Thursday, October 22, 2020

Wilma Gibbs Moore: An Appreciation

In the summer of 1963 a twelve-year-old girl sat in the living room in her family’s home on the northwest side of Indianapolis with her father at her side watching on television images from Washington, D.C. The images were of a young Baptist minister, Martin Luther King Jr., delivering a speech to a crowd estimated at more than 250,000 gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. With the mantra, “I have a dream,” King saw a day when his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” and offered his hope of transforming “the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

Although other members of her large family must have been there, in her memory, the girl, who grew up to be Wilma Gibbs Moore, could only remember she and her father absorbed in King’s ringing words issuing from the screen. She recalled watching her father, William Joseph Gibbs, watching King and “seeing his eyes well up” with emotion at the experience, as hers did as well. That experience only heightened Wilma’s personal connection to history, begun years earlier when, at the age of nine, she and her mother, Tessie Alrene, were fascinated by the televised debates between presidential contenders John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.

Wilma also cemented her passion for history with a love of reading, recalling the thrill of reading the autobiography of Malcolm X and walking for a mile to her local library to uncover other treasures buried in the stacks. “History, for me,” Wilma noted, “is a series of stories and patterns that one gleans from excerpting documents, photographs, newspapers, books, oral histories, and artifacts. Like a great novel, it can have elements of mystery and drama upon a canvas. . . . History is about connection and context combined with knowledge. It is the ability to look back and accurately position people and events within a given time and place.”

From 1986, when she became program archivist for African American history at the Indiana Historical Society, until her retirement from the IHS in 2017, Wilma played an essential role in collecting material on the Hoosier State’s African American heritage, guided researchers through the collection to find the material essential for their work, and shared her knowledge with others through interviews and public presentations. 

Wilma, who died on April 18, 2018, at the age of sixty-seven, also served the vital role of editor and contributor for the IHS’s Black History News & Notes, first during its time as a quarterly newsletter and then in 2007, when it became a regular and well-regarded part of Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History. As Richard Pierce, University of Notre Dame associate professor of history and Africana studies noted, Wilma’s title as editor only hinted at all she did for her publication. “She tirelessly procured work from reticent writers,” said Pierce. “She would scour conference proceedings to learn if anyone had presented work that would be appropriate to Note[s] readers.”

Wilma was a writer herself, penning the regular column “Everyday People” for Traces, reflecting on her life and the collections she helped obtain for the IHS. She also wrote several articles for the Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, edited and wrote for the IHS publication Indiana’s African American Heritage: Essays from Black History News and Notes, and wrote the introduction and was the guiding force behind Gone But Not Forgotten, photo poems by O. James Fox, published by the IHS in 2000.

Talking about her work at the IHS, Wilma, honored for her career with an Award of Merit from the American Association for State and LocalHistory in 2016, believed it was almost as if she had “been set up to get where I was.” Her early life in Indianapolis included growing up in a neighborhood where her grandmother lived across the street and other relatives could be found nearby. It was also a life where segregation was a reality she dealt with every day. “I went to the colored schools with the colored kids taught by the colored teachers,” remembered Wilma, who graduated from the all-black Crispus AttucksHigh School in 1969. The first time she had experiences in a classroom with white students is when she attended Indiana University in Bloomington in 1973. “I had an observatory role, looking at and seeing what was going on,” she said, one of the reasons why history became such a big part of her life.

After earning her master’s degree in library science from IU in 1974, Wilma worked as a librarian at the Black Culture Center before returning to Indianapolis to work at the Indianapolis–Marion County PublicLibrary in several positions, including as branch administrator for the SpadesPark Library and the Flanner House Library

Joining the IHS in 1986 and becoming senior archivist for the William Henry Smith Memorial Library in 2004, Wilma worked to expand the material available on African American history, including such major collections as the Madam C. J. Walker Papers,  the Indianapolis Recorder Collection, Black Women in the Middle West Project Records, and the National Black Political Convention Collection. “It’s an important task to have our finger on the pulse of information that’s gathered,” Wilma said in an interview with the Recorder, “and then once it comes here, making sure it’s presented in such a way that [it] is accessible to people who need it.”

Two of the collections Wilma cited as her personal favorites were the Irven Armstrong Collection and the William Trail Letter. The Armstrong collection contains ten letters sent by students at Indianapolis Public School Number 17 to Sergeant Irven Armstrong, who was stationed in France during World War I and had been a teacher at the school. “They thank him for making the world safe for democracy,” Wilma recalled, “and the grammar is good, and the penmanship is excellent and the vocabulary is interesting. You could tell they were trying to work in new words they’d learned possibly in their English class.” The Trail letter came from William Trail, one of four brothers from Henry County who fought in the Civil War as part of Indiana’s Twenty-Eighth Regiment U.S. Colored Troops.

In addition to uncovering material to collect, Wilma made certain it was available to patrons of all kinds, from schoolchildren to academics. Nobody knew the “primary sources, the historical figures, events, and themes better than Wilma,” said James H. Madison, IU professor emeritus of history. Pierce remembered meeting Wilma while he was a graduate student at IU, working on a dissertation detailing the cultural politics of Indianapolis’s African American community. “I thought I knew something but I quickly learned that I knew next to nothing,” he said. Wilma took the time to guide him through the IHS’s “voluminous holdings and provided me with resources that I did not have the good sense to request. I know that is what archivists do, but I’ve encountered dozens of archivists since then and Ms. Moore remains the model that I hold in my mind for comparison.”

Later in his career, when Pierce grew “antsy” waiting for Wilma to finish with a younger patron, he reflected that “years ago, I, too, was that young person overwhelmed with the challenge and resources before me,” and she gently “guided me through the maze.” Serving as a role model and guide was something Wilma always thought of as she did her job. “We all look for affirmation in some kind of way, and history provides answers to all those questions,” she said. “We all have a story, and we’re all historically significant.”

In 2017 the IHS honored Wilma’s extensive contributions to the state’s history with its Eli Lilly Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition, since her death, the IHS announced that in the future all those filling its annual Indiana University–Purdue University at Indianapolis collections internship will have the title Wilma Gibbs Moore Intern. In 2020 IndianaHumanities established the Wilma Gibbs Moore Fellowship to support humanities researchers’ efforts to uncover stories of racial injustice and structural racism in Indiana and how Black Hoosiers have responded.

Wilma always took such recognition in stride. Learning of her AASLH honor, she noted, “I have spent the past thirty years doing work that I thoroughly enjoy—toiling in the Indiana history vineyard helping others find material for their storyboards. I am always surprised by special thank you notes from patrons or when authors acknowledge me in their books. . . . I am humble and grateful.”





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  2. What wonderful comments for a beautiful woman! Thank you Ray! Wilma was a joy to work with and I knew whenever I went into her office she would tell a story and I knew it would be a long one, I enjoyed them all!
    Susan D