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Illuminating Black Student Life

University Libraries seeks details about archival photos.

NAA Feature Archives
Alumni helped identify 12 people in this photo taken at the Black House circa 1990s.Image: Records of the Northwestern University Black Alumni Association, Courtesy of the McCormick Library of Special Collections and University Archives

Spring 2023

As members of the Northwestern University Black Alumni Association (NUBAA) mingled at the Black House during Homecoming and Reunion Weekend in 2022, Charla Wilson hoped the alumni would find some familiar faces in her photo display of Black student life at the University. 

Wilson, who is Northwestern’s archivist for the Black experience, had recently launched a crowdsourcing campaign called “I know them!” to learn more about 1,400 images from the past six decades that depict Black students in classrooms, at events and around the Evanston campus. The black-and-white and color photographs show a wide variety of experiences, from study groups and student organizations to residence hall life and formals.  

“We’re asking alumni if they can help identify the students, faculty and staff in the photos and provide more contextual information about them so we can enhance the research value of the collection and contribute to our understanding of the Black student experience at Northwestern,” says Wilson. Wilson also created a website where anyone can view and submit information on approximately 200 digitized photos. So far, she has received details on more than 110 of them.  

The images in the “I know them!” campaign come from two collections housed in the McCormick Library of Special Collections and University Archives. About 400 photos feature the Northwestern Community Ensemble (NCE), a student choral group established in 1971 to sing Black sacred music. Ronald Pitts ’76, who was a member of NCE’s inaugural ensemble, donated the pictures. They show choir rehearsals and performances over the years. The remaining 1,000 images come from the Records of Northwestern University Black Alumni Association collection. Members of the alumni club donated the photos — along with a trove of organizational records, audiovisual recordings and artifacts — to University Archives in 2018. 

This photo of the Northwestern Community Ensemble in 1975 is part of the McCormick Library of Special Collections and University Archives’ “I know them!” crowdsourcing campaign.

NUBAA has played an instrumental role in a yearslong effort to illuminate Black history at Northwestern. In 2015 the club’s leaders advocated for and partnered with the University to hire an archivist dedicated to preserving and documenting the lives of Black students, faculty and organizations at Northwestern. They also sought to connect with alumni who might consider contributing their own material to help expand the archives. 

In 2017 Northwestern hired Wilson, who has since created exhibitions for University Libraries on the 1968 Northwestern Bursar’s Office Takeover and the 50th anniversary of the NCE. She also has launched an audio tour and research guide on the Black experience at Northwestern. Wilson plans to add more photos to the “I know them!” website by the next Homecoming and Reunion Weekend in the fall (Oct. 5–8) and collaborate with NUBAA on events where members can help identify people in the images.  

NUBAA president Daryl Newell ’86, ’07 CERT is eager to continue the important work of preserving and illuminating the history of Black students at Northwestern. “Our alumni have so many stories to share,” he says. “Every image in this collection contributes a little more to our knowledge of the Black student experience at the University.” 

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