About This Exhibit

Constructing the Stage for American Civil Rights: The Albion Winegar Tourgee Papers

Introduction: How this project got started.

The Albion Winegar Tourgee Papers have resided at the Chautauqua County Historical Society’s McClurg Museum since at least the early 1960s.

Around 1963, Dean H. Keller, a former professor at Kent State University and Emeritus Professor of Libraries and Media Services, renewed an earlier personal interest in Tourgee.

Keller, a Kingsville, Ohio native, was very familiar with the Tourgee family history. Although born in Williamsfield, Ohio, Tourgee spent much of his early life in Kingsville, where he attended and graduated from the local Kingsville Academy before going on to attend the University of Rochester in western New York.

Tourgee left the area, but his sister and other family members still resided in Kingsville. In fact, Keller vividly recalls the local librarian’s colorful stories of her ancestor who had served in the 105th Ohio Regiment with Tourgee during the Civil War. The Tourgee family interested Keller as a young person growing up in Kingsville, and this interest was renewed during his years working at Kent State University.

Keller learned that a collection of Tourgee Papers were located at the McClurg Museum of the Chautauqua County Historical Society, so he made a trip to Westfield NY where he discovered the enormous manuscript collection of over 12,000 items stored in the attic in cardboard boxes with no apparent organization.

Keller convinced the people working at the museum at the time to let him take the collection back to Kent State where he spent the next year physically organizing and numbering the vast collection. The collection was also microfilmed and indexed at Kent State University, using a numerical scheme devised by Keller.

Since that time, the microfilm has been sold to over 10 different university library collections across the country (and to one commercial vendor) while the originals remained in Westfield in relative obscurity.

Every once in a while a flurry of interest would take hold, but Tourgee’s legacy – found in both his own works and in the voices of Americans across the nation whose letters he preserved – have remained relatively obscured until recently.

In more recent years, scholars from Britain, Japan, Australia and, the U.S. have examined parts of the collection for academic research and publication.

One American scholar, Mark Elliott (now at the University of North Carolina) developed a well written autobiography of Albion Tourgee that is probably the most comprehensive and historically accurate to date (Color-Blind Justice: Albion Tourgee and the Quest for Racial Equality by Mark Elliott, 2006), while another scholar, Carolyn Karcher (currently at Temple University in Pennsylvania) has been recognized for her recent republication and insightful editorial work on Tourgee’s novel, Bricks Without Straw.

So, aside from occasional individual scholarly research, very little has been done to employ the materials of this collection as a tool for social and political discourse and reflection on the struggles for American civil rights since the end of the American Civil War through today.

The merits of the collection rest not simply on Tourgee’s eminence and expertise as a proponent and defender of civil and human rights, but also on the merits of the voices of those very citizens he fought alongside of for so long and so hard to rightfully establish their place in the American social and political fabric.

This collection offers historians, teachers, students, genealogists, and anyone curious about the past a unique opportunity to utilize an authentic narrative approach in reflecting on and constructing a more meaningful understanding of the larger infrastructures of power and authority in the post-Civil War period of American history.

The access to multiple voices helps create a deeper context and more complex exposure to the everyday struggles for human and civil rights taking place in this country.

In 2011 The Western New York Library Resources Council received a grant from the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources program that has provided an opportunity to create an online exhibit and companion Teaching Guide.

The goal of the project was to develop tools for teachers to engage and educate students, using both local and national historical resources, focusing on this one collection with its unique body of materials.

The Tourgee Papers document the years from roughly 1862 to 1905, including the time period commonly referred to as Reconstruction (1861-1877).

The Library of Congress "Browse by Topic” search function on the home page identifies American History as a topical search.

American History can be further refined by searching "time period,” where one will find American Civil War and Reconstruction (1861-1877) (http://www.loc.gov/topics/content.php?subcat=12) or, by searching "subject,” where one will find "African American History” (http://www.loc.gov/topics/content.php?subcat=8).

In both cases, the majority of documents accessible for studying about this time period are public documents (speeches, pamphlets, newspapers, and so on) often delivered by public figures of the time.

Missing are the personal reflections of everyday people who lived through this tumultuous time.

As a complement to the "public perspective”, The Tourgee Papers offers researchers a glimpse into the personal views and conversations among Americans of this time period who were struggling with the ideas and realities of equal rights for people of color. It is these personal stories that resonate with the American people of today as they seek to understand and learn how the impact of personal experiences from the past have contributed to our present day context in considering the persistent issues of race prejudice and political equality.