Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Wind-Borne Archive of the Tibbs Family

February marks Black History month, so the subject of today's post is especially timely. In fact, however, I have been preoccupied with the Tibbs family papers for the past few weeks. Like the New York Times photo archive of African Americans, the papers of the Tibbs family—one of several African American families who lived in mid-twentieth-century Grinnell—have been neglected in the forty years since their improbable discovery. The inattention is regrettable, because these papers—even though they are far from a complete representation of the family's life in Grinnell—offer extraordinary insight into the lives of black Americans in Grinnell, and that page of Grinnell's story desperately needs to be written.
Undated photograph of Shirley Tibbs (1929-1993) in front of the Tibbs house at 712 Elm Street (courtesy of Grinnell College Special Collections and Archives)
According to the official description of the Tibbs papers, now housed in the Grinnell College archives, "The papers were left in the family’s house at 712 Elm Street when [the Tibbs family] moved and were retrieved by Grinnell College students when some letters blew out of the abandoned house into the neighborhood." How many of the more than 200 items of the collection took to the wind, the description does not say, and details of the rescue are left vague: the introduction identifies no one by name and provides no exact date for the find. Only an April, 1974 letter to Albert Tibbs, second-oldest son in the family, requesting permission to archive the materials, establishes a general time-frame. But the letter could only report that "some students [otherwise unidentified—DK] ...brought...a box of old letters and magazines which they had found on the premises of...your mother's former home on Elm Street. The students were concerned that the letters might be destroyed by the weather, etc., as they were already blowing about the yard."

I have tried—not altogether successfully—to wrap my head around this story. Who were these students who managed to find the abandoned Tibbs house? Did they head to this destination intentionally? What drew them to the 700 block of Elm Street which dead-ends into the railroad and is almost a mile from the southern-most edge of campus? Had they headed there in order to use the vacant building?—for what? sex? drugs? Or had they made their way to Elm Street exactly because they had heard that an abandoned house was giving up its secrets to the wind? Seems hard to credit, but so do the alternative explanations. Anyway, once these anonymous students arrived at this unlikely destination and noticed some papers blowing in the wind, what made them decide that they should chase them down and save them? If any of the students involved had spent time in a city, they would already be accustomed to seeing paper fly past without feeling the need to give chase. Yet these students did give chase, and, perhaps after having gathered a few of the papers, did they decide to look inside the empty house? Or had they already been inside the house, and there discovered the stockpile of letters and other papers that make up today's collection?

It's a fantastic—even unlikely—story that nevertheless remains untold. No newspaper reported the surprising find, neither the college newspaper,  the Scarlet and Black, nor the town's paper, the Grinnell Herald-Register. The silence is surprising not only because of the happenstance, even lucky character of the rescue, but also because at just this time the college campus was engaged in a heated discussion about race.  A group of African American students alleged that two members of the sociology department had repeatedly acted out of racist sentiment, and students demanded that the two be fired; moreover, the students claimed that the college faculty hired and retained too few African Americans, an indication of institutional racism. The Scarlet and Black in this period was filled with articles about the controversy, and numerous editorials and letters to the editor took up the debate. Nevertheless, the remarkable discovery of a large collection of the personal papers of one of the town's few African American families did not generate a single line of print on campus or in town.

Surprised by the lack of information about the discovery of the Tibbs papers, I sought out witnesses; so unusual was the purported rescue that I was sure someone would recall it even after all these years. Alas, the college archivist at the time passed away many years ago, and therefore could provide no help, nor could the then-librarian of the college who has no recollection of the acquisition. Even the professor to whom the papers were originally entrusted cannot now recall the story of their rescue. I decided to widen the circle of inquiry by asking college administrators and professors who were on-campus in the mid-1970s, and then descendants of townsfolk who had lived in the area of Third and Elm where the Tibbs's house had once stood. I also sought out locals who were especially familiar with the town's history. Incredibly, not one person was able to recall the occasion.

Refusing to believe that a happening like this could go totally unremembered, I pursued a new tack: on the assumption that students motivated to salvage historical records had more than an average interest in history, I trawled the college alumni directory in search of persons from the classes of 1974 and 1975 who had been history or American Studies majors. Similarly, thinking that the campus discussion of race might also have driven interest in the papers, I tried to contact African American alumni who had been on campus in these years. To date I have written to more than sixty alums,  many of whom have responded with enthusiasm: "What a great story!" they tell me, confirming my suspicion that a finding like this would have attracted notice. Nevertheless, so far not one respondent (of about thirty replies) has confirmed ever having heard about the recovery from the Tibbs house.
While awaiting replies to my various inquiries, I began working my way through the papers themselves. I was surprised at the breadth and depth of the archive. Altogether ten folders organize the collection (an eleventh includes papers related to archiving the papers). The first is devoted primarily to correspondence sent to Mrs. Mamie Tibbs (1892-1973), and includes letters from several of her children. Two other folders contain correspondence to the oldest son, Harold Tibbs (1920-2010); although much of this correspondence originated with young women trying to catch Harold's attention, a number of letters came from his brother, Albert (1923-1997), then in the US Army. Two additional folders feature correspondence sent to the oldest daughter in the family, Janet (1926- ); again, Albert authored some of these missives, but one entire folder houses letters from Charles Harrison who, although then in the Army Air Force, attempted to court Janet from afar. Folders six and seven reveal the attempts of two other men to court Janet's sister, Roberta (1931-1999)—Keith Brown ran track at the University of Iowa and Jesse Sanders was a soldier stationed in Giessen, Germany.  Both wrote Roberta frequently and both tried desperately to win her affection. Folder eight includes a series of letters from the 1950s that Mamie sent to her youngest son, Edward (1933-2002); another folder preserves ephemera related to the family (a bank book, a tiny Gospel of Matthew, a receipt, etc.), and a tenth includes a dozen photographs and an envelope of negatives.

As I familiarized myself with these materials, it became clear to me that the collection did not constitute a random handful of papers, blurred by rain or mud. In the first place, few of the papers bear any trace of water or mud. Secondly, the collection is so large that, were many papers actually to have blown around the neighborhood, the rescuers—even if there were many of them—would have been obliged to spend a great deal of time tracking them down.
Janet Tibbs (1926- ), 1946 Grinnell High School Yearbook
Moreover, the surviving papers gave little sign that anything had been lost to the wind. For example, of the 110 letters in the collection, I could confirm only one letter with any missing pages: on April 12, 1945, Charles Harrison had written a five-page letter to Janet Tibbs, but today only pages one, four, and five can be found in the collection.  All the remaining letters—sixty-five of which had at least a second, if not a third, fourth, or fifth page—seem to have been successfully collected and saved. Is it believable that volunteers, coming upon some wind-blown papers, had managed to corral all the pages of every other letter that blew out of the house? No, the bulk of the papers must have been stored somewhere within the house where the rescuers found them.
April 12, 1945 letter from Charles Harrison to Janet Tibbs (courtesy of Grinnell College Special Collections and Archives)
Similarly, letters that came from the same correspondent reveal little evidence of any omissions. Take, for example, the letters sent to Roberta Tibbs by Keith Brown, a Cedar Rapids youth who ran track at the University of Iowa. In the first part of 1950 Brown wrote Roberta faithfully; beginning in late January, he rarely let a week go by without at least a postcard, but more often typed two single-spaced pages. The collection preserves Brown's letters and cards from 31 January, 2 February, 7 February, 13 February, 23 February, 25 February, 1 March, 4 March, 7 March, 13 March, 19 March, 20 March, 29 March, 14 April, 15 April, 20 April, 26 April, 1 May, 10 May, 15 May, and 22 May. Perhaps Brown sent Tibbs even more letters than this, but it beggars belief that Brown could have written more often than this apparently complete set of letters.

undated photograph of Keith Brown addressed to "Bobbie" (Roberta) Tibbs (courtesy Grinnell College Special Collections and Archives
Additional evidence of the robust contents of the Tibbs archive comes from the letters of Pvt. Jesse Sanders, then stationed in Giessen, Germany. Put in touch with Roberta Tibbs by his aunt in November 1949, Sanders that month began an intense epistolary courtship that he pursued assiduously for several months. Once the awkwardness of initial contact wore off, Sanders wrote to Roberta every week (except for a six-week period in February-March when he was out on bivouac). His letters routinely consumed two or three pages, his careful fountain-pen writing covering the very thin stationery.
January 26, 1950 letter to Roberta Tibbs from Jesse Sanders (courtesy of Grinnell College Special Collections and Archives)
These letters, none of which is missing a second or third page, survive intact in the archive, and no raindrops, puddles or dirt can be found to have marred Sanders's penmanship.

These findings persuade me that, if any of the Tibbs papers had taken to the wind, they were few, and probably did not include any of the multi-paged letters. It seems much more likely to me that, even if a few pieces of paper did somehow find their way out of the house and into the wind, most of the Tibbs family papers must have remained secure inside the house where somehow their rescuers had found them.
Roberta Tibbs (1931-99), undated photograph, courtesy of Grinnell College Special Collections and Archives
What can we make of this mystery? Most of all, of course, we can hope that one day someone who took part in gathering and saving these papers will tell the tale. Only then will we learn the full story—who first heard about the papers? exactly how did the students collect them, and how did they do it with such apparent thoroughness? Did these amateur archivists, in addition to collecting some papers blown about the yard, also enter the vacant house and there find envelopes or folders of letters, thereby explaining the apparent completeness of parts of the collection? And exactly why did students decide it was worth their time to gather and save these papers?

None of these questions can be answered now, and might never be answered if no witnesses come forward. We and our descendants will be left to wonder, as I have, about the unusually complete wind-borne archive of the Tibbs family and how it came to rest in the library archive vault.


  1. So, now I need to know what happened to each of the people who wrote and received these letters!

  2. My Grandmother Janet Revels (Tibbs) passed away in 2014. My Harold Tibbs passed away I think it was around new years eve or new years day 2015