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Archives/Electronic Records

Investigating Civil Rights: Class 144 Department of Justice Case Files

By Tina L. Ligon

Originally published in The Federalist newsletter Issue #43, Fall 2014 (

A letter to the Attorney General concerning the Emmett Till case, January 17, 1956

A letter to the Attorney General concerning the Emmett Till case, January 17, 1956

Class 144 (Civil Rights) Litigation Case Files, 1936–1997 (National Archives Identifier 603435), now processed at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), have great potential value for researchers of the modern civil rights movement and of the federal government’s legal efforts to secure those rights. The content of each case file in this series was compiled by the Department of Justice (DOJ) with the assistance of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and local law enforcement agencies to bring suit on the behalf of individuals whose civil rights had been violated. This article intends to bring attention to the wealth of information found in the case files relating to the civil rights movement, the Black Power movement, social injustice, student protest, and prison conditions.

The struggle for individual civil rights has long been a part of the quest for justice in America. People have protested, boycotted, and used the court system to fight against social injustices across the country. African Americans, mostly those in the South, had to endure segregation, lynching, discrimination, and disenfranchisement during the first part of the 20th century. In 1957, the federal government took action to right some of the wrongs that violated individual civil rights. After the public crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas, where nine African American students were denied entrance into Central High School, President Dwight D. Eisenhower encouraged the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. This act established the Civil Rights Division in the DOJ, where agents would monitor incidents of discrimination based on race, sex, disability, religion, and national origin. The authority of the Civil Rights Division was strengthened, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act authorized the Civil Rights Division to initiate lawsuits on behalf of individuals whose rights were violated.

The bulk of the case files in the series deals with civil rights violations that occurred during the 1960s and 1970s. There is some documentation that dates back to the 1930s, but it is primarily background information to support the investigations. The Civil Rights Litigation Case Files series consists of correspondence, memorandums, investigative reports, legal briefs, pamphlets, and newspaper clippings as relevant to each case. The case files involve suits to implement court-ordered school desegregation, complaints of racial discrimination on interstate common carriers, and allegations of brutality by local police officials against African Americans and members of other ethnic minority groups.

Early Cases

The fight for civil rights in the American South was often dangerous for those who wanted to change the Jim Crow system and unjust social customs. Courageous individuals involved in social change were unfairly arrested, physically assaulted, and even killed during the 1950s and 1960s. Several of the case files in the series concern incidents that occurred prior to the creation of the Civil Rights Division. Due to the brutal nature of the crimes, DOJ and FBI agents applied the authority of the Civil Rights Acts to reopen the investigations of several unsolved murders. Two major cases were reexamined by the DOJ prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Acts. The first was the murders of NAACP leader Harry T. Moore and his wife Harriette (file #144-18-205). Moore was influential in fighting for equal pay for black teachers and basic rights for African Americans in Mims, Florida. The couple was killed on Christmas morning in 1951 when a bomb exploded under their home. The second case was the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 (file #144-40-116). Till, who was from Chicago, broke southern custom when he flirted with a white woman at a local store in Money, Mississippi. He was murdered, and his body was found in the Tallahatchie River. (The Emmett Till case has been screened and is available to the public). Other early cases found in this series was the explosion at Port Chicago in 1944, killing nearly 300 African American sailors (file #144-12-012), and the abduction and murder of Mack Charles Parker in 1959 (file #144-41-304).

Civil Rights

During the late 1950s and 1960s, the push for civil rights was intensified with boycotts, marches, sit-ins, and voter registration drives. Prominent cases in this category include the attack on the Freedom Riders in Anniston, Alabama, on May 14, 1961 (file #144-1-554), where civil rights activists were attacked by an angry mob, while trying to integrate restaurants and waiting rooms in bus terminals. Another significant case was the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair on Sunday, September 15, 1963 (file #144-1-906). The young ladies were preparing for church service when a bomb exploded in the building. Also found in this series is the case file on the murder of Viola Liuzzo, who participated in the March on Selma in 1965 (file #144-2-470). Liuzzo was killed by four Ku Klux Klan members who shot at her while she was transporting marchers back to Montgomery. Additional case files regarding the civil rights movement are the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and 1956 (file #144-012-23); the integration of James Meredith into the University of Mississippi in 1962 (file#144-40-254); the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 (file #144-16-574); and the murder of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in 1964 (file #144-41-686).

Black Nationalist Movements

There are several case files in this series that pertain to the Black Nationalist movements in the United States. These files include surveillance accounts, informant inquiries, and law enforcement reports on Black Power leaders, Black Student Unions (BSUs), and local-level pro-black organizations. Select case files in this series include the March against Fear in 1966 (file #144-40-570) in which demonstrators protested against racism and discrimination that continued after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. During this march across the state of Mississippi, protesters, with encouragement from Stokely Carmichael, began using the term “Black Power” and started to self-identify themselves as black. A second important case in this series was the murder of Black Panther Party members Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in 1969 (file #144-23-971). With information from an informant, Chicago police fired on and killed the Panther members as they slept. Other important case files in this series regarding Black Power are the murder of Black Panther Robert James “Lil’ Bobby” Hutton in 1968 (file #144-11-562) and the Wilmington Ten, who were wrongfully convicted of arson and conspiracy in 1971 (file #144-54-407).

Protesting Social Conditions

During the 1960s and 1970s, African Americans protested against poor living conditions, overcrowding, crime, police brutality, unemployment, and failing schools in most urban areas. The DOJ and the FBI investigated these uprisings that turned violent for unlawful behavior, property damage, injuries, and deaths. Some of the case files regarding urban unrest in this series were the Philadelphia Race Riot in 1964 (file #144-62-649); the Harlem Riot in 1964 (file #144-51-547); the Watts Riot in 1965 (file #144-12-1102); the Detroit Riot in 1967 (file #144-37-509); the Glenville Shootout in Cleveland, Ohio (file #144-57-311); and the Washington, DC, Riot in 1968 (file #144-16-986).

Housing and Vietnam War Protests

During the 1960s and 1970s, college students protested against inadequate conditions at their institutions and the Vietnam War. A week after the Kent State shootings in Ohio, James Earl Green and Phillip Lafayette Gibbs were killed and 12 were injured when city and state police fired on Vietnam War protesters at Jackson State University in Mississippi on May 15, 1970 (file #144-41-1597). In 1972, students at Southern University in Louisiana (file #144-32M-9) protested for better housing, improved classrooms, and a share of financial resources closer in line to that given to Louisiana State University (LSU). During the protest, two students, Denver A. Smith and Leonard Douglas Brown, were shot and killed by local law enforcement. In both of these cases, the DOJ investigated whether or not the students’ civil rights had been violated by campus and local law enforcement officials.

Prison Protests

Several case files in this series deal with complaints from prisoners around the country about the poor conditions of prisons, physical and sexual abuse, segregation, health care, and diet. One of the more infamous prisons during the 1960s was the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm (file #144-40-879). The mostly black prison population was subject to harassment, racism, and mistreatment by guards. In the early 1960s, DOJ investigated the treatment Freedom Riders, who were sent to Parchman Farm for their participation in desegregating southern facilities. The Freedom Riders were strip-searched and left naked for hours, and some were placed on chain gangs. Several of the grievances regarding Parchman led to the Supreme Court decision in Gates v. Collier (1972) on cruel and unusual punishment. Another notorious prison with complaints to the DOJ in the series was the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola (file #144-32M-10). Prisoners at Angola complained about their living conditions and the culture of gang-rape and sex slavery that was permitted in the prison.


Prior to use by researchers, the case files in this series have to be screened for Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) restrictions that may include personal information and law enforcement activity. Types of restricted information found in the case files are informant identification, medical/health status of people involved, techniques used by FBI and law enforcers, and grand jury testimonies. Researchers interested in accessing these records should contact the FOIA staff at the National Archives. More information about filing a FOIA request can be found at

Tina L. Ligon is an archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration at College Park, Maryland.


The Decentralization of Archives Debate and National Archives Independence, 1979–1984

Greg Bradsher

Seeing an announcement recently of the Society for History in the Federal Government’s (SHFG) annual meeting on April 24–25, 2015, brought back memories of its founding in 1979 and its support for the National Archives and Records Service’s (NARS) independence from the General Services Administration (GSA). SHFG was founded at a time that the National Archives was having many difficulties with GSA, especially relating to the decentralization of archival holdings from Washington, DC, to the regional archives.

Discussions regarding the decentralization or regionalization of the holdings of the National Archives had taken place frequently since the establishment of regional archival units in the late 1960s. These discussions were often heated, with diverse opinions on the most appropriate location for the agency’s archival holdings. Perhaps the most acrimonious discussions took place during 1979 and 1980, influencing (in part) the National Archives gaining its independence from GSA.

Learning that the National Archives was regionalizing some of its Washington, DC, holdings, and having just returned from touring National Archives and Records Service (NARS) facilities, former Rear Admiral Rowland G. Freeman III, Administrator of the General Services Administration (GSA), directed the National Archives, in August 1979, to prepare a plan to decentralize more records. He did so because the National Archives needed more space for its archives, and he reasoned that the regional archives branches had the space to store them. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, he believed that the nation’s archives needed to be brought closer to the American public. This was also part of President Jimmy Carter’s goal of “bringing government closer to the people.” Freeman wanted records relating to a particular subject deposited in an appropriate regional archives branch; for example, all archives relating to Reconstruction after the Civil War would be sent to the Atlanta, Georgia branch. Responding to this order, NARS identified some 300,000 cubic feet of records that could possibly be sent to the field. On September 12, Dr. James E. O’Neill, Acting Archivist of the United States (taking over from James B. Rhoads who had resigned as Archivist in August), wrote Freeman about the inappropriateness of the order and difficulties in moving records on the scale proposed by Freeman, who had maintained there was more and cheaper storage space in the Archives’ 15 regional offices. But O’Neill had his marching orders and NARS began the process of readying the first 100,000 cubic feet for transfer during the winter of 1979-1980.

The possibility of records being dispersed, with no apparent regard for archival principles or the needs of researchers, caused scholars, NARS archivists, and professional organizations (such as the SHFG and the Society of American Archivists) to complain to Freeman, the press, Congress, and the White House. During the fall and into the winter Dr. O’Neill was instrumental in delaying the transfer of the archives to the field while the opposition to the transfer pleaded their case.

On December 21, 1979, in the chandeliered Archivist Reception Room at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, Admiral Freeman met the National Archives Advisory Council. According to the account of this meeting in the Washington Post the next day, Freeman said, “I have a tremendous sense of history. I have helped make it. . . . I know where I’m coming from. I’m an expert in almost every area your work.” He told the audience that he was not budging from his plan to save taxpayers money by shipping archival records from Washington to regional offices across the country. The reporter covering the meeting, Thomas Grubisich, wrote that the scholars did not take Freeman’s comments very well. He quoted Pulitzer Prize–winning historian John Toland as saying “the dispersal of records is the beginning of the end of the National Archives.” Toland maintained that “If I’m working on a subject . . . it might encompass something happening in Boston, Philadelphia and New York.  It’s the subject that’s important, not the place.”  Splitting up the Reconstruction-era records, which were being used by many researching in the growing efforts to understand Afro-American life in the 19th century “will make them almost unusable,” said University of Maryland professor Ira Berlin. He said the Freedman’s Bureau records should stay in Washington, DC, because they often require cross-checking with documents from other departments that were stored at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

The Archivist’s Reception Room, where the meeting about decentralization took place (Photo by Pepe Gomez).

The Archivist’s Reception Room, where the meeting about decentralization took place (Photo by Pepe Gomez).

According to Grubisich, differences between Admiral Freeman and the assembled historians emerged most dramatically when Freeman was told that one of his dispersal orders had been reversed by Dr. O’Neill. Indeed, O’Neill had rescinded Freeman’s order to send some Reconstruction area documents to Atlanta. According to Grubisich, Freeman responded to this information by showing no willingness to compromise, saying flatly “They’re [the records] going to Atlanta.”

A turning point in the debate came in early January 1980 when former Archivist of the United States James B. Rhoads and noted historian Dr. John Hope Franklin went to the White House and lobbied against the decentralization plan. Rhoads was quoted in the Washington Post on January 15, 1980, as saying “I am convinced that there is a very real danger that in the course of a few months he [Freeman] may undo the work of three generations of professional archivists who have built possibly the finest national archives in the world.” In the same issue Franklin was quoted as saying about the regionalization issue, “It’s the craziest thing I’ve heard of.” And added, “People ask me, ‘What the hell is going on at the National Archives?’”

During the second week of January 1980, a group of local historians and archivists formed an Emergency Committee to Preserve the National Archives. Its members included William Appleman Williams, the president of the Organization of American Historians, and noted historian Herbert G. Gutman. In the Letters to the Editor section titled “Leave the Archives Alone,” in the Washington Post of January 19, 1980, two letters criticized Freeman. One, by Cornell University history professor Walter Lafeber, challenged Freeman’s assertion that decentralization of archives would benefit everyone, and added that perhaps it would be better if Freeman and his staff should be dispersed to regional offices, “leaving the National Archives’ records in Washington so that historians will not be hamstrung in their attempts to reconstruct the nation’s history.”

Freeman, shortly after the Franklin-Rhoads visit to the White House, was called to the White House and told to hold off on the transfer of the records to the field. On January 22 Freeman announced (reported in the Washington Post of January 23) he was stopping the dispersal of the archives because ‘It hasn’t been managed very well” by archives officials.  Freeman said he was not necessarily backing down on his entire plan, “‘but I want to look at the whole thing.”

Once this decision was announced, the U.S. News & World Report (February 4, 1980), in a piece titled “The Scholars Win One,” observed that “good sense has scored a rare victory against the bureaucracy in the confrontation over the American heritage.” With 1980 being an election year, and apparently not wanting to embarrass the Carter administration, and seeing that the National Archives would do everything it could to avoid decentralizing its holdings, that spring, Freeman abandoned his effort to get the National Archives to send many of its holdings to the regions.

The battle over the decentralization issue, and other matters of conflict between GSA and NARS, resulted in the introduction of a bill in Congress in June 1980 separating NARS from GSA, making it once again an independent agency. Although this bill was not enacted into law, it started a public debate on the status of NARS, which eventually resulted in the National Archives and Records Administration Act of 1984 (98 Stat. 2280) (National Archives Identifier 598392), October 19, 1984, making the National Archives—renamed the National Archives and Records Administration—an independent agency on April 1, 1985.

The act to establish an independent National Archives and Records Administration, April 1, 1985. Public Law 98-497.

The act to establish an independent National Archives and Records Administration, April 1, 1985. Public Law 98-497.


Postscript:  Robert M. Warner, who was appointed Archivist of the United States in July 1980, wrote that Dr. O’Neill “had hoped to be named Archivist of the United States, but Admiral Freeman turned apoplectic at the thought.” Warner and O’Neill would have their problems with Freeman’s successor Gerald P. Carmen. On January 14, 1982, Carmen told Warner he did not think much of Warner’s staff; “he didn’t like Jim O’Neill and [thought] he should be kicked out. . . . He didn’t think academics could really run the place, it should be run by business types.” (Robert M. Warner, Diary of a Dream: A History of the National Archives Independence Movement, 1980–1985, 1995, p. 37).  Dr. O’Neill died on March 6, 1987, at age 58.









For more information on the subject, see the following:

  • Greg Bradsher, “Federal Field Archives: Past, Present, and Future,” Government Information Quarterly, Vol. 4 No. (1987), pp. 151–166
  • Chapters by Robert M. Warner and Trudy Haskamp Peterson in Timothy Walch, ed., Guardian of Heritage: Essays on the History of the National Archives (1985)
  • and Issues of Records Management Quarterly for January and April 1980

Greg Bradsher is a senior archivist at the National Archives at College Park.




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Federal Records of Puerto Rico

Dennis Riley

(Originally published in The Federalist newsletter, Issue 40, Winter 2013-14)

The National Archives at New York City is the regional facility responsible for permanent records created by federal agencies and U.S. courts in Puerto Rico.  This is a legacy of the Nixon administration’s efforts to bring the federal government to the people when it established the 10 Federal Regions as a way of organizing federal agencies, including Region II, consisting of New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.  The holdings in New York related to Puerto Rico currently span 28 different record groups and comprise a total of over 2,750 cubic feet of records, as well as six microfilm publications.  That being said, other National Archives facilities maintain records from Puerto Rico, depending on the agency that created them or the nature of the material.

Garden at Elzaburu Workers' Camp, Cayey

Garden at Elzaburu Workers’ Camp, Cayey

Following rising tensions between the United States and Spain centered on an ongoing Cuban revolt against Spanish rule, the United States declared war against Spain on April 25, 1898. Three months later, the U.S. warship Gloucester entered the harbor of Guánica in southwest Puerto Rico and began landing troops. On July 28, 1898, American troops occupied the city of Ponce, and after 19 days of fighting in Puerto Rico, hostilities were halted on August 12, 1898, following agreement to a peace protocol between the two nations. The city of San Juan was turned over to American military authorities on October 18, 1898, and that day Gen. John R. Brooke cabled President McKinley informing him that the occupation of the island was complete. However, it was not until December that the Treaty of Paris was signed formally ending the war. Under the terms of Article IX of the Treaty of Paris, Congress would determine the civil rights and political status of the people of Puerto Rico. Thus began the U.S. federal government’s involvement in the lives of the Puerto Rican people.

On April 12, 1900, the first Organic Act, commonly known as the Foraker Act, entered into force establishing the parameters of a civilian government and the general federal relationship with the island’s inhabitants. A series of Supreme Court decisions the following year, collectively referred to as the Insular Cases, established that the policy of non-incorporation was constitutional and that full constitutional rights did not automatically extend to all areas under American control. The relationship of the federal government to Puerto Rico was further refined by a succession of legislative acts, including the 1917 Organic Act, also known as the Jones Act, and ultimately by the terms of Public Law 600 in 1950, which lead to the adoption of the Puerto Rican Constitution and establishment of the current Commonwealth relationship.

Sample bullion stitch, Exhibit Materials for the Needlework Study

Sample bullion stitch, Exhibit Materials for the Needlework Study

The records held by the National Archives at New York City related to Puerto Rico span the full spectrum of government activities: from census rolls to court cases, from military installations to economic development projects. The materials document the history of the federal government’s often complicated relationship with Puerto Rico and reveal its significant impact on the Puerto Rican community on the island. By documenting federal activities over the course of Puerto Rican history for more than a hundred years, these materials provide important insight into the collective understanding of both Puerto Rican society and the larger American experience.

Some of the oldest records related to Puerto Rico available in New York actually predate the U.S. acquisition of the island and include microfilm copies of State Department consular dispatches (1821–1899) and microfilm copies of Spanish colonial records related to foreigners in Puerto Rico (1815–1845).  Conversely, some of the most current records, which are also the most voluminous, consist of U.S. federal court records (1897 through the mid-1990s).  These include civil, criminal, bankruptcy, and admiralty cases heard in the U.S. District Court in Puerto Rico, as well as naturalization records filed with the court up to 1985.

Engineer's license for Inocencio Franqui, Vessel Documentation

Engineer’s license for Inocencio Franqui, Vessel Documentation

The military records from Puerto Rico are most strongly represented by documentation from the various naval installations, including the San Juan and Culebra Naval Stations (1898–1912), and later the 10th Naval District (1940–1960).  These materials consist mostly of general correspondence and administrative files related to operations not just in Puerto Rico, but also in some cases throughout the Caribbean, including Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Trinidad.  Topics covered include property issues, supplies and requisitions, financial accounts, personnel and disciplinary matters, construction and maintenance, communications, and operations and maneuvers of specific vessels.  Also of significance is material from the Army Corps of Engineers (1898–1951) concerning military and civilian construction projects, in particular an extensive photograph collection from the 1940s.  However, smaller collections should not be overlooked.  For example, in the administrative records of the Rodriguez Army Hospital (1952–1962) are issues of “La Garita” the hospital’s news sheet for personnel of Fort Brooke, which provide a unique insight into military life during the 1950s.

Mouth of the Portugues River, Ponce

Mouth of the Portugues River, Ponce

Regarding the social and economic development of Puerto Rico, the bulk of the records in New York consist of materials from New Deal and World War II–era agencies.  Among these are records of the National Recovery Administration (1933–1936), in particular extensive material on Puerto Rico’s needlework industry; the Office of Price Administration (1942–1946), which oversaw wartime rationing and price controls; and the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration (1935–1955), which engaged in a broad spectrum of development activities to provide relief and increase employment, with an emphasis on the rehabilitation of Puerto Rico’s agricultural economy. The PRRA engaged in such activities as construction of urban and rural housing, demonstration farming, work relief, construction of hydroelectric plants, loans to farmers, and the formation of cooperatives.  Among its more significant series of records are nearly 1,200 boxes of land acquisition files related to PRRA projects. Non-New Deal/WWII agencies include the U.S. Food Administration (1917–1918), which dealt with food production and supply controls during World War I, and records from the Agricultural Experiment Station at Mayaguez (1901–1935), which cover a broad range of efforts to improve local agriculture such as introduction of improved plant varieties, breeds of animals, farming methods, and modern farm machinery.  Also of note are land acquisition files from the U.S. Forest Service focused on the Toro Negro area as well as the Luquillo Unit, which is today’s El Yunque National Forest.

Land acquisition map for land owned by Eugenio Guzman, Orocovis

Land acquisition map for land owned by Eugenio Guzman, Orocovis

The holdings in New York also document political and administrative aspects of the federal government’s relationship to Puerto Rico.  This is perhaps best represented by records from the Ad Hoc Advisory Group on the Presidential Vote for Puerto Rico (1970–1971).  These files include transcripts of public hearings, agendas and minutes of meetings, correspondence, draft reports, special studies, press clippings, and assorted reference material.  There are also real property disposal case files, from three separate agencies, which document the sale or donation of federal property at 51 sites in Puerto Rico, including military installations, airfields, and customhouse buildings. The case files generally include correspondence, deeds, narrative reports, appraisal reports, surveys, and title searches.  The administrative and oversight function of the federal government is also reflected in merchant vessel files and bills of sale on specific boats registered in Puerto Rico, as well as merchant ship operators and engineers license files.  Vessel files may contain inspection records, master’s oaths, certificates of registry and enrollment, material related to vessel licenses and ownership, records detailing admeasurements and tonnage, and general correspondence.

Menu from the Hotel Paris, Guayama

Menu from the Hotel Paris, Guayama

Poultry yard and surroundings at Camp Munoz Rivera, Aibonito

Poultry yard and surroundings at Camp Munoz Rivera, Aibonito

Many of the records from Puerto Rico maintained by the New York office are held offsite at records centers and must be ordered in advance. In order to better serve researcher needs, it is highly encouraged that individuals contact the New York staff before going in person to conduct research. Also, in order to ensure a fruitful visit, patrons wishing to use textual materials are required to set up an appointment in advance.  More information on the holdings from Puerto Rico held by the National Archives at New York City is available online:

Dennis Riley is an archives technician at the National Archives at New York City.


1. Garden at Elzaburu Workers’ Camp, Cayey, Washington Office General Records, RG323 Records of the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration

2. Sample bullion stitch, Exhibit Materials for the Needlework Study, RG9 Records of the National Recovery Administration

3. Engineer’s license for Inocencio Franqui, Vessel Documentation, RG26 Records of the U.S. Coast Guard

4. Mouth of the Portugues River, Ponce, Civil Works and Military Construction Projects, RG77 Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers

5. Land acquisition map for land owned by Eugenio Guzman, Orocovis, Forest Supervisor’s Land Files, RG95 Records of the Forest Service

6. Menu from the Hotel Paris, Guayama, Price Lists of Various Establishments filed with Rationing Board 29, RG188 Records of the Office of Price Administration

7.  Poultry yard and surroundings at Camp Munoz Rivera, Aibonito, Washington Office General Records, RG323 Records of the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration

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Preserving the “Iraqi Jewish Archive”

Doris A. Hamburg

(Excerpts from the article in The Federalist, Fall 2013)

A little-known outcome of the 2003 war in Iraq was the discovery and rescue of a trove of books and documents from the Jewish community of Baghdad, which had been seized years earlier by Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service. The recovery of the more than 2,700 books and tens of thousands of documents from the flooded basement of the intelligence headquarters was all the more meaningful, as these materials connect to the rich past when Iraqi Jews were a vital and thriving segment of the Baghdadi population. After 2,500 years of a vibrant and influential history in ancient Babylon and modern-day Iraq, today all Jews are essentially gone from Iraq.

A Zohar from 1815—a central text of kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), with a hand-drawn page

After laying out the books and documents to dry in the sun, they were packed into 27 metal trunks. In the heat and humidity of Baghdad, the wet and damp books and documents, unfortunately, became very moldy.  At that point, the 27 trunks were transferred to the Coalition Provisional Authority, which consulted with a number of experts and also requested guidance and an assessment by preservation experts from the National Archives.

The National Archives sent Doris Hamburg, Director, Preservation Programs, and Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, Chief, Conservation Lab, to Baghdad to assess the preservation and conservation needs of the books and documents. Upon their return to the United States, the National Archives provided recommendations to the Vice President and to the Secretary of Defense, and was requested to undertake the preservation project. Efforts at the time to identify options for drying the materials in Iraq or the region were not successful, and so it was decided, with the agreement of Iraqi officials, that the materials should come to the United States for preservation and exhibition. Funding for the project would be provided to the National Archives.

To determine what the next steps would be in preserving these materials and eventually sharing them with a wider public, a panel of subject-matter experts met in May 2010 to discuss preservation priorities for the collection.

The subject-matter experts endorsed the following recommendations, which provided the conceptual framework for the National Archives to develop the final phase of the Iraqi Jewish Archive preservation and access plan. This approach ensures that the unique information from the Jewish community in Baghdad can be broadly shared, while utilizing limited resources wisely. Their recommendations included that

A conservator inspects a volume at the National Archives

  • •  all documents be digitized and be made available online
  • •  selected books that are important due to content or rarity be digitized and made available online
  • •  a listing of the collection that had been in the intelligence headquarters be maintained to reflect the community and historical events of the period, and
  • •  the exhibition depict the history of the Iraqi Jewish community and the preservation of the collection.

The final phase of the IJA project got underway with the award of $2.97 million in 2011 to the National Archives to complete the following steps of the project in 2014:

  • •  stabilize books and documents for digitization
  • •  digitize the documents and priority books
  • •  develop a website and post the images online
  • •  plan and mount the exhibition
  • •  pack and ship the books and documents to Iraq
  • •  provide fellowships for Iraqi conservators to work alongside conservation staff at the National Archives, and in support of the long-term care of the collection in Iraq.

The two-year project, which is being staggered over three years, taps a dedicated staff hired for the project; staff includes conservators, conservation technicians, imaging specialists, imaging technicians, a project manager, a librarian, and translators. The collection cataloguing information, digitized images, exhibition, the story of the preservation and the resources developed by the project team will be available online at The exhibition “Discovery and Recovery:  Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage” will be on display October 11, 2013, through January 5, 2014, at the O’Brien Gallery of The National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

Doris A. Hamburg is the Director of Preservation Programs at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.

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National Audio Visual Conservation Center

The Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) is a nonprofit organization “dedicated to the increase and diffusion of information about how the nation’s lands are apportioned, utilized, and perceived.”  Its most recent Lay of the Land newsletter tells the story of how a Cold War bunker in Culpeper, Virginia, became the Library of Congress’ National Audio Visual Conservation Center.  The building that currently houses the “the Nation’s Media Archive” was built by the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department in 1969 to serve as a hub for the U.S. financial communication network.  Called the Culpeper Switch, the facility was designed to preserve continuity of the nation’s financial systems in the event of a nuclear attack, and it also stored 241 billion dollars in cash.  In 1993, the Culpeper Switch was declared surplus and subsequently purchased by philanthropist David W. Packard, who donated the building to the Library of Congress.  The facility now serves as the conservatory for the bulk of the Library’s audio and visual materials, and approximately 150,000 new items arrive every year.  The Conservation Center preserves media of every imaginable format and must maintain the equipment needed to make its materials accessible.  Their digital audio archive stores 3 million audio recordings electronically, making it “probably the largest digital sound archive in the world,” and a purpose-built underground vault stores the largest nitrate film collection in the United States.  Because of the highly flammable nature of nitrocellulose, used for motion pictures until 1951, nitrate film must be carefully maintained in isolation with special precautions taken against fire.  Films from the Library’s collection are screened for the public twice a week in the Conservation Center’s theater, and the Center is home to a substantial digitization program that converts audio and video recordings for storage and use.  Equipment is being prepared to capture live and record 120 streams of broadcast television, as well as radio transmissions from internet stations, FM, and XM/Sirius satellite radio.  CLUI concludes that “the heritage of the place,” as a Cold War electronic information center, has “practical benefits, as well as symbolic ones.”  Its communication network has been repurposed “to send streaming audio and video programs, housed on the campus’ servers, to the library’s listening rooms in Washington DC.” — “The Nation’s Media Archive: Taking our Present into the Future,” The Lay of the Land (Winter 2013):

— Thomas I. Faith

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1940 Census Released Online

The National Archives released the 1940 U.S. census online on April 2, 2012, at This census is particularly valuable as a snapshot of the population as it was emerging from the Great Depression and about to enter World War II.

The population for the 48 states in 1940 was 132 million, and that enumeration asked many questions particularly related to work and income. Such questions, it was thought, would help government policy makers. Aside from the basic questions of place of birth, age, level of education, and marital status, it asked some new questions, including the following:

∙ “Was this person AT WORK for pay or profit in private or nonemergency Govt. work during the week of March 24–30?”

∙ “If not, was he at work on, or assigned to, public EMERGENCY WORK (WPA, NYA, CCC, etc.) during week of March 24–30? (Yes or No)”

∙ “Was this person SEEKING WORK? (Yes or No)”

∙ Number of hours worked in week of March 24–30, 1940

∙ “Duration of unemployment up to march 30, 1940—in weeks”

∙ Occupation

∙ Industry

∙ Number of weeks worked in 1939

∙ “Amount of money wages or salary received (including commissions)”

The Archives scanned the census pages through a partnership with, a total of 3.8 million images. The web site allows full access to the 1940 census images, in addition to 1940 census maps and descriptions. The census is not yet indexed by name, so the search must be done by location or enumeration district. Name indexing will be available later through partnerships with and,

This census release is the first one online, involved the scanning of over 4,000 rolls of microfilm, and constitutes the largest collection of digital information ever released by the Archives.

The Archives’ web site could not at first keep up with the demand, receiving about 100,000 hits every second. “In the first three hours, we had 22.5 million hits on the site,” National Archives and Records Administration spokeswoman Susan Cooper told the Los Angeles Times.

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The Historical Office of the Department of Labor has recently posted online the minutes of the 1933 Special Industrial Recovery Board (SIRB) meetings. The board was established by President Franklin Roosevelt immediately upon passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act (June 16, 1933). The SIRB was charged with setting up the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and developing policies to jump start the nation’s economic recovery through fair competition and a public works program.

The Special Industrial Recovery Board met weekly from June until December 1933. After each weekly meeting, minutes were typed and distributed to Board members.  On December 18, 1933, after only six months of service, the functions and duties of the Special Industrial Recovery Board were absorbed by a new National Emergency Council created by Executive Order 6513.

The proceedings of the SIRB meetings yield a great deal of varied and wonderful information.  Through these minutes, you are able to watch the birthing process for the National Recovery Administration. You are also able to witness discussions of the many troublesome issues surrounding the codes of fair competition that were developed to regulate each separate trade and industry and through which businesses achieved the coveted “Blue Eagle.”  The meetings also highlight the magnitude of the Great Depression.  On September 6th, Harry Hopkins told the Board that at one time, America had 4,800,000 families on public relief, amounting to about 15,000,000 individuals. West Virginia was cited as having 35 percent of their population on relief and, in some areas, the number rose to 50 percent (Meeting 12, pages 12-13).

Key Board members included Daniel C. Roper, Secretary of Commerce; Homer S. Cummings, the Attorney General; Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior; Henry A. Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture; Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor; Lewis Douglas, Director of the Budget; Hugh S. Johnson, Administrator of the Industrial Control Act; Charles H. March, Chair of the Federal Trade Commission.  Other important New Deal figures also attended meetings upon request in order to provide specific information or argue a particular policy position.  Often Board members heatedly debated procedures and policies from the perspectives of their own Departmental missions, but their determination to help the country recover from economic collapse unified them into a cohesive and productive unit.  Their passionate desire to help echoes through comments such as the one by Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins when she spoke about alleged violations of the National Industrial Recovery Act, saying “…those little fellows like the macaroni manufacturer in Oshkosh get short shrift from the big men who, because of their advantages, are chosen to serve on the large policy-forming bodies. He is incoherent, not very articulate and not well educated… The Government must see that he gets justice even if he is unimportant” (Meeting 15, page 14).


Proceedings of the SIRB meetings can be found at: .

Additional resources relating to the history of the Department of Labor are located on the Historical Office web page at:

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The Grace Tully Archive

The story of the recent release of the Tully Archive of documents from President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration presents some stark lessons for the history community, ranging from the protection of federal records to the awareness that we can never write a final history of an era.

This collection of documents recently released by the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, NY, was secretly held for decades by FDR’s last secretary, Grace Tully. As his confidante and friend, she held onto approximately 5,000 handwritten notes, memos, drafts, and letters that should have been included in and transferred with his official documents. Many of these were originally generated through dictation, later to be formalized. They include three groups of documents: FDR materials, documents maintained by Grace Tully, and others collected by FDR’s previous secretary, Marguerite “Missy” LeHand.

The documents include a June 1933 letter from Mussolini to FDR; the handwritten, first draft of FDR’s 1938 State of Union address; Joseph P. Kennedy’s letter  to Marguerite LeHand, October 3, 1939; FDR’s draft note (“chit”) to Harry Hopkins about the public works programs, July 6, 1935; the president’s “chit” listing of “Must” legislation for 1935, May 31, 1935; a letter from Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd to Grace Tully, April 5, 1945; FDR’s “chit” regarding promotion of George C. Marshall to brigadier general, ca. 1936; FDR’s note from Cairo to Grace Tully, November 6, 1943; FDR’s draft of a telegram to President Hoover, 1932; and much more.

These documents would have been useful to historians over the decades, but there were few clues to their existence. Tully did draw facts from the documents in her brief memoir, F.D.R, My Boss, but the Roosevelt papers had not been opened yet (mid 1950s), so her book caused no stir. Upon her death in June 1984, the collection apparently passed to her sister, and then years later to Guernsey’s Auction House in New York City. It changed hands, and in 2001, the collection was acquitted by Hollinger International Corporation for $8 million. Hollinger’s Chief Executive Officer Lord Conrad Black was an FDR collector, and he published a book titled Franklin D. Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom (Public Affairs, 2003), citing documents from his collection. After financial difficulties, Hollinger changed its name to Sun-Times Media Group, after which the documents were offered at auction at Christie’s. The auction house contacted the Roosevelt Library pointing to certain items they might find interesting, as they hoped to divide the collection to boost sales price. The Library acted with the National Archives Office of the General Counsel to stop the sale and to plan how to retrieve the collection for the government, where it belonged.

Under an agreement, the collection was boxed, sealed, and deposited at the FDR Library until the case was decided by the court or resolved through negotiations. Finally, it was agreed that an act of Congress would allow the Library to receive the collection as a gift, and allow the Sun-Times Media Group a tax donation. Bankruptcy proceedings against the company threatened the deal, but the court allowed the donation to proceed. On June 30, 2010, the FDR Library was able to take possession of the materials and open the Tully Archive.

The Library has digitized this collection and made it fully available online. The finding aid is posted at Full information on this collection is at

This fascinating episode exemplifies the fragility as well as excitement surrounding historical evidence. As historians, we recognize the absolute necessity to protect the evidence, and in the case of federal records, to maintain the legally specified transfer of government documents. Here, in that unique, secretive space between executive and secretary, Tully chose to view certain documents as personal property. She hoarded those materials, perhaps loosely considering them to be unofficial materials. Nevertheless, they were part of the president’s executive records. We’ve come a long way, as the papers of presidential advisors and White House personnel are regularly deposited in the presidential libraries. However, the opportunities for siphoning off such materials still exist, and do occur. We must be vigilant about such possible hidden collections, and recent controversies, such as those of the Bush administration’s e-mail files, again highlight these concerns.

Also, as historians, we welcome the release of new documents that will allow more detailed insights into past events and personalities. In this way, we have to think of our narratives as somewhat tentative, open to reanalysis, for we don’t know what new evidence can suddenly find the light.

— Benjamin Guterman

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Modern Records Preservation

The preservation of modern, digital records is perhaps the greatest challenge to archives at all levels of government. In large part this is because of the rapidly changing nature of electronic records as new programs and formats are created. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) faces this challenge more urgently than any other repository because of both the sheer volume of records it accessions and for the range of formats it sees.

Arian D. Ravanbakhsh of the National Archives’ Electronic Records Management (ERM) policy team wrote in The Federalist that his unit develops guidance for the other government agencies that are required to send their records to NARA. That guidance, he wrote, “advises agencies to select formats for their electronic records that are sustainable,” allowing both NARA and the agency “the best chance for preserving the electronic records for future researchers.” “Characteristics of sustainable formats,” he noted, “include that they are self-documenting, publicly available, non-proprietary, in widespread use, and that they can be opened, read, and accessed using readily available software.”

The early electronic records NARA received in the 1970s were in the form of database systems that could be “easily migrated into a sustainable format.” However, newer electronic formats pose far greater challenges. As a result, NARA has had to devise instructions for dealing with such formats as e-mail with attachments, scanned image of textual records, digital photographic records, records created in Portable Document Format (PDF), digital geospatial records, and web content records. Two federal agencies have very successfully preserved their records using this guidance: the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Communications Commission.

The ERM team must constantly update its guidance. It has done so with such publications as Frequently Asked Questions About Instant Messaging and Implications of Recent Web Technologies for NARA Web Guidance. These products and additional information are on the NARA web site at


Electronic Records Archives (ERA) Ordered to Halt Development

The Electronic Records Archives (ERA) was ordered to stop further development by October 1, 2011. It will not be able to fulfill the grand plans officials had for it in 2001 when they envisioned it as an advanced preservation system that would store electronic records from all formats and make them accessible to researchers. The system, funded by Congress, was a response to the constantly increasing quantity and complexity of electronic records generated by government agencies and ultimately to be deposited in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

The Office of Management and Budget ordered the end of the development stage after years of delays and poor oversight. The developer, Lockheed Martin, had met approximately 60–70 percent of the program requirements, and a January 13 report by the Government Accountability Office estimated that full completion would not be achieved until 2017, five years beyond the original plan. The resulting costs, it predicted, would be about $1.2 billion, much higher than planned.

NARA’s 2001 contract to Lockheed Martin for $317 million specified development of a multi-leveled system conceived to receive records from agencies, preserve them, and make them available to the public. But the execution was marred by lateness, cost overruns, unclear specification of functions to be delivered, and poor review methodologies and processes. System requirements were also uncertain, in some cases still being negotiated with Lockheed Martin. In addition, current government budget cutbacks will reduce the funds available for the program. With the order to stop development, maintenance costs for the limited system are estimated to run about $30 million per year.

The archival demands of these records are enormous with NARA now holding about 97.4 terabytes of electronic records. It’s estimated that incoming images of the 2010 Census will add 488 terabytes, and classified military records from the Iraq war will approach 40 terabytes.

Now, NARA will focus on operations, perfecting the current, limited functions for the system. All agencies will be required to use the system by October 2012 for submitting permanent electronic records scheduled for transfer. This process has started with three agencies: the Department of State, Justice Department, and Health and Human Services Department. There will be web access for viewing and ordering copies of documents and images, but search capabilities will be limited.

For more information on the ERA, see
The Online Public Access prototype is at

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