Menu: NAACP Archival Project African Americans in California

NAACP Archival Project

In 1944, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) established a Western Regional Office in San Francisco, California. Headed by Noah W. Griffin, the Regional Office was charged with coordinating the local branches of the NAACP in California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. Initially overseeing the work of thirty-two branches, the Region has since grown to include branches in Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Japan, Korea, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. The office has worked tirelessly for nearly sixty years to fight for civil rights in the West.

Throughout its history, the office retained comprehensive files of correspondence and other records documenting its struggle on both the national and local levels. In 1977, recognizing the need for the "old records, pictures and other items [to be] organized and placed in a safe place...[and] made available for general use", 1 the then-director of the Regional Office, Virna Canson, contacted The Bancroft Library about a possible donation. The Bancroft, which focuses its collecting around the history of western North America, was eager to receive this record of the African American community in the western United States and discussions soon began as to how best approach the deposit.

The Regional Office established a Historical Documents Advisory Committee to explore ways in which to both preserve and promote the history of the organization and of African Americans in the West. The committee recognized the lack of documentation of this history and was determined to "insure the free access of the total community to these materials" and proposed a "balanced qualitative program including manuscripts, documents and oral history." 2 Working together, the committee and the Bancroft developed a program and on December 7, 1977 the Historical Documents Project of the Western Regional Office of the NAACP was officially launched.

At the press conference announcing the joint project, Roy Wilkins, Executive Director Emeritus of the NAACP, stated that,

by housing this collection ... in The Bancroft Library, we share some of the more perceptive accounts of how racism has operated in this region of the country and we share some of the history of how one organization ... has fought to stave off those forces of oppression. 3

Through the initial donation of more than 100,000 documents, the NAACP and the Bancroft had recognized the significant contributions of the African American community to the history of the western United States and dedicated themselves to the continued documentation of these contributions.

Over the next ten years the Regional Office continued to make periodic donations to the Library, resulting in a collection of over 400 linear feet of extraordinarily evocative materials. The documents record local reaction to events of national scope such as the murders of Medgar Evers and Emmett Till. They illustrate the grass roots aspect of the civil rights movement through the documentation of events such as local boycotts of Woolworth's and Kress stores in solidarity with the boycotts of the South. And most importantly, the materials document the often overlooked civil rights struggle in the West where segregation and discrimination were part of the daily existence of African Americans and other minority communities.

The Historical Documents Project prospered under the directorship of Virna Canson, who oversaw the regular transfer of records to the Bancroft and encouraged individual branches to do the same. However, Canson retired in 1988 and shortly after the Western Regional Office was relocated from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The strong connection between the Bancroft and the NAACP no longer existed and the last accession received by the library was over fifteen years ago in 1986. Still, the collection documenting the first forty years of the Western Regional Office has been heavily used by researchers. The first accession, which had been inventoried and re-housed, if not fully processed, was made available to the public and records from later accessions were often reviewed to accommodate individual research requests, including some from the NAACP itself.

Currently, the Bancroft is working to make the NAACP collection and others relating to the history of African Americans in the West more accessible to the public. In 2002 the library was awarded a two-year grant, from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), to process and make fully available to researchers the records of the Western Regional Office of the NAACP. In addition, archivists will work to develop a records management plan to re-establish the flow of records from the Western Regional Office to the Bancroft. Projects to process other key African American collections, such as the papers of Eldridge Cleaver, are pending; an African American Collections Advisory Board has been formed to focus the library's collecting strategy in this area; and a new African American Collections page is being developed for the Bancroft web-site to provide more direct access to those collections documenting the role of African Americans in the West. In making these invaluable collections more accessible to the general public, the Bancroft has recommitted itself to preserving and promoting the significant contributions the African American community has made and continues to make to the history of the West.

To see the finding guides to the office files and photographs of the NAACP , please click on the links below:
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Region I, Records, 1942-1986
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Region I, Photograph Collection, 1940-1982

1 Virna Canson to unknown recipient, 4 March 1977, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, West Coast Region Records, University of California, Berkeley.

2 Minutes of the Steering Committee for NAACP's Historical Documents Advisory Committee, 3 May 1977, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, West Coast Region Records, University of California, Berkeley.

3 Roy Wilkins news conference statement, 7 December 1977, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, West Coast Region Records, University of California, Berkeley.

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