Community Histories: The Black History Collection

Pasadena Museum of History’s Black History Collection is comprised of photographs, letters, family records, property deeds, and other materials revealing the history of the African American community in Pasadena. The collection began as the result of a PMH outreach effort to assemble material for a documentary, The Changing Rose, created by PMH in 1984. American historian Robin Kelley, currently a history professor at UCLA, interviewed Black community members and collected photographs and memorabilia for the documentary, which make up the bulk of the collection. Many of these materials date from the early twentieth century, and shed light on a less-visible period in African American life prior to the Second Great Migration. The materials were also included in a 1985 museum exhibition entitled, Early Days in Pasadena's Black History. The Samuel C. Sheats Papers are included in the collection. Sheats (1924-1993) was a local lawyer and civic leader, who was a member of the Pasadena NAACP and fought against segregation in Pasadena schools. The entire collection, which includes more than 3,000 pages of materials and 400 historic photographs, tells the stories and struggles of Black citizens who either migrated to or grew up in Pasadena. 

First African Methodist Episcopal Church Sunday school, November 26, 1933 (Black History Collection, BH-D-1-12).
First African Methodist Episcopal Church Sunday school, November 26, 1933 (Black History Collection, BH-D-1-12).

The oral history portion of the collection consists of the interviews Kelley conducted with twenty-seven prominent members of the African American community such as Olympian Mac Robinson; Ray Bartlett, who was Jackie Robinson’s college teammate, a veteran, and one of the first black employees of Los Angeles County Fire Department; and Ruth Wright who was married to the founder of Pasadena NAACP John Wright. These interview tapes were digitized as a part of the California Revealed Project. California Revealed is a State Library initiative that helps California’s public libraries, in partnership with other local heritage groups, digitize, preserve, and provide online access to archival materials. To listen to the digitized interviews, some of which have video as well as audio, visit the California Revealed website

Still from the interview Robin Kelley did with Mrs. Ruth Wright, September 5, 1984 (Black History Collection).
Still from the interview Robin Kelley did with Mrs. Ruth Wright, September 5, 1984 (Black History Collection).

In 2011, PMH volunteer and researcher Adrian Panton utilized the collection to curate an online exhibition on Flickr titled, Glimpses of Early Black History in Pasadena, 1850 to 1950. The fifty photographs, and their accompanying captions, were taken from an illustrated talk that Panton developed that explores the rich and complex history of African Americans in Pasadena. The online exhibit was one of the first featured by the Pasadena Digital History Collaboration.

Family of Dan Woods, uncle of Benjamin McAdoo (Black History Collection, BH-L-24-9).
Family of Dan Woods, uncle of Benjamin McAdoo (Black History Collection, BH-L-24-9). The McAdoo family is prominently featured in the online exhibit.

In Spring 2020, it was announced that the Black History Collection was included in a generous digitization grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities as part of the University of Southern California’s L.A. as Subject Community Histories Digitization Project. The overall project involves digitization of approximately 17,000 items, including paper materials, historic photographs, video recordings, and other unique items from collections held by six community archives in the L.A. as Subject research alliance. The project will add to the visibility of collections that document underrepresented community histories. As of February 2021, the USC Imaging & Media Lab has finished digitizing the collection and 99% of the collection (consisting of 700 records) is already available on USC Digital Library. PMH Archives staff is collaborating with USC to finish the metadata for the last few images, which will then be added to the online collection.

The Black History Collection, along with a copy of the documentary The Changing Rose, is housed in the PMH Archives. The EAD finding aid for the collection can be accessed through the Online Archive of California: http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/tf0g50015t/. If you have any questions about the collection or other Black history material in the Archives, please contact research@pasadenahistory.org.

- Michelle L. Turner, Anuja Navare, and Jeannette Bovard