Interpreting Historical Documents in the Archive

The Burnham-Nobles Archive reflects the collection and interpretation of thousands of historical records. What we claim to know about the past is the result of our interpretation of the records that survive and have been made available, largely through the work of archivists and librarians. When we state that a person was killed at a certain location on a certain date in history by certain people, we engage in a process of interpreting physical artifacts. These artifacts were created under specific historical circumstances by specific people for specific purposes and each of those factors must be considered when using these sources to make claims about what really happened.

For the most part, this process is straightforward. When we have a set of unique sources from differing perspectives that are all in accord about the facts of a case, we can be fairly certain that our interpretation matches what really happened. However, historical evidence is often incomplete. Sometimes there are no surviving copies of a local newspaper that could have shed light on the circumstances surrounding a particular murder. Sometimes the copies of the death certificate were never filed with the local registrar. In some cases, court records have been lost to flood or fire. And always, each of these sources is created by a person who imbues them with their own incomplete, subjective, and sometimes biased perspectives. When this happens, we need to reconcile conflicting sources in the Archive.

One example of this interpretative process is how we determined the proper spelling of Clifton Dockins’s name. Dockins was shot and killed by police in Bunkie, Louisiana in September 1946. The available documents present three spellings of the victim’s name. The first of these was “Cliff Durkin,” as spelled in the Bunkie Record’s account of the shooting. The second spelling is “Clifton Darkins,” as spelled on his death certificate. The third spelling is “Clifton Dockins” as spelled on the victim’s WWI and WWII draft registration cards. We set aside the spelling in the newspaper to privilege the two spellings offered in the death certificate and the draft cards. Since official government documents typically require consistent spellings of a person’s name for the purposes of tracing that person through a larger bureaucracy, the chances of one of these spellings being the correct one is much greater than it would be for a white-owned newspaper reporting on the death of a Black man. We were then left with the two different spellings on the death certificate and the draft card. It is clear from both draft cards that Dockins could not spell his own name, but he did leave his mark as an “X” on both, meaning that he was likely present for both instances when the draft registrar spelled his name as “Clifton Dockins” in 1915 and again in 1942. By contrast, the information on the death certificate relied upon an informant named Alice Mae Robinson, who may not have known how to spell Dockins's name. It is not too difficult to imagine that the coroner or registrar wrote what they heard Robinson say, and “Clifton Dockins” could easily sound like “Clifton Darkins.” Because the victim could not spell his own name, others spelled it for him, and we cannot know for certain how he would have spelled it. In this case, we took the most likely spelling of his name and recorded that as the official spelling, while preserving the others as alternate spellings.

Because we can generally only know the past second hand, or via individual memories, any interpretation of that past will always remain contested. For that reason, we have always included all the documents we have located in order to allow users to engage in their own interpretations of the historical record. Hence, we include the official police versions of events as well as those that contest the police accounts.

Indeed, the very existence of this Archive is an act of historical interpretation. The Burnham-Nobles Archive contains hundreds of examples in which the official police version of events conflict with the versions proffered by other eyewitnesses. Incidents that police and coroner’s juries described as “justifiable homicide,” eyewitnesses often characterized as unjustified murder. By making those protests audible, we are suggesting that they need to be heard as clearly as those who controlled the courts, the press, and the police precinct. We are arguing that their perspective needs to be valued as much as it was formerly ignored and set aside in the middle of the twentieth century.

Retention of Records by Local Authorities

Ideally, we would be able to collect every document that is relevant to a particular incident. However, this is not an ascertainable goal. Sometimes, the documents were not preserved. For example, there may be no surviving copies of a smalltown newspaper that may have published an eyewitness account to a lynching because a copy never found its way into a library or archive where it could be preserved. Likewise, there are lynching photographs and correspondence that molder away in forgotten attics, effectively out of reach to researchers. Usually, when these are located and not lost to time, it’s pure luck that we know of them.

Moreover, there are records that were collected or created by local authorities, and which did exist in retrievable form at one point, but which have since been destroyed. Many organizations – especially large bureaucratic ones – must engage in a process of records management. Periodically, for various reasons, records management specialists review older documents to determine which are likely to become historically significant or remain useful. Records can take up a lot of space, and that space itself must be maintained in a way that can preserve the records. Additionally, the maintenance of records requires preservation, arrangement, cataloging, and other labor-intensive processes. Finally, the larger an archive grows, the more complex it becomes to find a particular document. Hence, sometimes documents that are deemed unimportant get destroyed.

In sum, because earlier generations of records management specialists may not have deemed information about the killings of Black people at the hands of police to be historically significant, this has impacted the scope of the Burnham-Nobles Archive. This shows up most keenly in the records of the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. If a case garnered no actionable leads and looked cold to investigators, the records of that case might be purged. For example, in 1954, a prominent African American landowner named Isadore Banks was found murdered in the woods near Marion, Arkansas. The case was never solved. When, in 2007, the FBI reopened the case in response to public pressure, they discovered that the records of the local sheriff’s office had been destroyed in a flood. Further, the FBI’s own file on the killing, which would likely have contained information about the local investigation, had been destroyed by the National Archives in a regularly scheduled records review in 1992.

The destruction of federal and local records pertaining to the murder of Isadore Banks means we may never know the complete story behind the killing. One purpose of this Archive is to locate and preserve these records before they are lost to us.