Recovering Black Women in the Archive

My name is Monet Timmons and I am a first-year PhD English student at the University of Delaware. My research interests include 19th- and 20th-century African American literature and historical memory. More specifically, I focus on Black women in the archive, investigating their erasure while simultaneously using an ethics of care to honor the fragments of their lives and voices.

My identity as a Black woman is what brings me to my current research. Recovering  and honoring the lives of Black women lost in the archive aligns with my personal journey to understand myself. Currently I am expanding two projects from the first semester of my program. Utilizing the special collections at the University of Delaware, I perused the papers of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, a late 19th/early 20th-century Creole Black woman activist, writer, teacher, and poet. Before entering the archive, my main objective was to highlight Dunbar-Nelson’s life and work outside of her marriage to Paul Laurence Dunbar. In doing so, I found Dunbar-Nelson was doing this same work when she wrote about her close friend, colleague, and romantic partner, Edwina Kruse, in the unpublished manuscript titled This Lofty Oak. After migrating from Puerto Rico in the late 19th century, Kruse became principal of Howard High School in Wilmington, Delaware in 1881, the only school for children of color in the state. In this research I think about what it means for a Black woman to honor the life and legacy of another Black woman through literature. I also think about the complexities of Black women’s relationships, whether these relationships are romantic, working, or both, and how these Black women educators’ relationships serve Black communities. Lastly, I consider This Lofty Oak as an archive; although unpublished and fictional, we understand Kruse’s career and impact.

The other project I am working on brings me back to my alma mater, Emory University, to a site inhabited by an enslaved Black woman, Kitty’s Cottage. Kitty’s Cottage was “gifted” to Catherine “Miss Kitty” Boyd by her enslaver, Bishop James Osgood Andrew, the first president of the board of trustees at Emory University. Due to pressure from the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1844, Bishop Andrew had to free his enslaved laborers. Bishop Andrew interviewed Catherine offering her freedom in Liberia or the option to remain in Georgia to continue to serve the Andrew family; Catherine “chose” to remain in Georgia. One of my findings for this project includes the movement of the Kitty’s Cottage to a white nationalist site, Salem Campground, in 1939 where it served as a Confederate site of memory until 1993. I am interested in how the white collective memory continues to portray Catherine as a loyal Black woman in pursuit of preserving white supremacist culture and ideology. Moreover, the lack of conversation about the site at Emory today reveals the need to address this history in order to understand our national dialogue of race and memory.

Through both of these projects, I aim to create a public dialogue that reframes how we remember Black women. One of my largest concerns with these projects is remembering to uncover and highlight these stories with care and not perpetuate their erasure or the white supremacist culture that has contained them for so long. I am excited for what this work means for us currently, and what this work means for other Black women in and outside of academia.