefully saved it among the press clippings – a lost piece of history until it was discovered by an archivist 50 years later!
The pen is featured in the National Park Service (NPS), Centennial One Object Exhibit – just one of the many historical artifacts preserved in the NPS museum collections. In fact, NPS provides professional stewardship for more than 45 million objects and specimens and more than 76,000 linear feet of archival records.
Discover for yourself what artifacts and objects are in the National Park Service’s museum collections! Remember: every one, every place, and every thing has a story. So get out there and find them, and share what you learn with us with the hashtag #FindYourPark and #EncuentraTuParque!
Laura Starr is a senior archivist at History Associates and has worked on many NPS collections projects, in addition to providing archival services to a number of other federal agencies, private companies, academic institutions, and world-class cultural heritage institutions. History Associates is a leading historical services firm that is honored to have helped NPS survey, organize, and catalog archival materials at more than more than 75 parks since 2001. Over the course of this partnership, we witnessed first-hand how Park Service collections illustrate our country’s rich cultural legacy and have shared in the joy that comes from discovering this uniquely American heritage.