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Why the US Needs a Truth Commission and an Archive of Racial and Cultural Healing

photo of rustic brown blocks arranged to spell the word TRUTH
image courtesy of Canva

In a nationwide survey conducted in the fall of 2020, the American Historical Association (AHA) asked Americans where they turned for historical information, the value they placed on historical inquiry, and what kinds of subjects needed more attention. Several of the AHA findings bode well in this moment for memory institutions—libraries, archives, and museums—and in our sector’s engagement with public history, documentation, and community storytelling. First, the AHA found that museums and historical site visits ranked highly in a list of where Americans turn for history instruction. Second, respondents indicated that “the histories of women and racial or ethnic minorities were most in need of greater consideration.” Third—and among the most striking findings in a time of recognized political polarization—more than 75% of respondents said that “it was acceptable to make learners uncomfortable by teaching the harm some people have done to others.”

As a collective of research libraries in the academic, public, and national sectors in Canada and the United States, the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) is honored to be part of the US Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation (TRHT) Movement. Establishing a Truth Commission in the US, focusing on racial hierarchy and racial harm and its consequences, is an unprecedented opportunity to pay a “long-overdue debt of remembrance” to communities that have experienced racial injustice, and their descendants. Great libraries help students and lifelong learners navigate sources of information, evaluate information for integrity, and provide a platform for exploring the truth. That such inquiry will cause discomfort is precisely the reason to build and protect the capacity of scholars, educational institutions, memory organizations, and communities to document and tell such stories with care.

The US Congress has that opportunity now. Research libraries urge Congress to establish a United States Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation to “properly acknowledge, memorialize, and be a catalyst for progress toward—(A) jettisoning the belief in a hierarchy of human value; (B) embracing our common humanity; and (C) permanently eliminating persistent racial inequities.” Leaders of the US TRHT Movement don’t just envision a commission report, as important as those documents can be for shaping public policy. They’re calling for an Archive of Racial and Cultural Healing (ARCH), a distributed digital repository of documentation, oral histories, testimony, and artifacts for teaching, learning, and accountability in US history and policy.

Archivists and librarians make decisions every day about what to collect for future generations and what to keep in order to fulfill their commitment as facilitators of knowledge creation. They do so in close partnership with scholars, students, and the broader communities they serve—and with one another—in order to maintain the strongest possible collective body of evidence for inquiry, debate, policy-making, and social progress. Through the ARCH framework and the US TRHT Movement, research libraries have an opportunity to work with diverse institutions within the cultural-memory sector to help build, shape, and preserve community-centered narratives of racial injustices against Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color. This work is essential for present and future generations to study, repair, and build a more equitable society. The ARCH vision involves building critically needed capacity at historically underrepresented and underfunded institutions, such as historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving institutions, and in communities themselves, to lead this work.

On December 4, 2021, #breathewithmerevolution and the George Mason University John Mitchell, Jr., Program for History, Justice, and Race (JMJP) will hold an event to launch the ARCH vision and commemorate and tell the truth of the 90-year anniversary of the lynching of Matthew Williams in the Georgetown community of Salisbury, Maryland. Charles L. Chavis Jr., PhD, historian, and director of the JMJP, will moderate a stellar panel discussion. Chavis is the author of the forthcoming Johns Hopkins University Press title The Silent Shore: The Lynching of Matthew Williams and the Politics of Racism in the Free State (January 2022). We encourage the research library community to connect with local communities and institutions doing similar work.

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