E Pluribus Unum. The phrase included on the Great Seal of the United States was the first thing that popped in my mind when I thought about sharing my experience as a member of the staff at The African American Library at the Gregory School (hereafter The Gregory School). Weird, I know. I mean how does “Out of Many, One” even relate? It really doesn’t. Was I subconsciously attempting to make some sort of correlation between the original 13 colonies and historic Fourth Ward/Freedmen’s Town, where emancipated African Americans “settled” to establish their new lives as free men and women? An interesting thought, but seemingly a bit of a stretch. No, it had to be something else because that “not-quite” feeling persisted. I knew it was less about the meaning and more about the phraseology, but I couldn’t pinpoint it. Thinking more about it over the course of a couple days, it hits me:
Out of the Ordinary, Extraordinary
Yes! That was it. When I think about its humble beginnings as an elementary school literally built by the labor of freedmen; the dilapidated building that sat vacant for over two decades after the school’s merger with Lincoln High School; its current historical moment as an archives library focused on the history and culture of African Americans in Houston; the archival collection amassed from the donations of friends, family and local community members, this was precisely the sentiment that summed it all up:
Born out of the ordinary, The Gregory School is extraordinary.
The history of The Gregory School is extraordinary, and so is working here. As the community liaison, my job is to bring the community in to the library, and take the library out to the community. Just shy of eight years old, The Gregory School is relatively new in the archives/museum/library world and is still somewhat unknown to much of the greater Houston public. My mission has been to help change this, so a huge part of what I do is seek to foster relationships with local partners and organizations in order to promote the services and programs the library offers. I also create and partner in the development of programming for our patrons and guests in an ongoing effort to both highlight the library’s growing archival collection and attract new, diverse populations to the space. I love what I do and it is made wholly impossible without our great team – Danielle Burns Wilson (manager and HPL curator), Miguell Ceasar (assistant manager and lead archivist), Ingrid Grant (collections development librarian), Valerie Wade (oral historian and archivist), Tracey King (senior library assistant) and Denise Bradley (customer service clerk). Through our combined efforts, visitation has more than doubled, utilization of the space by community members and non-profit organizations has dramatically increased and our archival collection has grown exponentially.
Conversely, “extraordinary” happens to underscore one of the more common misconceptions of archives, particularly smaller, regional collections. The myth is that preservation is reserved only for the extraordinary, the idea being that somehow only over-the-top entities, achievements of monumental proportion and/or trailblazing “firsts” are worthy of collecting. This actually could not be further from the truth. In fact, what makes our collection so significant is that while it absolutely features all of the above, it is at its core a collection reflective of the local, everyday African American community. So, “ordinary” is not only accepted at The Gregory School, it’s revered.
Through all facets of our work, from programming to oral histories, our team takes every opportunity to drive this point home.
Not too long ago, we featured an exhibition called, It Shall Be Done: Recent Acquisitions from The Gregory School Collection. The exhibit was comprised of a sampling of the wonderful photographs, documents and artifacts in our collection, many of which had rarely, if ever, been displayed.
We used a 1948 Gregory Elementary School photograph in our advertisement for the show, one of my personal favorites. I happened to be covering our Welcome Desk one ordinary afternoon when an elder came in, accompanied by a younger woman (who I later learned was her great niece). They approached the desk and we engaged in conversation about the library. The elder, who was perusing our display of materials as we chatted, came to our promotion card for It Shall Be Done and casually remarked,
She was pointing to the 1948 Gregory School photo, and had located herself—third row from the top, far right. I’ve yet to tell that story without tearing up, as I am right now in writing it. The magnitude of what it is to be born into an era of de jure segregation, grow up being systemically denied the rights and access of full citizenship, only to, decades later, come into a City of Houston building and see your personal history celebrated and prominently on display blows me away every single time.
Every day, I drive over brick streets laid by formerly enslaved ancestors. Every day, I walk the halls of the school they built to educate themselves, the pinnacle of their new freedom. Every day, I collaborate with my dedicated teammates to share and expose even more of our fellow citizens to Houston’s rich history and culture. Every day, I learn something new about our city. But then, on some otherwise ordinary day, history enters through the front door, walks up to the desk and says, “That’s me.”
By: Erika Thompson
Community Liason at The African American Library at the Gregory School
Special thanks to Erika Thompson and the entire African American Library at the Gregory School team for sharing their work with us and for showing us the extraordinary in the ordinary.
The HPL Foundation team held their FY 2018 strategic planning session at the Gregory and heard one of the most captivating stories from the energetic, passionate and eloquent Ms. Thompson. We thank their entire team for the essential work they do in preserving, promoting and celebrating African Americans in Houston history, the surrounding region, and the African Diaspora.
For more about The African American Library at the Gregory School please visit and experience the archives, exhibits and events for yourself!
The African American Library at the Gregory School’s
Monday – Thursday: 10:00 am to 6:00 pm
Saturday: 10:00 am to 5:00 pm