Monday, February 29, 2016

Love Letters in the Tibbs Family Archive

February is not only Black History Month; it also celebrates love on Valentine's Day. Consequently, although I am a little behind the curve, and barely made February, I thought it might be fun to examine some of the love letters preserved in the Tibbs Family Papers. It is important to point out that all these letters came to the Tibbs children; we don't know what Harold, Janet, and Roberta Tibbs themselves wrote, except perhaps by inference from what their correspondents wrote, so the full picture is hard to make out. Nevertheless, even with these limitations the love letters that arrived at 712 Elm Street make very interesting reading. More than that, they remind us that the Tibbs children, in addition to being African Americans in a very white town, were also humans, experiencing all the joys and anxieties of seeking and sharing affection with others.
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Harold Tibbs was the oldest child born to Jim and Mamie Tibbs. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Harold graduated from Grinnell High School in 1940, and soon thereafter enrolled at what was then called William Penn College.  Apparently he dropped out after his first year, and later returned for a time, but, so far as I could learn, he never completed his bachelor's degree. To judge from the one high school grade report that survives in the Tibbs collection, Harold was an average student, earning a "C" in high school English.
Harold Tibbs, 1940 Grinnellian
But it is clear that he did not seem average to the several young women who wrote him between 1939 and 1943. Lois Gilmore, for instance, lived in Marshalltown and had somehow gotten to know Harold. In the spring of 1939 she sent Harold a couple of notes, inviting him up to dances in Marshalltown. But so did Yvonne Longus, also living in Marshalltown. In a May, 1939 letter she urged Harold to "come up [to Marshalltown] on Sunday and bring another picture of you. I have a new gold locket with your picture in it, but I want another picture." A third woman, Louise Balden, lived in Centerville, and she too was in pursuit of Harold. In a June, 1941 letter she confided to Harold, "I still love you and always will. I can't hardly wait until I see your face again." In October, 1942 Louise sent another note, her passion in no way diminished: "Harold, I'm this way when I like a person real well...Yes, I still say love you, but, Harold, it seems as though 'I Just Can't Get Started with You.'" Concluding, Louise confessed, "I guess I'm a fool in love," adding several symbolic kisses with her signature. There's no way to know what Harold thought of Louise, but apparently she felt that she and Harold remained close. In an April, 1943 postcard, she inquired why Harold hadn't written, and urged him to make the trip down to Centerville.

Harold received still another set of letters and cards from a young woman who signed herself "Torchie." In the oldest letter that survives (November, 1942), Torchie was living in Aurora, Illinois; in 1944 she wrote from Albert Lea, Minnesota; and her 1947 Valentine's card to Harold came from Oskaloosa, Iowa. What Harold wrote her is unknown, but she seems to have taken a real shine to Harold: "Honey, I never had so much fun in a long time...honey, you're in the 'beam,'" she wrote him in 1944.
Harold Tibbs (far right, 2nd row) and Class of 1944, 1941 Quaker (courtesy William Penn University Library)
Nothing in the letters to Harold indicates who his admirers were, but one of Harold's other correspondents, Raleigh Clark, indicated in a 1944 letter that Harold was dating a white woman, a development that seemed to merit special attention. Clark mentioned no name, but photographs of Harold's class at William Penn College make clear that Harold was the only African American in the group, so it might be that Harold was intimate with a woman there. On the other hand, in a letter whose date is difficult to make out (February 4, 19??), a woman who signed herself Ellen argued against Harold's plan to quit college. But she herself was not a collegian; instead, she worked at Grinnell's glove factory. "Why waste the money you've already spent for a college education by quitting now," Ellen wrote. "It's very foolish. Can't you take it?" But Ellen was  more than a correspondent: "Come up to the glove factory at 6:45 and I'll be out then for lunch and we can further our plans. OK?" What plans Ellen and Harold had we'll never know, but this collection of letters makes plain that young Harold enjoyed the affections of several women.
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Janet Winona Tibbs was the third oldest child of Jim and Mamie, and their oldest daughter. The family papers preserve a series of letters that she received, beginning in December, 1944, from Private Dennis Kelly, then stationed in Pecos, Texas. Apparently Janet and Dennis were well acquainted, because in that 1944 letter Dennis tried to decline Janet's proposed gift of a bracelet. Calling Janet "Darling," Kelly told her, "I don't feel so good about a lady buying me something," he wrote, but nevertheless allowed her to send it if she wished. A couple of weeks later, Kelly complimented his "darling" on her typing, but by February he allowed his imagination to wander further: "I wish that I was going home to a wife," he said; "if I had you at home you would be so nice to come home to." Then dreaming further into the future, Kelly began to think about a time when the war would be over and he was free of his soldier obligations: "maybe [then] I can have the girl that I want so bad and we can be happy from then on...." This alliance was not to be, however. A summer 1945 letter from Janet's cousin Alberta remarks upon the fact that Janet had gotten herself a new boyfriend. Evidently Dennis had proven himself unworthy. "I tried to tell you about your friend Dennis," Alberta wrote, "but you would not believe me, so I'm glad you found out for yourself." What Janet found out the letter does not report, but apparently it was enough to put an end to her relationship with Dennis Kelly.
Janet Tibbs, 1946 Grinnellian
In a late January, 1945 letter still another army private, Curtis Brooks, then stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, replied to an inquiry he had received from Janet: "You ask me what do I want you to send me." His reply could have been featured on a Hallmark card: "Send me 1000 kisses on every letter and the photo I want so bad [so that] I will have it so I can look at it every night and kiss it before I go to bed." Nothing in the archive confirms whether Brooks ever got the photo he wished for, but Janet did receive at least one more letter from Brooks, who wrote the following autumn that Janet couldn't "know how much I have missed you these last few months...." No other letters from Brooks remain in the archive, indicating that perhaps Janet dropped her correspondence with him.

Meanwhile, she had become a pen pal for still another soldier, Charles Harrison, who was  part of the Army Air Corps. In one of the few letters in the collection that is missing some pages, Harrison asked in April 1945 whether Janet was "still engaged" (to Kelly?) and when she planned to marry. At this point Janet must have been almost unknown to Harrison, who went on to ask how old Janet was.  However, by July Chuck, as he called himself, was trying to make Janet his girlfriend, asking her to "consider waiting on [for?] me and be mine." Volunteering to be trained as a "aircal [?] gunner," Harrison asked, "How would you like having a boy friend with wings?" Perhaps he was getting ahead of himself, though, because he went on to ask how Janet felt about him, since "I never did ask you." Later that month Harrison admitted that "I miss you so very much," and that it had been over a year since he'd seen Janet. In fact, as an August, 1945 letter explained, Janet and Chuck had been acquainted before the war, but Chuck had not then shown any interest in her. "I tried my best in every way not to pay any attention to you because I didn't want you to get the idea of liking me more than a friend. But now it's different," he wrote. "I want you to love me...You're what I've been seeking for a long time only I've been too blind to really notice." Harrison went on to comment on marriage—he didn't believe in it—but he still wanted Janet to wait for him, asking her to keep their affection a secret. In a subsequent letter, Harrison pledged that he would "never stop loving you my darling...."

While on a bomber training mission early that fall, Harrison was hurt. His bomber had landed badly, and the plane caught fire. "I managed to crawl from the plane somehow but I got burnt on the arms and legs, and...all my eyelashes burnt off and some of my hair." Writing from the hospital, Harrison asked whether Janet still loved him. "I love you so very much...my throat wants to utter words of love and endearment. It wants to tell you how much I miss you and long to enfold your loveliness that I need so much." Soon thereafter Harrison was back in the hospital, this time for pneumonia, but he was concerned about something else: "this is my third letter to you and no answer as yet. Tell me, sweetheart, what is the matter?" A January 1946 letter picks up the same theme: "Why haven't you written?...You've told me so many times of your love for me. Now I wonder if you meant those things as I never hear from you." These are the last words on the subject in the letters, and nothing survives to explain what happened between Janet and Harrison.
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The Tibbs collection includes two folders of letters addressed to Janet's youngest sister, Roberta. These letters overlap chronologically as Roberta balanced an emerging romance with a young man at the University of Iowa with a soldier in Germany who sought to use the mails to nourish a long-distance romance. One peculiarity of this part of the correspondence is the inclusion of a letter written by Roberta ("Bobbie") but evidently never mailed.
Roberta Tibbs (2nd from left), Senior Representative to Grinnell Athletic Association (GAA), 1949 Grinnellian
In early February, 1950 Bobbie wrote Keith Brown, responding to something Keith had said or written earlier about sexual relations: "Your view about virginity," she wrote,  "certainly isn't my view. You don't know what might happen after having sexual intercourse. And if that [pregnancy?] ever happened to me I would maybe kill myself first...." Bobbie went on to say that her older sister had had sexual relations with someone, but "she didn't do nothing to prevent it from happening [and] now she has two children and is married (I won't say she is happy)." Bobbie did not specify whom she meant—Janet or Shirley—but clearly she felt strongly about what was appropriate in a romantic relationship.

We cannot know whether Keith ever read these words because we do not know if Bobbie ever sent this letter. But if he did, Roberta's scolding did not stanch his ardor. A few days later he wrote, saying, "If I'm not in love with you I don't believe I could come any closer!" Whether Bobbie visited him in Iowa City or he came to Grinnell is not clear, but they had gotten together. "I hope you didn't mind my kissing you while we walked down the street after we had the malts...Having my arms around you gave me a sense of possession, like you were mine...." Keith went on to remember how his hands had wandered beneath her blouse, provoking a rebuke from Bobbie. "Your reaction...makes me think you're a virgin. Are you?" Keith hastily added that, of course, he was a "male virgin," although other comments seem to contradict the claim. When Keith next wrote, he reported having received from Bobbie a letter that "cooled me off quite a bit." "You certainly have good common sense," he continued, but "I think you are a bit old-fashioned for letting your conscience bother you since I put my hand under your blouse." All the same, Keith asserted that he was "glad [that] you're that kind of girl."
Roberta Tibbs, 1949 Grinnellian
Keith and Roberta exchanged letters all through the spring, Keith often sending cards from places where the University of Iowa track team competed. But sometime in early April he and Roberta had  been together again, and Roberta had gone through Keith's pockets, being shocked to discover there some Gems condoms. "They're used for what you think," Keith explained. "They're to prevent spreading of disease and pregnancy." Keith went on to inquire how Bobbie liked to be kissed (on the ear? the neck? the throat?), then disingenuously asserted that he was "not an experienced kisser...." Apparently he and Bobbie had gotten very friendly, because Keith asked "how far you think we would have gone if the circumstances had been different?" He seemed to wish that things had indeed been different, because he also asked if she would have said "no," had their love-making gotten more passionate.

This May, 1950 letter is the last one from Keith Brown in the archive, but Bobbie had also been collecting letters from Private Jesse Sanders. Put in touch via a relative, Jesse began writing Roberta in November, 1949. She had replied soon thereafter, sending Jesse a picture of herself. Jesse responded in kind, and added that he thought Bobbie "really lovely" and that she appeared to have a "most adorable personality." Sanders very soon felt so strongly about her that he began his letters by calling her "Dearest Roberta." Although he recognized that Roberta at the time had a boyfriend—Keith Brown, presumably—he wrote that he kept her photo with him all the time, "and at nights under my pillow." Soon Sanders was asking for still another photo of Roberta, what he called a "full photo so I can put it in a frame and put it on my dresser." Bobbie apparently did not immediately fulfill this request, so Sanders repeated himself in subsequent letters, explaining that what he wanted was a "full length picture." Picture in hand or not, Sanders seems to have fallen head-over-heels in love. Telling Roberta of a dream, he told her that he imagined visiting her in Grinnell, "and you were so glad to see me that you fell into my arms and we found out that we were really in love...I am keeping my fingers crossed so that that dream will come true." By March Sanders was calling Roberta "darling," telling her that "you are the only girl in my heart." In a mid-April letter, Sanders addressed her as "Dearest Darling," asking Roberta to be his "steady girl." "You are the first girl I know," he continued, "that I could go through life with and love with all my heart and soul."

Apparently Roberta did not take this passion as seriously as Sanders had intended. "I guess you are still laughing at some of the words I said," he wrote in his next letter. But Sanders was in no mood to surrender: "It is only you that I want and I won't stop till I get you to be mine," he said, adding only that he was still waiting for that full-length photo he had asked for so often. Since this was the last of his letters Roberta saved, it seems unlikely that Sanders ever got his photograph.
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These sometimes lugubrious epistolary expressions of affection remind us that, against the backdrop of world war and an America still deeply riven by race, the young men and women of the Tibbs family, like their white coevals, were experimenting with their emotions, seeking out and giving affection as they made their way through the difficult years of youth. Although Harold never married any of the women who wrote him, and although Janet and Roberta did not marry the men whose letters they saved, all these letters make clear that the Tibbs chldren experienced the same anxieties and emotional roller coasters that played out in the hearts of most young men and women of their time, whatever their race. Certainly Harold, Janet, and Roberta were African American, and that meant that they had to deal with considerable racial bias. But they were also man and woman, like the rest of us, feeling their way to maturity and understanding, with all the excitement and disappointment that accompanied the process.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Hard Life of Widow Tibbs

Regular readers of this blog may remember when I wondered whose stories deserved to be told. My conclusion was to make room for the stories of people whom the dominant narratives  overlooked—the poor, the marginalized, people of color, and those deemed too ordinary to merit attention. The first post directed toward reviving some of those untold stories concerned the Renfrows, one of the few African American families who lived in Grinnell. 

Another African American family that shared Grinnell with the Renfrows was that of James and Mary Tibbs. As I wrote in a post last fall, Jim Tibbs shined shoes in Grinnell, a humble job that gave some customers license to indulge their meaner natures. But Tibbs died in January, 1941, leaving behind his widow—who was still in her 40s—and six children.  The two oldest children soon charted their own routes out of the house. Harold had already graduated from Grinnell high school before his father's death, and soon thereafter enrolled at William Penn College in Oskaloosa. Albert, the second-oldest, married an Oskaloosa woman in late 1942, and the following spring joined the US Army. That left Mamie with four children still at home: Janet, who graduated from Grinnell High School in 1946, Shirley, who finished school in 1948, Roberta, who graduated in 1949, and Edward, the youngest, who was a member of the class of 1951. So, widow Tibbs had plenty to think about as she contemplated life after her husband's death.
Undated photograph of Harold and Ed Tibbs (courtesy Grinnell College Special Collections and Archives)
One of Mamie's first decisions was to move the family from their Third Avenue home to a frame house at 712 Elm, the same building from which Grinnell College students rescued all those letters thirty years later. Although all Mamie's children gradually left home and set out on their own, Mamie herself remained in the house until 1964. For more than a decade, therefore, she lived in that house alone, coping with the challenges of maintaining the house. But she did not forget her children; as she pointed out in a 1958 letter, she wrote to each of her six children every week, at least up until the increase in postage obliged her to reduce the frequency of her letters. Regrettably, the cache of family records rescued in 1974 includes only one part of that correspondence: a folder of letters and cards in Mamie's own hand, all sent to her youngest son, Edward, over the course of four years—1955-1958. Apparently Ed saved these letters—only about a dozen or so—and at some later point returned them to 712 Elm Street where Grinnell students later found them. Ed's brothers and sisters received their letters elsewhere, and, if they saved them, left them elsewhere beyond our reach; almost certainly those letters long ago disappeared into the trash, so we are unlikely ever to gain a broader vision of Mamie's concerns.

Despite the limitations of this small collection, Mamie's letters to Ed Tibbs make fascinating reading. As she no doubt did with each of her children, Mamie regularly reminded her son of her love, but otherwise the subject matter of the correspondence wanders without much conscious plan. She reported on news from her other children, remarked on developments in Grinnell ("the law here has a new car," she wrote Ed in 1958; "it's nice, [but] you sure can tell it miles away!"], and sometimes discussed her plans for the future. A persistent theme, however, was how difficult life was for her in that Elm Street house. Although she often found a way to send a dollar or two to her children, several of whom had their own struggles with poverty, Mamie's letters reveal how close to the margins life ran for the Tibbs family in the decades after Jim Tibbs's death, and remind us that every story—perhaps especially a story of struggle—enlarges our understanding of life in Grinnell in those years.
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The house on Elm Street figures in several letters, Mamie reflecting upon the difficulties the house presented. As revealed in a 1946 letter from Albert, Mamie contemplated buying the house almost from the moment she moved there. Harold opposed his mother's plan, but Albert was inclined to support her, as he wrote Harold: "she is doing something that she has been wanting to do all her life; let her be happy. After all, it is only $700 and that isn't really much money...." For whatever reason, Mamie did not buy the house then, but she kept the dream alive, and sometime in the winter of 1958 she revived the plan, hiring someone to inspect the house and give her an opinion on its soundness. The report, however, poured cold water on Mamie's enthusiasm; she wrote Ed, "the house should be torn down, the man said, and built over." It is easy to imagine Mamie's disappointment at this news, which might explain why she decided to consult her neighbors for their advice. Here, too, however, the news was not encouraging. Observing that the house had "too many air holes," Mrs. Moyer urged Mamie to get out.

In fact, Mamie herself often reported that she had trouble—and plenty of expense—keeping the place warm. We know from her letters that she heated the house with wood—as many others in this era did—, because "coal is so high here. And oil is too." At first, Mamie had the help of her children, but once the children graduated from high school and moved on, responsibility for getting all that wood into the furnace fell increasingly upon Mamie's own shoulders. In March 1956, when she was 64 years of age, she wrote Ed to say, "I have been chopping wood and raking the yard and I am really tired." Apparently the city had cut down some trees from the lot behind her and had given one of the trees to Mamie for firewood. It was hard work, but there was no alternative, so Mamie did what she had to do. Only two years later, after having had a scare from her heart, did she tell Ed, "I ain't going to chop no more wood to try to keep warm."
Ed Tibbs, 1949 Grinnellian
Keeping warm was a real and recurring problem that imposed a heavy burden on the household budget. Writing in February, 1956, Mamie told Ed that she had no money to send him. "I paid almost all my money on finishing paying for the furnace. At last I am done," she wrote; "it ran me short this month." To make money for this project Mamie had put off paying some other bills, which she was only gradually clearing. "I ain't got no [bills] in the hundreds now," she wrote Ed, "and I am so glad. I pay for my home by myself, put in the furnace by my self, and now I want to put in the water as soon as I can...."

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that money figured so often in Mamie's letters. In an undated Christmas card to Ed, she wrote: "I am sorry I couldn't send you no present but will send you something later on." In a 1958 letter she enclosed five dollars, "as it is all I can send." On another occasion Mamie sent one dollar: "that is all I have till next Friday or Saturday. You can buy some cig[arettes] now.  I will send you some [more] money then." When Ed asked Mamie for twenty dollars, she replied, heatedly, "I don't happen to have no $20 in the house right now and won't have till the first of the month." She proposed instead to get Albert, then living behind her at 707 Summer Street, to provide ten, and she would add ten more later. In a subsequent letter Mamie complained that Ed did not confirm having received the five dollars she had sent: "I haven't got money to throw away," she wrote, "so let me know if you are getting it or not."
Roberta Tibbs, 1949 Grinnellian
These recurring financial concerns urged Mamie to consider moving. As early as 1955 she confided to Ed that she was "planning on moving to Omaha, Nebraska." "I can work a little in Omaha," she continued, "because I can get jobs baby sitting..." At that time Harold, Janet and Shirley were all living in the area, and evidently it was Janet who extended the invitation. "I am sick so much," Mamie wrote, "I thought I would try it over there for a while...." Nevertheless, she did not move. A year later Mamie reported that Roberta and her husband, Art Wilder, had invited her to live with them in Marshalltown, "but I am not planning on that," she told Ed. In her opinion Roberta "hasn't got enough room for herself," let alone a guest. A 1958 letter proposed still another possibility, that Mamie move in with Shirley; "I don't know for sure yet," she continued. "I've got to think it over." Mamie admitted that she was "crazy about" Shirley's "honey" of a house which she described with enthusiasm: "she has a big porch in the front and a two-door garage at the back and a nice front yard and a nice back yard." Ever mindful of her own wood-burning furnace and all the labor it required, Mamie could not resist noting that Shirley also had a gas furnace.
Shirley Tibbs, 1950 Grinnellian
Sadly, relations with Shirley suddenly deteriorated, so that the planned move did not materialize. In an undated letter, Mamie told Ed that "Shirley and I had been arguing about everybody and everything. And I had to tell her where she stood with me. I told her I didn't blame you for not giving her anything because she doesn't care for any of us, only what she can get out of us...I seen her [Shirley] and V [?] making fun of me so I just let them both drop. I am done with both of them. I have taken them off my list." Although she had planned to give Shirley a bed for her new baby, Mamie now trashed that plan: "Oh no! I will [not] help any body that ain't so D--M import[ant]!"

Mamie finally abandoned the house on Elm Street in 1964, moving to Omaha as she had long imagined she would, although with which of her children she lived I could not determine. In the meantime, age, poverty, and hard work wore away at her health. Not infrequently Mamie began letters to Ed by observing, as she did in a September, 1957 letter, "I am not feeling so good myself today..." Some of the health issues were common, as when she told Ed in a 1958 letter how she had been sick in bed with the flu for several days. Not once did Mamie mention having visited a doctor, but she did tell Ed that she was taking pills that cost her dearly. What pills they were and what ailment they aimed to remedy she did not say.
Mount Pleasant Mental Health Institute
Meanwhile, Ed himself was not well, although exactly what the trouble was remains unclear. The letters she wrote Ed were all directed to the Mount Pleasant Mental Health Institute (originally known as the Iowa Lunatic Asylum) where Ed was a patient for several years in the mid-1950s. In a 1955 letter, Mamie remembered that, prior to moving to Mount Pleasant, Ed had been "a real sick man and they [doctors at the institute] have helped you"—but how or with what she did not say. Perhaps Mamie herself did not understand Ed's illness, and his doctors at the time might have had only a slightly better understanding. Nevertheless, Mamie occasionally expressed the hope that Ed might be released, and one letter reported that she had written Ed's doctor to ask about it. "I hope you are feeling fine and are back to yourself," she wrote. In fact, Ed was subsequently released from Mount Pleasant, and later lived for a time in Omaha, then in Oskaloosa before entering the Poweshiek County Care Facility in Montezuma; when he died in 2002, Ed had lived in the Montezuma Nursing and Rehabilitation Center for sixteen years, indicating perhaps that he never conquered the problems that had first taken him to Mount Pleasant.
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Mamie's last dated letter to Ed was written in 1958, and with that letter the historian's door into Mamie Tibbs's life closes. After abandoning Grinnell in 1964, Mamie never returned until her 1973 funeral and burial in Hazelwood cemetery. She had lived 32 years after her husband's death, and had seen her children grow up and generate their own families (Mamie's obituary reported that she was survived by twenty grandchildren and fifteen great-grandchildren). Sorrows were mingled with these joys, as her children struggled to make marriages work and ends meet. On balance, though, the family had done well, and much of the credit goes to Mamie, a poor widow who did all she could to help her kids succeed.

Meanwhile, the house on Elm Street sat empty, city directories regularly reporting it as "vacant." Somewhere within the decaying frame walls there remained a cache of letters, awaiting discovery and the opportunity to tell part of the story of Mamie Tibbs's hard life.

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)
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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.
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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
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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.