Aaisha Haykal sorted through boxes of decades-old historical NAACP papers dealing with the Confederate flag, education and police brutality.
Haykal, 24, an archivist and scholar working at the College of Charleston's Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture is organizing the papers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and those of several other donated collections. The work she completes in a year-long fellowship will make it easier for people to search online and use the material.
Haykal is one of seven archival fellows selected by the Chicago-based The HistoryMakers to work on collections that preserve the history of blacks in America and to increase the number of black archivists.
Organization leaders estimate that less than 3 percent of the nation's archivists are black, and they call that "a critical shortage."
The HistoryMakers is a nonprofit organization that works to ensure the stories of blacks make their way to classrooms, films and other forums.
HistoryMakers Executive Director Julieanna Richardson, in a news release, said the richness and depth of the black experience "offers a wealth of potential for the development of the archival profession."
Money for the fellowship program comes from an $800,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Haykal, who's from West Valley, N.Y., said working in archives is "traditionally a profession of Caucasian men." And the field has focused mostly on providing research material for scholars.
But she sees herself as an advocate, promoting the under-publicized history of blacks in America. "You have to know about your past to understand where you are now," she said.
Black archivists "not only diversify the profession," she said. "They diversify the users," because more people will come in to use material if they think someone who is sensitive to their culture will be available to help them use it.
Haykal said Avery was her first choice for a fellowship placement, and she's fascinated by the work so far. The collection at Avery is "community-centered," she said. It represents the people who live in the surrounding area.
Before coming to Avery, she knew from books the history of the Gullah and Geechee people and about slavery in South Carolina. But she's learning more about that history and its nuances every day, she said.
She'll be working at the center through June, she said. Collections she's working on include the Lecque family papers, the Humane and Friendly Society and the Prince Hall Chapter No. 41 Order of the Eastern Star. She's also charged with increasing Avery's social media presence.
Haykal said an archivist has to be detail-oriented and organized. But the work is very lively, especially family collections. "You read love letters and rejection letters," she said. "You realize how intimate it is. You're touching the family papers."
At Avery, Haykal said, "it's living history every day."