Six years ago, 34-year-old historian Dan Royles started the African American AIDS History Project, an open-source online archive of more than 250 items related to the Black community’s response to HIV.
The historical collection — started by Royles as part of an upcoming book titled To Make the Wounded Whole: African American Responses to HIV/AIDS — archives artifacts from 1985 to the present day that might otherwise have been lost to the epidemic, including signs, posters, videos, oral histories, speeches, handwritten notes, literary magazines and more.
Together, the artifacts tell an unedited story of what it has been like to be an African American affected by HIV/AIDS.
Over the years, nearly a dozen graduate students, academics and interns have helped out with the constantly-growing archive, hoping to compile one of the most comprehensive digital archives of Black AIDS history to date.
Royles, an assistant professor of history at Florida International University, talks about his inspiration for the project, and how members of the community can help keep it running.
What is the African American AIDS History Project?
The project started in 2012 as an outgrowth of the research for my dissertation and upcoming book, which is about the history of African American AIDS activism. To do that project, I had to do some oral history.
The idea starting out was that I would do a bunch of interviews for my dissertation, and then archive them at Temple University [where I went to grad school] so that others could use them later on.
As I started interviewing people, they would recommend me to others. Sometimes, when I would interview a new subject, they’d give me all of this stuff — their files, their photos, their event flyers, things like that.
One guy I interviewed, Chris Wadlington, gave me an entire binder full of material that overviewed his entire career and also a bunch of material related to a Philadelphia-based group he was in called BEBASHI, which stands for Blacks Educating Blacks About Sexual Health Issues. During our interview, I asked him if I could scan it and put it online, and he said yes, so I did.
Then I heard of this platform known as Omeka, which was built by a group at George Mason University for digital archiving and presenting digital collections online. I thought it was a really cool platform, particularly because it allows people online to contribute to collections as well. The idea eventually turned into creating a sort of crowd-sourced archive of African American AIDS history.
What sparked your passion for this project?
It definitely wasn’t the project that I thought I would end up doing. I started out in my career really interested in the history of the body, including the way that people historically have thought about the intersection of race, sexual identity, science and medicine.
Initially, I thought that the research I would do for my dissertation was going to be more in the vein of sexuality and that race might be of secondary importance for the project. But then I found this story with Curtis, the story of how BEBASHI got started, and it quickly changed.
To put it generously, there was a disconnect between how activists in the early days of the epidemic were talking to each other. The story I was working on became about the tension that BEBASHI and people who wanted a much stronger focus on minority intervention were having with organizations that were started primarily by white gay men.
For example, in the early days, these organizations would do a lot of outreach at bars. People at BEBASHI would say, “No you need to do targeted outreach,” and they would respond, “Why? Everyone can go to bars.”
BEBASHI’s response was, “No, a lot of Black gay men are made to feel unwelcome at these gay bars.” There was a lot of interesting tension in that story, and I think it says a lot still.
What makes digital archiving so interesting to you?
One of the big appeals to me is that it allows us to communicate directly with a broad audience in a way that was harder to do before. It’s the public history aspect of it that I am excited by.
Coming out of oral history and public history, we have this idea of what’s called “shared authority,” which runs contrary to the model of scholarship where people like me might consider themselves the “top authorities” in a given field or on the subject matter that they study.
We talk about sharing authority with various publics, or when we’re talking about community history, people in that community. I think that’s cool.
What is one of your favorite archived materials so far?
One of the items that I’m most proud is a video of Philadelphia’s first candle-lit AIDS walk in 1986. It was exciting for me to find it and then be able to digitize it. It’s super grainy, the audio track is off a little bit.
However, you can hear speeches by Rashida and Walter Lear, who was one of the first openly gay elected officials in Pennsylvania, and Fred Davis, who was a Black man living with AIDS, and Anna Forbes, who ran ACTION AIDS in Philadelphia, and from Babette Josephs, who used to be in the Philadelphia legislature.
All of these speeches that I don’t think have been reported in any other form, anywhere else. It’s a unique item that I’m glad we were able to preserve.
How can people get involved with the project?
There is a contribute tab on the front page of the site, so if people have stuff that they want to upload, like scanned files or photos or anything like that, they can look for that. Otherwise, they can a financial donation.
I did a Kickstarter campaign five years ago that helped us some, but mostly I raise money from friends and family to keep the project going. I’ve also had some funding from my university, but it’s little bits here and there.
To be clear: I don’t get paid to do the African American AIDS History Project. In some ways, it’s a companion to the book that I’m writing, but it also stands apart from that. I just think it’s important to preserve the material, so that people can see it in the future.
What future plans do you have for the archive?
In a perfect world, I would continue to get funding for it to help me bring on more graduate students and interns to help build it out. But at some point, as a historian, I know I will have to move on to other projects.
That’s one of the reasons why I’m currently in the midst of moving the site to the library at Florida International University. Once that happens, everything in the project will be what’s called “dark archived” in servers somewhere in North Florida, so if the website crashes one day and everything gets wiped out, copies of everything will be preserved there.
Another reason for moving the archive to the library is so that there will be a permanent, stable host for it. The project will still stay live, even if I move on from it.