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UMD Libraries Helping to Lead Project to Digitize Records That Link Labor, Civil Rights Movements in American South

The University of Maryland Libraries and Georgia State University Library are embarking on a three-year project to digitize records on the labor movement’s ties to the civil rights movement.

The project, “Advancing Workers Rights in the American South,” is funded by a $350,000 grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). It will provide online access to records of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) Civil Rights Southeast Division and national-level records from the AFL, CIO and AFL-CIO Civil Rights Department.

The award is part of CLIR’s “Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives” program, which is made possible by funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

UMD’s contribution to the project is its exclusive collection of textual materials, photographs and films that document AFL-CIO national work from the 1940s to the turn of the millennium. One film, “The Challenge,” provides vital context about the murder of a local civil rights leader in Florida, but it has not been watched in at least 40 years due to its delicate condition.

This project will expand the number of documents from the collection from 27 to 54,000.

“These records are the most important records connecting the national labor movement to the civil rights movement,” said Ben Blake, UMD Libraries’ AFL-CIO social justice and Labor archivist. “Nothing compares to this definitive collection.”

Blake noted the collection’s digitization is happening as civil rights and labor rights surge back to the forefront of national consciousness. The AFL-CIO is the largest federation of unions in the United States, made up of 56 national and international unions. With 12.5 million members, the AFL-CIO is second only to the NAACP in Black membership.

“There’s a rich history of the labor movement supporting civil rights, but it’s largely an untold story,” Blake said. “The movement played a transformative role in countering the Ku Klux Klan in the South, for example.”

The digitized collections will be freely accessible in UMD Libraries’ and GSU’s digital collections repositories. and through the Civil Rights Digital Library, the Digital Public Library of America and Umbra Search Engine for African American History.

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