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As mentioned in prior articles, April 18th marked the public release of the first batch of the secret colonial documents known as the "migrated archives." Robert Hill, Professor of Afro-American and Caribbean History at UCLA, who has been deeply involved in the "migrated archives" since their discovery, shares his insights into the release of the archives and what it entails for the Caribbean history.
Professor Hill is editor of The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers Project, and is also internationally recognized as a leading authority on the life of Garvey and the history of the Garvey movement. He is also the Literary Executor of C.L.R. James, the Marxist historian and Pan-African political activist.
Interestingly, Professor Hill’s work with the migrated archives is not the first time that he has come across secret or forgotten documents. In 1970, he learned from a New York Times story that a community organization in Harlem had been given a derelict building to start a drug rehabilitation center. In this building, the staff found cabinets, safes, and boxes that turned out to contain the entire documentary record of the central division of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association.
"They were going to throw them away!" Hill exclaimed. The community organization that discovered the Garvey papers eventually fell apart, but a struggle over the papers began in earnest. The struggle became so serious that the organization's director was even held up at gunpoint, with the papers being sold by the addicts to the highest bidder. Eventually a group led by the historian John Henrik Clarke arranged for the purchase of the entire batch of papers, and brought them to the New York Public Library.
Professor Hill has been archiving Garvey papers at UCLA's James S. Coleman African Studies Center since 1977. He has published those papers in 11 books so far, with the latest volume being The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers: The Caribbean Diaspora, 1910-1920.
You have had a very interesting experience in regards to your presence in the discovery of classified or forgotten documents. It’s amazing that the discovery of the migrated archives is not the first time you have encountered this kind of thing. Can you please elaborate how the discovery of the migrated archives fits into your previous areas of research?
Well, in a way, within Caribbean historiography, it comes as a big shock to stumble upon these police, or confidential and secret, documents. In the historiography of popular movements in Europe its standard, it’s not at all a big surprise because European historians have always understood the huge significance of police records for studying the poor, clandestine political repression carried out from the 18th century in European society.
Now we, as a former colonial people, we throw up movements of resistance, call them what you will, popular movements, resistance movements, anti colonial movements – and then in the case of Marcus Garvey, we discover, because the Garvey movement operated here in the United States in a major way – the institutions and the agencies of government monitored these movements very carefully, and there is a tremendous paper trail within the archives of the United States government, the Canadian government; and also European governments. This is a paper trail that enables us to write the history of the Garvey movement, which without those archives we could never have really undertaken.
You might say it was the preservation of these records which really places some kind of order, some kind of intellectual order on the material. On the one hand we have to be careful of course, not to get trapped into some kind of interpretative paradigm, but nonetheless, the records of the U.S. state department, the FBI, the Department of Justice, the Office of Naval Intelligence, even the Post Office, those records are what allowed us to construct a history of the Garvey movement. So I’ve spent probably 35 years systematically going through the records as they became declassified, of the U.S. government dealing with Garvey, and the European governments dealing with Garvey in Africa and the Caribbean. So when the word of these migrated archives came up, I instantly recognized their value – in a very concrete way if you let me explain.
When I was working on Garvey, I asked the archivist of the Jamaica archives, where the colonial secretariats files related to Garvey were located. He said, "they’re not open, they’re not accessible to you." I asked what I would have to do to appeal that? He said I would have to write a letter to the Chief Justice of Jamaica, which I did. And I made an argument (this is now in the early 1970’s) explaining why these files were important and why they should be made accessible. Now, follow me, he informed me that the Chief Justice had approved my request, but he himself did not have the secret and confidential files on Garvey. To get them, he had to go to Spanish town in Kingston to the building where these confidential files were housed.
Now here is what Professor Anthony Badger (the man in charge of the migrated archives) wrote to me when I asked him about the time span of the migrated archives for Jamaica. He said that they begin in the late 1920’s—you see the convergence? They had already removed the files on Garvey out of Jamaica when I had asked for them.
What I am hoping is that I will now find the missing files of the 1930’s and will then be able to link them back to the ones from the 1920’s that we have. In other words, it’s the same work we’re doing—only now we have to go to England to get these files, they’re not in Jamaica in the way that the files of the 1920’s were. Now why did they choose to take away those starting in the late 1920’s? Now I can’t tell you, I don’t know. They had to have some kind of cut-off point, they must have just said that let’s just take 1929 as our base year and anything going forward. So we will see in September, when I go to England. I will know very quickly whether these are the files connecting back to the ones from the 1920’s that I saw.
So, the point I’m making is that, whether it is the FBI, the state department or the colonial secretariat’s records of the 1920’s in Jamaica, it’s all just one continuing story, one continuing saga. I had been extremely frustrated for years at not being able to find the colonial secretary’s files for the 30’s, but now since that time—I’ve gone on to do work on the back to Africa movement of the 1950’s which led to a tremendous political explosion in Jamaica in 1959 and 1960—what I’m now hoping is that these files, which go up to August 1962, will have files that I have tried my very hardest to find, and couldn’t find in Jamaica, I’m hoping to find them amongst these migrated archives.
Kevin Edmonds is a NACLA blogger focusing on the Caribbean. For more from his blog, "The Other Side of Paradise," visit nacla.org/blog/other-side-paradise. Edmonds is a former NACLA research associate and a current PhD student at the University of Toronto, where he is studying the impact of neoliberalism on the St. Lucian banana trade.