When Harvey Long MA’16 arrived on the campus of Alabama A&M University after spending four years at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, he immediately noticed two things: the library needed some work, and there were black people everywhere.
It was the opposite experience that moving from a historically black college or university (HBCU) in North Carolina to the UW had been in 2014. At the time, Long had been a student worker in the library at Winston-Salem State University. Working in the library was how he put himself through school, and he loved doing research and exploring.
“One day a librarian in charge was like, ‘You can go to school for this, you know,’ ” Long says. “My wife was, at the time, studying chemistry, and she said we should apply to Wisconsin. We both applied and got in. She studied biochemistry and I was in the library.”
Long was immediately impressed by the size, scope, and number of libraries present on the UW campus. For years, the gathering of information has transitioned from old-school texts and books to online information superhighways. But with that comes information misuse, Long points out.
Long noticed something else about his new home and school campus as well: a massive disconnect between the city of Madison and its black residents. When Long and his wife arrived on campus in 2014, Madison was in the midst of a racial-identity crisis. The Race to Equity report had shaken the foundations of the city and brought to the surface disparities and racial dynamics that had existed for generations, but hadn’t been so overtly exposed. A young black teenager, Tony Robinson, was shot and killed by Madison Police officer Matthew Kenney just a short time later, bringing more racial tensions to the surface.
Long quickly saw that in the black community, the UW campus was seen as a stronghold of whiteness. With that in mind, he began to use his library experience to trace the history and evolution of the black community at UW–Madison.
“I guess it was mainly my experiences as a black student navigating the UW that made me want to do the research,” Long said. “On one hand, black students or black people in Madison is something I didn’t see or hear anything about. So I guess it was more the silence and absence of a black presence. I was interested in how folks like me had navigated that space before me. It was me wanting to learn more about how to navigate this space as someone who moved here from the south. This was the story of other people who had moved here from Texas or Tennessee or Arkansas. Maybe you could see yourself in these people. Not all of them were positive stories. Some came and left without a degree.”
Using UW Archives and Records Management, Long discovered that the narrative placing African American civil rights activists in the ’60s as the foundation of black students at Wisconsin was largely a false one. The first graduate that Long documented was William Smith Noland 1875, the first known African American to attend the UW and graduate. Long’s research, as documented in a compilation on the UW Archives’ website, says Noland “was a member of the Hesperian Society, a campus literary club, and elected class poet [CS1] by his peers.”
But Noland moved back East to the Boston area and wound up committing suicide, making for a stunning story.
“That’s what I’m working on, but I’m trying to think more constructively about black narratives,” Long says of Noland’s story. “Not just to focus on ‘We Shall Overcome’ and all these Negroized narratives. So, William Noland killed himself. He had a college degree, and he killed himself in an era where most white people didn’t even have a college degree. People had to send in pictures of themselves to see if they’d be a good dormitory fit. They asked people to send in a photograph along with their request for housing so they could see how folks looked. In the UW–Madison archives, I was able to find these things and see how they were documented. The Registrar would mark Negro on applications so people could see that.”
Long’s research details a long history of black students who attended the UW before 1920. People such as William 1893 and Harry 1896 McCord, two African American brothers from Rockford. Another graduate featured in Long’s report — Mabel Watson Raimey 1918 — was the first black woman to graduate from the UW. She later became the first African American woman to practice law in Wisconsin.
With such a long history of blackness on campus, one would think Madison was, well, liberal and progressive. “I think that I was beginning this research during a very particular moment at the university,” Long says. “It was when Tony Robinson had been murdered. Madison was a very particular place at that time. We were thinking about how black people were treated in this space and pushing back toward the idea that it’s this liberal bastion. It’s not really that place. That’s how it was in that moment to think about institutional racism on campus.”
Another issue that interested Long was how surprised other black people were when they found out he was a graduate student at Wisconsin. Following a car accident, Long had been riding the bus to a body shop. Most of the people on the bus were black. Long was wearing his Wisconsin sweatshirt.
“They were shocked that a black person actually attended the UW. It just blew their minds that black people had access to UW–Madison,” he says. “I would say we’re certainly very visible when it comes to athletics, but there’s a whole disconnect when it comes to black students who are not athletes because it is seen as a space that people of color don’t have access to.”
In 2016, Long graduated with his master’s degree in library and information studies and then entered the PhD program. He published his research, and is currently working on a number of articles about historical black figures from Wisconsin. But recently, Long realized his calling is in the library and not in the PhD program. So, he changed course and took a position at Alabama A&M leading its library.
Going from an HBCU to Wisconsin was one culture shock. But going from Wisconsin back to an HBCU, especially in Alabama, was something else entirely. He went from snowy-white Madison to a place that is almost all black. But also, he went from the libraries of the UW campus to … well … not the libraries of the UW campus!
“I knew resources would be scarce, to say the least,” Long says. “But I’m looking forward to the challenge. At Wisconsin, we had 40 libraries on campus. So I was exposed to all these ways of packaging information, and that’s what I wanted to bring to A&M. I’m thinking of ways that it can benefit the students here.”
Long will continue writing about his research and expanding the access students at Alabama A&M have to information using his experience from Wisconsin.