San José

Nearly 1,000 Scanned Documents Belonging to Notable African American Scholar W.E.B. Du Bois Will Be Added to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library

Journalism

 

​​San José State Associate Professor of Journalism Duane “Michael” Cheers said studying African American history “has been part of my DNA since childhood.” The great-grandson of slaves became immersed in the story of W.E.B. Du Bois, the first African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard University and a co-founder of the NAACP, while Professor Cheers was studying for master’s degrees in African American studies and journalism at Boston University. He is now digitally preserving damaged photographs and personal documents belonging to the sociologist, civil rights activist and historian.

“During my 1978 summer internship at Ebony and Jet magazines in Chicago, I shadowed the editors who were finishing, ‘Du Bois: A Pictorial Biography’, [a book] by Shirley Graham Du Bois, his second wife,” he said. “I’m also probably the only African American professor at San José State who owns a first edition [of Du Bois’], ‘The Souls of Black Folk,’ first published in 1903.”

In 1993, he traveled to Senegal for National Geographic Television, filming his experience as a descendant of slaves. “That experience was also rooted in my reading of Du Bois’ book ‘The World and Africa: An Inquiry Into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World History,’ where the father of Pan-Africanism hauntedly discussed the horrors of the slave trade,” said Professor Cheers.

During a 2016 visit to the W.E.B. Du Bois Centre for Pan African Culture in Accra, Ghana, he noticed ants and termites had eaten away at the materials Du Bois had brought to the home where he died in 1963. The institute granted his request to digitize the materials and the project began.

Cheers is collaborating with SJSU’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library, and librarian Kathryn Blackmer Reyes, director of the campus’s Africana, Asian American, Chicano and Native American Studies Center, to add the Du Bois materials to the library’s digital Africana Collection archives. Dr. Tracy Elliott, dean of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library, Elliott loaned him a high-resolution scanner, and Cheers and his daughter, Imani, an assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, have teamed up on the project.

“We scanned close to 1,000 documents in Ghana—photographs, papers, diaries—everything they had,” Cheers said. He found some VHS tapes from the 1980s in a basement crawl space at the Du Bois Centre and has been working with SJSU Media Producer Keith Sanders to digitize as many videos as possible. To date, “two really important” videos—of Du Bois’ 1963 funeral and the 1985 opening of the center, when Maya Angelou was a keynote speaker—have been rescued. They are expected to be part of a documentary examining the final two years of Du Bois’ life. 

A memorandum of understanding between the Du Bois Centre and King Library to house the digital archive at SJSU is in the works, “making it available, free to students, scholars and researchers around the world,” he added.

In 2018, Cheers curated the 150th birthday tribute to Du Bois in King Library. “I was annoyed by how few students knew of Du Bois and his contributions to African American history,” he said. “I realized I could stand on the sidelines and complain or become a partner in educating this generation of students.”

Harvard and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst have digital collections of Du Bois’ works, but Cheers has scanned, digitized and archived photos and documents those universities don’t have.

“Hopefully, our campus library’s Africana Collection will become a repository of this material, and professors at SJSU will include Du Bois in their lesson plans.”