“Black Gotham in/outside the Archive”: Research Practice & The Rhoda Freeman Papers

Peterson quotes Ira Berlin’s advice to her in talking about research practices. “Always start with the census!” Peterson adds that after the census, always check out municipal archives. She also quoted Berlin’s warning to her when she began the project that became Black Gotham: “You’re looking for a needle in a haystack.” And, to a certain extent, she found that needle. How did she do it? “Don’t ignore the grandparents,” she says, by which she means the incredible amount of information contained in the research done by scholars whose work may not be considered current, groundbreaking or even relevant. Peterson found the first two documents that helped her begin to write her story in the Rhoda G. Freeman Papers at the Schomburg Center, material that Freeman began collecting in the course of writing her dissertation (later her book), The Free Negro in New York City in the Era Before the Civil War, during the 1960s and 197os.

In addition to not ignoring the grandparents, Peterson advises young scholars to make personal contact. “Talk to strangers,” she says. Make phone calls before you go, get comfortable talking to people, and don’t be afraid to ask the person sitting at the table next to you what she’s working on. Conversations with archivists and fellow researchers are the best way to sustain your own work. Peterson herself only takes notes while in the archive, but she doesn’t wait long to start sifting through and analyzing her material – sometimes she does it on the bus ride home.

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