The Borthwick Archives and Black History
Generally, when we learn about something that happened in the past, we’re piecing together evidence left behind by those who were present or involved.
People come and go, but the documents they create and collect during their lifetimes can survive long into the future.
These might include diaries, letters, photographs, business and financial records, notes, notebooks, tickets and other mementos. More recently, we might also include their computer files and emails. By studying these documents, we can find evidence describing what a particular person or place or event was like. Our stories of what happened in the past (our histories) come from these documents and from our ability to interpret and make connections between them.
Archives collect and care for documents and files created by individuals, organisations, businesses and communities and make them available to visitors for study and research. Here at the University of York, the Borthwick Institute for Archives collects and cares for a wide range of documents related to the history of York and the University. Members of the public can visit us to see these documents and learn more about what they can tell us about our past. As archivists, we think this work is pretty important.
Which documents are archived?
Documents at York and at archival institutions around the world are kept in large part because archivists choose to keep them. In other words, archivists decide which documents do and which documents do not have long-term historical value. As archivists, we make those decisions (whether now or in the past) as people with our own biases and perspectives informed by our own backgrounds and experiences.
Generally speaking, archivists in the UK who are making those decisions are also overwhelmingly white and, sooften privilege the white experience. For reference, it should be acknowledged that the authors of this piece are all white, heterosexual, cis-women.
What does it mean for Black history when we look to archives for stories of our past? Do we need to think differently about what we find among the collections, knowing that those collections are likely the product of white archivists deciding what is and is not valuable? If archives typically privilege the white experience, how do we interpret the Black histories that we find there and, equally as significant, how do we identify and interpret the Black histories that are missing?
As archivists we're aware that we are part of a profession that has historically and systematically marginalised and excluded the Black experience. Here at the Borthwick, we know that we have work to do if we are to begin to address these imbalances and make meaningful changes to our policies and practices.
Our archives include few stories of Black lives or events. The records we hold relating to Black history were written by white people and tend to document colonialism and the oppression of Black people. As students interested in Black history it's incredibly important that you know this and that you interpret the documents that you find here accordingly.
As an example, we’d like to share a document from our archives. One of the stories that a number of the Borthwick’s collections tell is that of the abolitionist movement in York. The following letter was written by Benjamin Seebohm in 1848 while travelling in the United States and it has been preserved as part of the personal correspondence of the Rowntree family.
The Seebohms were one of several wealthy Quaker families in Yorkshire, including the Rowntrees, that opposed the slave trade on religious and moral grounds. Today, the Quakers are remembered (and celebrated) as having played a central role in the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade in the British Isles and North America.
Benjamin’s letter gives an emotional account of a slave auction he attended in Richmond, Virginia. Historians have used documents like these to demonstrate the progressive attitudes held by Quakers and their fellow abolitionists. Their views are often likened to our modern abhorrence of slavery and our modern understanding of racial equality.
However the letter also raises uncomfortable questions about the role attributed to men like Benjamin Seebohm in this popular narrative and the extent to which Quakers were immune to the racist culture and attitudes of their time. In the 17th and 18th centuries many Quakers owned enslaved Africans and the practice was only prohibited in 1774.
Download the full letter:
See a transcript of Benjamin’s letter:
Once you've read Benjamin Seebohm’s letter, consider the following questions:
- How do you think Seebohm’s own race and religion might influence his account of the slave auction that he witnesses?
- What can this letter tell us about slavery? What can’t it tell us and why?
- How does Seebohm describe and interact with the slaves that he encounters? How does he describe and interact with the slave traders and owners?
- Is this letter a good example of a document that tells us something about Black history? Why or why not?