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Remembering Sara Dunlap Jackson (1919-1991)

In 1944 Sara Dunlap Jackson became one of the first African American professionals hired by the National Archives in Washington, D.C. where she specialized in western, military, social and African American topics.  She continued at the Archives until her retirement in 1990.  In the following memorial tribute, University of Maryland historian Ira Berlin recalls the remarkable contribution of Sara Dunlap Jackson.

While we recognize and remember Carter G. Woodson as the “Father of Afro-American History,” we often do not recognize giants who facilitated the researching of this history: Sara Dunlap Jackson was a giant among us. This article is dedicated to her and the exceptional reference service provided to those seeking Afro-American history in federal records.

Sara Jackson entered the National Archives in 1944, fresh from a degree from Booker T. Washington High School in Columbia, South Carolina, and Johnson C. Smith College in North Carolina. She had been trained as a teacher, but wartime events seemed to promise more than offered by teaching in the segregated classrooms of her native South. Still, the “colored only,” signs were much evidence in Washington, and the racial division of labor that segregation imposed did not promise much for the young black woman from a small black college in 1944. Sara quietly took up residence deep in the recesses of the Archives’ stacks with little fanfare, and it seems probable that her superior had no sense that Sara’s stay would make a difference to the Archives of the United States, let alone the history of the United States. It has.

Sara did not rest easy in the silence of the stacks. Things were rarely quiet where she took her place. She soon began reading her way through the voluminous aisles: the War Department, the U.S. Army and Navy, the Adjutant General’s Office, the Engineer Department, the Bureau of Colored Troops, and of course, the Freedmen’s Bureau. As no one else—before or since—she mastered them. Her curiosity and determination fused the role of archivist and

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