Join the Vivian G. Harsh Society and help preserve the legacy of African-American history for future generations. Visit our Membership page for details.
Listen now to the 2013 CPL program featuring Timuel Black, Linda Johnson Rice and Adam Green in an engaging conversation of how the Great Migration shaped their lives and the city of Chicago.
The Vivian G Harsh Society, Inc. had very humble origins in the heart of its namesake. Ms. Harsh had a dream of preserving and encouraging African American history and literature. She started the Special Negro Collection in the George Cleveland Hall branch after becoming director. In order to fill the stacks of her collection, Ms. Harsh traveled throughout the Southern United States. This was quite a feat since Vivian Harsh was Chicago Public Library’s first African American librarian! She was a trailblazer for inclusivity in the workplace and the incorporation of Black history in the mindset of American curators.
Flash forward from the 1930s to 1994. Ms. Harsh’s Special Negro Collection has been renamed the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature. The Society for the Advancement of the Harsh Collection consisted of twenty-one members, each dedicated to furthering Ms. Harsh’s original mission. They fought for the independence of the Harsh Collection, allowing the stacks to include a wider provenance. Instead of having to hunt down new pieces, people started donating their important slices of the past, present, and future to be processed and potentially showcased by the collection. More and more researchers started to frequent the reading rooms and microfilm viewing area. (We also boast a collection of audiocassettes, compact discs, videocassettes, and digital video discs in our collection for those interested in oral and video history!)
The facilities were updated again in the late 1990s to allow for more space and better processing of incoming archive pieces. Again, this was all done thanks to the hard work of the society’s founders—Dr. B.J. Bolden, Dr. Aldon Morris, Dr. Cheryl Johnson-Odim, Evalyn R Hamilton-Russell, Donald A. Brown, Vera Beard, William Bertha, Dr. John Bradley, Felix A Burrows, Jr., Valencia Coar, Dr. Charlesetta Ellis, LaTicia Greggs, Mini Shaw Hayes, Lori Husband, Dr. Alan Jackson, Dr. Marjorie S Joyner, Billy Montgomery, Sandra Jackson-Opoku, Dr. Clementine Skinner, Dr. Toussaint Toole, and Susan Cayton Woodson. Such a large project required a large team full of excellent minds and resolute personalities. (In case you didn’t count, VGHS had 21 founders. That’s a lot of passionate people.) It is not easy attempting to represent an undertaking like the Harsh Collection in a nation with a checkered history when it comes to the treatment of people of color and other minorities.
Now, the Harsh Collection takes in everything from original slave records to yesterday’s funeral pamphlets. Academic researchers and casual genealogists comb through our census records, yearbooks, and extensive photo and paper archives. Need a break from pouring through our extensive collection? We host visual and performance artwork in our gallery space and events held in the auditorium. Woodson Regional Library is currently being renovated to provide a better experience for library and Harsh collection patrons. VGHS is always keeping an eye towards future growth as today’s researchers use the archives to glean knowledge from the past.
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