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Concordia undergrads explore Montreal's Black history through the Negro Community Centre Archives

Vanier Library-housed fonds provides a unique teaching tool to learn from a local community
September 29, 2020
An archive image of a classroom with two teachers and several children sitting in a circle.
Evelyn Sealy (nursery teacher) and Linda Edwards Simpson animating a group of children sitting in a circle in a room of the Negro Community Centre. | Photo: Graeme Clyke

When Montreal’s Negro Community Centre (NCC) closed its longstanding home in the historically Black neighbourhood of Little Burgundy in 1992, the fate of its extensive archives suddenly became a pressing issue.

Concordia agreed to host the collection of more than 100 boxes — the archival fonds — in deep storage at the Vanier Library. The solution was meant to be temporary, but in 2014 the community decided to officially deposit the archives with the library’s Special Collections. They are now known as the Negro Community Centre/Charles H. Este Cultural Centre Fonds. The collection is now being used as a teaching tool to immerse undergraduate students in the living history of the understudied English-speaking Black community of Montreal.

Under the direction of Alexandra Mills, Concordia’s special collections archivist, Steven High, professor of history in the Faculty of Arts and Science, and Désirée Rochat, a member of Concordia’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (COHDS), students have been sifting through the archives for an intermediate history course since in 2017. The experience of that first class is the focus of a recent paper published in Archivaria, the Journal of the Association of Canadian Archivists.

Young smiling woman with long blond hair and dark-rimmed glasses. Alexandra Mills, Concordia’s special collections archivist.

Living history

Mills had been working on the fonds since arriving at Concordia in 2014.

“There were more than 100 boxes worth of documents — newspapers, textual documents, reports, photographs, even objects,” she says. Mills and colleagues spent years cataloguing the contents and preparing finding aids for researchers and students.

High, meanwhile, had already been studying the city’s southwest borough, which includes Little Burgundy, and had been collaborating with Rochat, who is also a community activist and organizer. The three decided to develop a course based around the fonds specifically for undergraduates, who do not usually get a chance to study archival material.

“I loved the opportunity to maintain and forge new connections between the university, the archive and the community itself,” Mills notes. “It’s very rare for the connection between the originating community and the archive to be maintained. It is important to note that this community archive does not belong to Concordia but to the community that created these records in the first place.”

Mills says the fonds contains records not just of the centre itself, but also of what was happening in the wider world. “You find a lot of documentation related to the NCC’s seminal role in the English-speaking Black community,” she explains. “It was a cradle-to-grave organization.”

Aside from records related to the City of Montreal, educational institutions, sports teams, tutoring activities, programming for teens and the elderly, there were also documents dealing with Black liberation, civil rights, decolonizing movements and a sense of the community’s place within the global Black community, she says.

“It was a little neighbourhood organization that was actually a window into a lot more,” High adds.

Girl reading at a table in front of a bookshelf, probably at the library in the Negro Community Centre. | Photo: Graeme Clyke Photo by Graeme Clyke, 1981.

Unique community, unique opportunity

The instructors designed the coursework to encourage independent learning. The students chose a particular box of archives and, for the first four weeks, delved into the thousands of pages to build up their knowledge base. They were assisted by short workshops and scholarly articles to provide critical and historical context.

Assignments included three-page “archival analyses” of their particular box and writing a short caption explaining one particular document of their choice. Finally, they were given research-creation projects that included a research paper and participation in a public event on the final day of class with Little Burgundy community elders, many of whom had grown up with the NCC.

High, who co-founded the COHDS, says the course was designed specifically for students to develop their own knowledge base that arose out of what they found in the archives.

“They were learning from the bottom up instead of from the top down,” he explains. “Then they shared what they were learning with each other, so they all became experts. That knowledge base grew organically, which is a very different way of producing knowledge than you would normally get at a university.”

Read the cited paper: “Telling stories form Montreal’s Negro Community Centre Fonds: The Archives as Community-Engaged Classroom.”

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