A New Home for Angela Davis’s Papers (and Her ‘Wanted’ Poster)

In 2016, the library hired its first curator for race and ethnicity, Kenvi Phillips. It has also pushed to acquire material from grass-roots conservative activist women and others left out of the dominant liberal-feminist narrative of women’s history. (Professor Kamensky is currently writing a biography of the porn actress turned women’s erotica director Candida Royalle, whose papers the Schlesinger acquired in 2016.)

Professor Davis, who retired from the University of California at Santa Cruz in 2008, said other institutions had approached her over the years. But she liked the idea of having her papers housed near those of friends like the African-American poets June Jordan and Pat Parker and the legal scholar Patricia Williams, as well as the records of lesser-known women who powered various social movements.

“As a scholar and activist, I’ve always worked with others,” she said in a telephone interview. “I have so much respect for many of the women who have chosen to put their papers here.”

Professor Davis’s archive ranges from her childhood in segregated Birmingham, Ala., where she was born in 1944 to activist parents; to her studies with the Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse (who recalled her as his most brilliant student); to her more recent activism with groups like Critical Resistance, the prison-abolition advocacy group she helped found in 1997. (The library is not disclosing the price of the archive, which it said it bought directly from Professor Davis, who had stored much of the material in her home in Oakland.)


A copy of a “Wanted” poster for Prof. Davis, who spent eight weeks underground before being arrested in 1970. Credit Cody O’Loughlin for The New York Times

Its richest vein concerns the tumultuous period that began in 1969, when then Gov. Ronald Reagan ordered her fired from her teaching position at the University of California, Los Angeles, because of her Communist Party membership, before she had even taught her first class. Her case drew broad attention, but it was her activism on behalf of the Soledad Brothers, three California inmates accused of murdering a white prison guard, that made her internationally famous.

In 1970, she was charged with murder, kidnapping and criminal conspiracy charges after guns she had purchased were used in an attack on the Marin County Courthouse that was aimed at liberating the Soledad Brothers, but instead left four people, including the attacker, dead. The trial that followed — in which Professor Davis participated in her own defense — sparked an international campaign, turning “Free Angela” into a global rallying cry.

Professor Davis had not been present at the courthouse, and witnesses testified that the guns had been bought to guard the Soledad Brothers’ defense headquarters. In 1972, after spending 16 months in prison, she was acquitted of all charges by an all-white jury.

On a recent afternoon at the library, Ms. Phillips and two archivists, Amber Moore and Jehan Sinclair, laid out a sampling from the collection, including an F.B.I. “Wanted” poster from the eight weeks Professor Davis spent underground before her arrest at a New York City motel.

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