Local branch of National Archives in Morrow uses documents to highlight history

According to the faded 165-year-old manifest, the Alo carried B.M. Campbell's 42 slaves, shipped from Baltimore and described as "negro, mulatto and persons of color."

The youngest was a 5-year-old boy; the oldest man was 45. Most of the women were of childbearing age and none of the slaves were even six feet — indications of the potential value of the women to produce future property and the realities of their under-nourishment.

Rob Richards, an archivist with the National Archives and Records Administration in the Southeast region, said that in looking at the document, now on display in Morrow at a special exhibit of historic papers, the manifest tells only part of a wider, sadder and ironic story.

Between 1808 and 1861, more than 14,000 ships came to Mobile and Savannah to unload and sell slaves from the North, scattering them along plantations, farms and factories in the South.

In 1808, it became illegal to import slaves from Africa but it remained legal to move them around the country. So, the Alo's affidavit was legal proof that despite the fact that traders were transporting humans, they were not breaking any laws.

"They were saying, 'We are right. We are not doing anything wrong,' " Richards said.

That manifest helps anchor the National Archives' new Documented Rights exhibit. The exhibit, which opened in June, is part of a national celebration of the 75th anniversary of the National Archives.

The local facility is one of 14 NARA sites across the country, including the headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The 3,000-square-foot exhibit traces the fight for equality, from slavery through Brown v. Board of Education, all done through original documents.

"When most people think of the National Archives, they think of the building in Washington," said Mary Evelyn Tomlin, the archives' public programs specialist. "But we have regions all over the country and this exhibit contains documents from them that trace the fight for human rights."

Documented Rights is the first major exhibit the facility has hosted, said Joel Walker, the region's education specialist. There had been smaller exhibits and the larger space being used now formerly housed the facility's microfilm viewing machines.

"We had a lot of open space," said Walker, adding that mostly college groups have come in to view the exhibit. Located 15 miles south of downtown Atlanta, the facility does not attract a lot of foot traffic and walk-ins.

"We don't have the numbers we want to have," said Walker. "But we are not downtown and people don't realize we are here. But we are the largest regional archive in the nation."

For the people who do go, they will find an exhibit that spans over five "theaters" throughout the archive. Each focuses on one dominant figure of the time and uses music to convey the period. Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" runs continuously in the theater that focuses on Martin Luther King Jr., and the civil rights movement.

King, along with Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Thurgood Marshall and Susan B. Anthony are prominent throughout the exhibit.

"This is a sample of the types of documents we have," said Lisa Royse, the National Archives' national museum programs coordinator. "We are showing three to four documents (per display) to give people a taste."

Walker said the local branch of the National Archives contains the most complete set of civil rights documents in the country. Among the 120,000 cubic feet of documents are the first Brown v. Board of Education case, the case that decided the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and many civil rights court cases that pre-date Rosa Parks from the 30s and 40s.

"The civil rights movement didn't start in the 1950s," Walker said. "It built up to that."

The archive has records from eight southern states, the oldest document dating back to a 1718 case against a British pirate.

But aside from familiar documents, the Documented Rights exhibit also has some forgotten treasures. Like a 1954 lawsuit filed by Ella Fitzgerald against Pan Am for refusing her a seat on a flight to Australia.

And two years before Jackie Robinson changed American history by becoming the first black man to play in the major leagues and 11 years before anyone heard of Parks or King, he was court-martialed by the U.S. Army for insubordination.

His crime?

Refusing to go to the back of the bus.

According to the order, Second Lt. Jack R. Robinson, behaved "with disrespect" toward a superior officer on July 6, 1944.

"By contemptuously bowing to him and giving him several sloppy salutes, repeating several times 'OK Sir,' 'OK Sir,' or words to that effect, and by acting in an insolent, impertinent and rude manner," according to the case papers.

The charges were eventually reduced to two counts of alleged insubordination. He was acquitted by an all-white panel but was not able to accompany his unit into battle. He received an honorable discharge in November 1944. Less than a year later, Robinson signed a professional contract to play baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Documented Rights will run until Feb. 23, 2010, at the National Archives, 5780 Jonesboro Road in Morrow. The exhibit is open Tuesday through Saturday from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. To view the exhibit online, log on to www.archives.gov/exhibits/documented-rights

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