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Eric Steele Wells and Collecting Our History

March on Washington flyer

According to the dictionary, ephemera are things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time. Sometimes, however, ephemera can be very valuable historically or financially or sometimes both. Ephemera can also have personal value to us. We often collect invitations, obituaries, yearbooks and programs for events for this reason. A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of taking a course entitled Administering and Developing African American collections. During this course, we were asked if we personally collected and curated historically relevant materials. It made me think because I realized it was something I haven't been doing. I kept this in mind as I looked at the papers of Eric Steele Wells who was a lifelong collector of materials related to African and African American history in addition to his personal records. His collection offers us examples of things we can save and collect.

Eric Wells was born in 1925 in Charleston, South Carolina where he was also raised. He was a graduate of the American Missionary Association's (AMA Avery Normal Institute which was located in his hometown; his collection contains materials from his alma mater such as commencement programs, a school patch, an armband, and an article from the AMA about the school from 1900.

Flyer for National Day of Mourning  for the Children of Birmingham

Some of the materials that fascinated me the most were items related to significant historical events and ephemera documenting social movements of the 1960s. Of course, I'd learned about the March on Washington, but it was great to see contemporary ephemera such as a button and a program listing the demands of the event's organizers. Wells also collected a flyer from the National Day of Mourning for the Children of Birmingham—an event that followed the bombings of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama which claimed the lives of four girls Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair. It lists James Baldwin, Baynard Ruston, Rev. Thomas Kilgore, and Norman Thomas as speakers.

The collection also contains ephemera related to the recently deceased Dick Gregory including materials from his presidential campaign in 1968. Perhaps, most hauntingly, there is a flyer for an anti-war rally sponsored by the Fifth Avenue Vietnam Peace Parade Committee in which Dr. Martin Luther King was supposed to take part, but was assassinated before he could do so. The rally was instead dedicated to his memory.

Flyer for demonstration against the Vietnam War sponsored by Fifth Avenue Vietnam Peace Parade Committee with dedication to Martin Luther King Jr on the reverse

Beyond sentimentality and nostalgia, these personal collections of ephemera can be a great source of not only personal history, but national and local history as well. Wells' collection challenged me to be more intentional in the things that I collect and curate in order to preserve the memory of events for many years to come.

The images from this blog post along with others from Well's collection are available online at

Images from the Eric Steele Wells papers, Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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