One of the founding collections at the Amistad Research Center that documents the Civil Rights Movement is the Preston and Bonita Valien Papers. This collection of papers is an exquisite example of activism in the form of scholarship. Originally donated in 1969 with an addition received in 1999, the strengths of the papers of this husband and wife team of African American sociologists lay in the extensive documentation created during their study of the fight for southern desegregation during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
Born in 1914 in Beaumont, Texas, Dr. Preston Valien was a graduate of Prairie View State College and the University of Wisconsin. He started his career in education as an instructor in the Department of Social Sciences at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1938. A contemporary of Dr. Charles S. Johnson, a prominent sociologist, author, and educator, Valien collaborated with Johnson on a number of books, projects, and research, including the 1938 study, The Urban Negro Worker in the United States, 1925-1936. Preston Valien became the sociology department’s chair in 1947 when Johnson was elected as the president of the university. He was a prolific researcher and writer covering numerous topics relevant to African Americans throughout the 1930s and beyond including population studies, integration, civil rights protests, economics, housing, and the internal migration of African Americans in the United States.
Bonita Valien (nee Harrison), born in Fort Worth, Texas, also attended Prairie View State College, Atlanta University, and the University of Wisconsin. While at Prairie View during the 1930s she worked as a stenographer on the Works Progress Administration’s project, Survey of White Collar and Skilled Negro Workers (1936). She worked as the departmental secretary for Fisk University’s Social Sciences Department and eventually became the assistant to President Charles S. Johnson. She assisted Johnson on numerous research and book projects, as well as conducted her own research in the field of sociology. She wrote several books about the role of the desegregation process in St. Louis, Missour; Clinton Tennessee; and Cairo, Illinois.
The significance of the Valien’s work in the field of sociology can best be seen in their collaborations to study the process of desegregation in the southern United States. Using an interracial team of Fisk University faculty and students, the Valiens reported on the civil protests taking place from 1954 to 1957 in every southern state and Washington, D.C. One of the most significant and well documented events is the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama during 1955 and 1956. Researchers have available daily field notes with observations, transcripts of interviews of both White and Black individuals affected by the boycott, including Rosa Parks, and reporting on meetings of the Montgomery Improvement Association and the White Citizens Council. The documentation the Valiens gathered during their study provides an extensive view of the events taking place and the attitude of the participants, as well as the community at large.
The Valien papers are currently undergoing archival processing and preservation with funding support from the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation. They will be opened to the public in early 2016.
Images from the Preston and Bonita Valien papers. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.