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50 Years/50 Collections: The American Missionary Association Archives, 1966

We begin our “50 Years/50 Collections” blog series with a look back at the American Missionary Association (AMA) Archives, which can be described as the collection “that started it all,” with regard to the history of the Amistad Research Center. The efforts of the Center’s founding director, Dr. Clifton H. Johnson, to organize and catalog the AMA’s voluminous records was, in fact, the genesis of the Center in 1966, and the AMA records are considered the foundational collection at Amistad.

Dr. Johnson’s relationship with the records of the American Missionary Association date to his days as a Ph.D. student in American history at the University of North Carolina during the 1950s. While conducting his dissertation research, Dr. Johnson became aware of the history of the AMA and soon changed his dissertation topic to a study of the Association. At the time, the existing records of the association were on deposit at Fisk University, but unorganized.

In a presentation on the founding of the Amistad Research Center, Dr. Johnson once described the AMA collection as a “gold mine” but not one without its difficulties. He wrote “When I did research for my dissertation, the AMA Archives were not organized. Not only were they not organized, but I had to unfold and press out documents most of which had been folded for a hundred years.” Dr. Johnson not only completed his research and dissertation, but his work lead to even greater rewards:

In 1961, the AMA asked me to take leave from [his teaching position at] LeMoyne College and organize the archives. It was while doing this that I got the idea for the Amistad Research Center. I wrote a proposal to the AMA suggesting that we use the archives as a nucleus to collect primary documentation on the history of America’s ethnic minorities and especially flesh out the history of the AMA and its work with African Americans. They liked the idea but said they did not have the funds to do it. Nevertheless, we kept the idea alive and talked about it for five years. Then, in 1966, the AMA asked me to go to Fisk University and take the directorship of the Race Relations Department. To sweeten the proposition, I was told that if I would take the job, I could begin the Amistad Research Center.

The Center was indeed started by Dr. Johnson in 1966 and the records of the AMA were the first in a long line of important archival collections donated to the Center. The initial deposit of the records of the American Missionary Association Archives was comprised of approximately 300,000 items (a later addendum to the AMA records would double the size of the collection). We return to the words of Dr. Johnson to describe the contents of the collection:

The mass of the papers were written during the period 1839-1882, but several thousand are dated before and after that period. The papers include some of the treasury papers—account books, annual reports, etc; some minutes of executive committee meetings; and other items such as sermons, statistical reports, drawings, pictures, and essays. But letters make up the large majority of the papers. The letters are principally of three types. The largest number, over 100,000, is composed of reports from the foreign and home missionaries and teachers. The second largest number is made up of letters from financial and moral supporters of the AMA. Correspondence among the officers of the Association composes the third largest number of letters. Another valuable type of letter…is from government officials. Most of the letters of this type were written by agents of the Freedmen’s Bureau, but a large number came from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and a few from prominent men in the executive and legislative branches of the United States government.

The records of the American Missionary Association not only provide a detailed history of the Association itself, but are invaluable for studies of the abolitionist movement; foreign missions in places such as Sierra Leone, Siam, Egypt, Jamaica, and other countries; and the history of missionary education among marginalized communities, including freedmen and freedwomen in the U.S. south, indigenous populations and ethnic communities throughout the United States, and poor rural whites in the Appalachian region. For decades, researchers have visited the Amistad Research Center to read the thousands of letters written by teachers and missionaries supported by the American Missionary Association. These letters not only provide statistical information on their work for the Association, but give insight into the communities in which they worked. These letters include reports on the celebrations of freedmen upon hearing news of the Emancipation Proclamation, the testimonies of teachers who endured harassment for trying to open schools and provide education to their students, as well as news on the social, economic, and political conditions of the communities in which they worked.

The records of the American Missionary Association have not only been utilized by individuals conducting research for scholarly dissertations and books, but representatives of local historical societies and genealogists who have sought first hand reports and accounts of their families and communities. The records of the AMA are intrinsically tied to the history of the Amistad Research Center, and as the Center moves forward into its next 50 years, the AMA records provide not only the Center, but all of us as a nation and community, a look into our past.

Disclaimer: Images from the American Missionary Association Archives. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.


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