Rachel Winston '10 compares archival work to a treasure hunt. Some of the material she handles is as mundane as a grocery receipt, while other material may be as consequential as a hand-written last will and testament.
"Yes, archives work often includes the thrill of finding something special, and I do find gems all the time," she said. "But archiving is also motivated by a calling to connect and share with others, to preserve and safeguard material for people on a treasure hunt of their own."
Through her recent appointment as the first-ever black diaspora archivist at the University of Texas-Austin (UT), Winston now has nearly unlimited opportunity and responsibility to search for, gather and explain items that illuminate the lives and institutions of a large swath of humankind.
Few positions exist nationwide to ensure that the narratives of black lives are preserved.
"It speaks volumes about UT that it has created a position to bring to light the stories of black people and their migrations from Africa, and the ways in which they've influenced history and culture around the world," Winston said.
Winston describes the early phase of her new job as "developing a big picture."
"I'll be looking at the state of existing archives about the black experience to assess gaps and figure out what material there is out there that could help fill the voids," she explained. "It's exciting because the material can be almost anything that speaks life to the black experience here and abroad-including personal papers, art, manuscripts and books."
Her first project involves combing through more than 200 banker boxes containing thousands of papers related to the lives of noted black educators Edmund W. Gordon, Ph.D., and his spouse, Susan Gordon, Ph.D. Edmund taught psychology for many years at Yale University, and Susan is a pediatrician and active champion of racial equality and education.
Winston's job involves organizing, providing context for and safely keeping the materials in each box. She also must identify material that is in need of preservation work or digital conversion. After the cataloging process is complete, the catalogers are accessible to the public through online "finding aids."
Winston said the Gordon papers are valuable because black intellectuals are underrepresented in archives.
"This project says that we value the contributions of black intellectuals, professionals, and artists, and that we will promote their use," she said. "I can't think of a better fit for our first black diaspora collection."
Winston's office is located in UT's Benson Library, which maintains one of world's largest Latin American studies collections and integrates the work of more than 30 academic departments and 160 faculty across the university. Winston said she looks forward to making connections with appropriate faculty and staff at UT about material in the Gordon collection that might advance their own studies.
She's also tasked with informing the world that the new archive exists.
"As the word spreads that UT has a dedicated space and professional staff and interest in this area, I'm confident we'll find people who want to give us things," she said. "It will also be up to me to identify appropriate material through talking to people, traveling places and even taking simple steps like visiting rare book shops and antique dealers."
Davidson was not high on Winston's list of college choices, but personal communications from Dean of Students Tom Shandley and President Emeritus Bobby Vagt impressed the St. Louis native and demonstrated to her that she would receive personal attention and encouragement at Davidson.
Winston developed lasting relationships with her anthropology major adviser, Professor Emeritus Nancy Fairley, and other faculty members, including Hilton Kelly, Caroline Fache and Fuji Lozada.
"Professor Brenda Flanagan even had me and some friends over for tea parties!" she recalled.
She was active on campus as chair of the Union Board Artist Series Committee, as a senior admission fellow, and in the Black Student Coalition. She also studied abroad with Davidson programs in France and Ghana, gaining new perspectives on black culture in countries outside the United States.
Winston said museum visits were a regular aspect of family travel and recreation in her household. As a youngster, Winston did not appreciate such activities, but with age and experience, her appreciation grew.
As a student at Davidson, Winston determined she wanted to pursue a museum career.
She explored her interest by arranging an independent study course with Fairley that involved the creation of an informational guide about the permanent art collection at the Harvey B. Gantt Center in Charlotte.
After graduating from Davidson, she returned to St. Louis, where she completed the one-year Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs—a program that helps diverse civic leaders gain experience in government, business, labor and not-for-profit community organizations.
For two years after the fellowship, she held a variety of jobs in the arts and community development.
"That was my ‘figuring it out' stage," she said.
During that time, Winston gained valuable experience working at the St. Louis Soldiers Memorial Military Museum, where she learned about all aspects of museum administration.
"I spent a lot of time in the collections, reading personal letters from soldiers about their experiences, working with documents and examining photos," she said. "I found it exciting, and it made me want to go back to school in that field."
She earned a master's degree in information science at UT, where she was an American Library Association Spectrum Scholar and the recipient of the Harold T. Pinkett Award from the Society of American Archivists.
Last May she received her master's degree in information studies with a portfolio in museum studies, focusing on archives and cultural records. She immediately put her skills to work in the UT Black Studies Department, working as art registrar and archivist. Her demonstrated interest and experience in the field made her an ideal candidate for her current position.
"The time is right for Benson to embrace this project," said Charles R. Hale, director of Benson Latin American Studies and Collections. "The interest and commitments of campus partners are strong, and Rachel Winston's vision, training and enthusiasm make us confident that the outcome will meet our highest aspirations."
The job also fulfills Winston's personal quest to find a profession that allows her to illuminate black culture.
"I've always been passionate about the black experience, but for a long time, I didn't know how to express it most meaningfully," she said. "I didn't want to be a teacher or artist, and Davidson didn't offer Africana Studies while I was there. But my mentors on the faculty helped support my commitment to making it relevant in my career, and eventually this opportunity opened up. It's the perfect job for me at the perfect time."