Featured Research

Story of historic African-American fraternity told through University Archives

The University of Chicago’s Iota Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. is celebrating its centennial this year. Established on February 9, 1918, the African-American fraternity initiated members who went on to high achievement in law, education, medicine, politics, and more.

Members of Iota Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi, pictured in the 1957 Cap and Gown yearbook

Kappa Alpha Psi member Aaron Williams published a history of Iota Chapter in the Winter 2017 issue of the fraternity’s Journal, chronicling Iota Chapter’s struggles with campus housing and restrictive covenants, and its exclusion from the Interfraternity Council (IFC). Williams also writes about Iota Chapter’s residence at 4752 South Ellis, its repeated win of the IFC Sing cup, and the academic experiences and distinguished careers of 54 of its members.

Williams drew upon archival resources at the University of Chicago Library’s Special Collections Research Center, as well the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection at the Chicago Public Library, the fraternity’s archive, and interviews with alumni. The article cites archival issues of The Chicago Maroon and The Cap and Gown, and highlights photographs from the University of Chicago Photographic Archive that feature members of Iota Chapter.

1949 Inter-Fraternity Sing featuring members of Iota Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi. (University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf4-01433)




1930 University of Chicago Track Team. Kappa Alpha Psi member, Truman K. Gibson, Jr., is pictured in the front row, far right. Gibson went on to be an attorney and advisor to President Harry S. Truman. He was instrumental in the desegregation of the U.S. armed forces. (University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf5-03829)

Mr. Williams’ article is an excellent example of the use of archives to remember and retell stories of underrepresented communities. Read the full article.

Watch Dr. Christina von Nolcken discuss a rare Canterbury Tales manuscript in Special Collections

Professor Emerita Christina von Nolcken went live on Facebook on October 31, 2017 to teach viewers about a rare Canterbury Tales manuscript in the Special Collections Research Center. The manuscript, also known as the McCormick manuscript of the Canterbury tales, is one of the 57 relatively complete manuscript copies of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and one of two containing a passage from the “Tale of Melibeus.” Dr. von Nolcken connects the manuscript to the history of the Chaucer Research Project at the University of Chicago. The records of the Chaucer Research Project, as well as other medieval manuscripts acquired for the project, are available for research at the Special Collections Research Center. This video is one in a series of videos of UChicago faculty discussing their favorite items in the Special Collections Research Center. See Dr. Mindy Schwartz describe a 19th-century surgical kit and Dr. Ada Palmer discuss a Renaissance astronomy text.

Dr. Christina von Nolcken speaking about our Canterbury Tales mss and the Chaucer Research Project. #facultyfavorites

Posted by University of Chicago Special Collections Research Center on Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Platzman Fellows at Work: Finding Manuel

This post is written by 2015 Platzman Research Fellow Oenone Kubie. Kubie is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford. She visited SCRC this past summer to consult the papers of Ernest Burgess, Grace and Edith Abbott, Julius Rosenwald, Robert Park, and others, for a study of “Boys’ Street Culture in Chicago, 1900-1929.” Below is her reflection on her time using some of these collections and their relation to her dissertation. To apply for this year’s Platzman Fellowship, apply by February 15.

On the face of it, one would probably expect the source base for my project, Boys’ Street Culture in Early Twentieth Century Chicago, to be extremely limited. Piecing together and examining the experiences and subcultures of Chicago’s working-class and immigrant boys of a century ago may be interesting, but surely this subclass of an already disadvantaged class must be all but invisible in the archives. After all, one must often read archival material against the grain to conduct a history of the childhood of even the wealthiest and most affluent families. It is lucky for me, then, that I am far from the first scholar to be interested in the lives of early twentieth century Chicago’s boys.

The archives at the Regenstein Library are full of the research and reports conducted by Chicago School sociologists, much of it regarding the lives of working class and immigrant children. The favoured method of research, at least by the 1920s, was the life history. Life histories were biographies of individual cases from which, scholars hoped, broad trends could be identified. They were collected either through interviews or by asking individuals to write their own autobiographies, usually with the aid of prompt questions. Of course, these sources come with a whole host of methodological problems – from the power relations of the interviewer and subject to the typicality of the boys’ lives – all of which are compounded by the fact that the subjects are either children or they are adults reminiscing about a childhood ten, twenty, or more years ago. Nonetheless, used critically and in conjunction with other sources, these life histories are undeniably among the most useful sources for projects like mine. The stories they tell are rich with detail and are moving, captivating, and even amusing.

Here let us look briefly at just one life history: the story of a nine year old Mexican-American boy, growing up in Chicago in the late 1920s and early 1930s.[1] Manuel (almost certainly not his real name) was the child to Mexican immigrants. He was born in 1924 and moved to Chicago at the age of 2. In Chicago, Manuel and his family moved every couple of years between different neighbourhoods. Firstly they moved to Brighton Park, then when Manuel was four, to Little Village, two years later they returned to Brighton Park and, three years after that (1933), to the boundary between Pilsen and Little Italy. These areas now all have large Mexican-American communities, and are still known as common ports of entry to immigrants from Mexico.

Manuel’s story attests to what life was like as a young Mexican-American in Chicago in the early twentieth century. Manuel thought of himself as different to both the “white” and the “colored” boys: a distinction both groups seemed keen to enforce. When Manuel and his family moved to Little Village, Manuel remembered that he was one of very few Mexican boys in the neighbourhood at that time. He recalls that he was lonely, the white boys not allowing him to play with them. Later, he would go to the Foster School in Little Italy where, Manuel claimed, the Mexican boys had to group together or they risked being beaten by the African-American boys. Manuel wrote of his equal dislike of the black children saying that, although he occasionally played with some, they were mean and lied a lot. On the other hand, Manuel dreamt of becoming a white boy: “Sometimes I even don’t like myself. I would like to be a white boy and look like Ken Maynard”. Maynard came from champion rodeo riding to become one of the most popular actors in early the Westerns of the twenties and thirties. To Manuel, and others, he symbolised adventure, virile masculinity, but also desirable whiteness which Manuel consciously contrasted to his own, Mexican heritage.

Drawing by Manuel

Drawings by Manuel, from Ernest Burgess Papers, Special Collections Research Center

Manuel wrote of his relationship with his Mexican heritage by talking of his Spanish-speaking parents. He could speak, read and write Spanish but, despite his mother and father often playing them, Manuel knew no Mexican songs. Instead, he preferred songs such as ‘Shuffle off to Buffalo’ (the soundtrack to 42nd Street, a popular musical from 1933). Manuel was particularly scathing of his mother who spoke no English: “My mother knows nothing about American things. She only knows about Mexico. I know more about things than she does”. Despite this, Manuel is keen to follow the career his parents want for him and to become an artist. His story ends with a couple of drawings, one of an ‘Indian’ and one of a sailor.

Manuel’s life history was probably taken in 1933 or 1934. What became of Manuel afterwards, I don’t know, however, he would have turned 18 in the summer of 1942 and, thus, would probably have been drafted into the US Armed Forces. This life history is just one of hundreds the Chicago School sociologists took in the twenties and thirties although one from just a handful of Mexican-American boys asked to participate. Nonetheless, Manuel’s story demonstrates the capacity these histories have to share the experiences of those whose voices are typically missing in the historical record. We can get a glimpse of Manuel’s life, his relationships, his struggles and his hopes.

I’m excited to look over the material I have gathered during my summer at the University of Chicago and am grateful to the Special Collections at the Regenstein Library for funding my trip through the Robert L. Platzman Memorial Fellowship and also to the staff for the help they offered me while I was visiting the archives.

[1] ‘Case no. A by Edward M. Haddon’, Burgess, Ernest, Papers, [Box 134, folder 4], Special Collections Research Centre, University of Chicago Library

Robert L. Platzman Memorial Fellowships

The University of Chicago Library invites applications for short-term research fellowships. Any visiting researcher residing more than 100 miles from Chicago, and whose project requires on-site consultation of University of Chicago Library collections, primarily archives, manuscripts or printed materials in the Special Collections Research Center, is eligible. Support for beginning scholars is a priority of the program. Applications in the fields of late nineteenth- or early twentieth-century physics or physical chemistry, or nineteenth-century classical opera, will receive special consideration.

The deadline for applications is March 5, 2012. Notice of awards will be made by April 23, 2012, for use between July 1, 2012 and June 30, 2013.

Applicants must provide the following information:

  • A cover letter (not to exceed one page) including the project title, a brief summary. estimated dates of on-site research; and a budget for travel, living, and research expenses during the period of on-site research
  • A research proposal not to exceed three double-spaced pages. Applicants should address specifically the relationship between their proposed project and the primary sources to be consulted in the Special Collections Research Center
  • A curriculum vitae of no longer than two pages
  • Two letters of support from academic or other scholars. References may be sent with the application or separately.

Submit application in one electronic file to:

Electronic letters of reference are preferred; print letters can be sent to:

Robert L. Platzman Memorial Fellowships
Special Collections Research Center
The University of Chicago Library

1100 E. 57th Street
Chicago, IL 60637

For additional information contact schreyer@uchicago.edu.

Some Collections Unavailable

Please note that some collections housed in the Special Collections Research Center are inaccessible while we are loading them into Mansueto Library. Please click our Unavailable Collections link to see which collections and boxes are not accessible during this time. We apologize for any inconvenience caused. Please feel free to contact us with any questions about collections and their availability.

Additionally, we are currently unable to retrieve materials on Saturdays from our University of Chicago Press Imprint and Linckesche Leihbibliothek Collections and oversized materials from any collection where the call number is preceded by the letters “ff”. We apologize for any inconvenience.

SCRC Sources Used in Emilia Mickevicius’s Award-Winning BA Paper

Men of Santa Anna, The Mexican Portfolio, no. 5, 1933

Emilia (Emmy) Mickevicius, a fourth-year student in the College, has been awarded the Robert and Joan Feitler Prize for Art History by the Department of Art History. The prize is given for the outstanding Bachelor of Arts paper by a senior student.

Ms. Mickevicius’s work is titled “Paul Strand’s Peopled Landscapes: Re-reading Form and Politics in The Mexican Portfolio and Beyond.” She explains that “When I set out to do my research, I thought what remained to be illuminated in Strand’s oeuvre was the relationship between his still and moving images of the 1930s, for example, how they informed one another to forge what I believe became his distinctive political aesthetic. What I found was that The Mexican Portfolio in particular, far from being incongruous within Strand’s career as a modern photographer, both functions as showcase for his efforts to formulate this new aesthetic, and prefigures his cultural studies and films in years to come.”

Near Satillo, The Mexican Portfolio, no. 1, 1932

Emmy notes that she settled on her topic before realizing the Special Collections Research Center, where she also works in the digitization unit, has a rare copy of the first edition of The Mexican Portfolio (250 were printed, under the title Photographs of Mexico, before another 1000 copies were printed again in 1967). As she puts it, “Imagine how excited I was when I realized that my main object of study was held only a few blocks away from my apartment!”

Strand’s exemplary early work has become canonical in the history of modern American photography and modernism as a whole. He is usually associated with the earlier prints he made under the mentorship of Alfred Stieglitz in the mid-1910s, but in the 1930s, shifted from geometrically ordered, singular prints to films and to cultural “portraits” in the form of portfolios and books. The projects Strand completed in Mexico in particular signify the fruition of an investment in social causes sparked earlier in his career. His 1933 photographs of the native Tarascan people marked his return to the human figure, a subject he had largely shied away from for the better part of the 1920s. His film Redes (The Wave) was also the first of his socially motivated films, a venture he would continue upon his return to the United States in the later part of that decade.

2012 Robert L. Platzman Memorial Fellows Named

Fourteen scholars have been awarded Robert L. Platzman Memorial Fellowships for use between January 1 and December 31, 2012.  The short-term grants provide support for visiting researchers; this year’s group will consult printed and archival collections in a wide range of disciplines including anthropology, the history of medicine, sociology, literature, rhetoric, and history. Among the projects are a biography of Allison Davis, the work of Sol Tax, late eighteenth-century Kentucky politics, the black campus movement from 1965 to 1972, and changing attitudes to married women’s work.

Two of the scholars were named to honor past University of Chicago Library curators:  Daniel Ellis, Assistant Professor, Department of English, St. Bonaventure University, will consult the Sir Nicholas Bacon Collection of Court and Manorial Documents for a study of “The Tudor Statesman at Home: Political Orators and the Rhetoric of Domesticity.” He will be the Hans Lenneberg Fellow in honor of the Library’s distinguished Music Librarian. Adam Shapiro, NSF Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Medical History and Bioethics, University of Wisconsin-Madison, who will study William Paley’s thought and writings from the late eighteenth-century to the present day, will be the Robert Rosenthal Fellow, named after the founding curator of Special Collections.  Click here for a full list of awards.