IN DEPTH — If History Calls Create Your Own Collection

Black Lives Matter Protest and March; Pan Pacific Park; April 25, 2021.

The Bradley Center was established in 1981 in the Department of Journalism, California State University, Northridge by Dr. Kent Kirkton as the Center for Photojournalism & Visual History. It was renamed the Institute for Arts & Media in 2008 as its mission and participation had broadened over the years. In 2015, the Institute for Arts & Media developed an ongoing relationship with the Tom & Ethel Bradley Foundation and was renamed the Tom & Ethel Bradley Center.

The mission of the Bradley Center is to collect, preserve, and disseminate the visual history of the region with an emphasis on ethnic minority communities and photographers. The Bradley Center's archives contain over one million images from Los Angeles based freelance and independent photographers between the 1910s to the present. Approximately 80% of the collection comprises African American photographers in and near Los Angeles. The Bradley Center is the only repository for photographs before 1993 from the Los Angeles Sentinel. Oral histories, manuscripts, and other ephemeral materials support the photographic collection. Additionally, the archives contain over six dozen oral histories from African American photographers, Civil Rights and Black Power leaders and organizers, and members of the United Farm Workers.

The African American section of the collection contains rich documentation of the Civil Rights Movement and its leaders as well as local churches, politicians, musicians, singers, entertainers, athletes, and social organizations. Coverage of Dr. King is very well represented in the collection as are other such luminaries as Mayor Tom Bradley, Rev. H. H. Brookins of 1st AME, Thurgood Marshall, Malcolm X, Earl Warren, Louis Armstrong, Muhammad Ali, Errol Garner, Dinah Washington, James Baldwin, Roy Wilkins, Nat King Cole, Joe Campanella, numerous jazz greats, and many, many others of national repute. The coverage of political campaigns and voter registration efforts is extensive. Included are thousands of images of daily life and public occasions such as Civil Rights marches and protests, celebrations, and parades. There is significant coverage of churches and church events in Los Angeles that is broad and unmatched in any other collections in the region.

It would have reflected poorly in regards to the mission of the Bradley Center had we chosen to ignore documenting perhaps the most important movement in civil rights history since the 1960s. The assassination of George Floyd and a long list of African American men, women, and children killed at the hands of law enforcement agencies sparked worldwide condemnation and inspired numerous marches and protests. Los Angeles has experienced more than its share of officer-involved shootings and nonviolent and violent rebellions and protests. The Bradley Center continues its ongoing dedication to visually documenting the historical events that occur in the often overlooked and underserved communities of Southern California.

Protestors in Pasadena, CA; June 26, 2020 (left).

Protestors in La Canada, CA; September 27, 2020 (right).

I am a historian and archivist. I am not a photographer. Our photographic collections are a result of photographers’ or their heirs’ generous donations. Our collection policies have been built around such practices. I thought it would be easy to contact photographers who might be willing to donate their images of Black Lives Matter protests to the Bradley Center. In many cases the discussion between archivist and collection creators about donating their works are associated with more of an end of career discussion, but does not have to be. At any rate, as the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention.” The Bradley Center has a Canon EOS 70D DSLR camera that is used to conduct oral history interviews. Thankfully, the technology incorporated into these new cameras goes a long way in improving one’s photographic skills. After I realized there was no rule against straddling the line of being an archivist for collections and creating a collection there was one last hurdle to conquer. I had to overcome my anxiety about being in a crowd of people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During a conversation with my colleague and the Bradley Center’s special projects director and Cal State Northridge African Studies professor, Dr. Karin Stanford, it became clear to me that I needed to overcome my anxieties. I contacted a Black Lives Matter Los Angeles organizer I knew to see if it was okay for me to document their next protest. The protest took place in Northridge, California on June 13, 2020. It was a large crowd and I felt extremely uncomfortable invading people’s spaces as a photographer. I was also still concerned about contracting COVID-19. Fortunately, all of the protestors wore masks at each of the thirty or so protests I would go on to document. For the most part on that first protest I shot a lot of signs, backs, and the backs of heads because of the concerns listed above.

Indigenous People for Black Lives, Downtown Los Angeles; July 4, 2020.

By the second week, I realized that I was probably the only archivist or historian capturing these events using archival best practices. I noticed there were very few African American photographers, if any, at most of the protests. That gave me a sense of responsibility in documenting this ongoing centuries-old movement to defend, protect, and give value to the lives of Black folks in this country. At some point early on, I began to feel that if anyone should be documenting these protests it should be somebody who looked like me. And from that point on I was on a mission as a photographer and videographer.

Like most things in life, the more you do something the more comfortable you become at doing it. The most important gesture I found on my part was to respect the protest organizers by introducing myself to them and presenting them with my business card as a historian/archivist at California State University, Northridge. After explaining that I wanted to photograph and video this special time in history so future generations of students, scholars, and community members could access them from an academic institution, all of the organizers were open and welcoming. They offered me water and rides on their vehicles if the protest involved marching. Another important factor that contributed to my confidence was the appreciation shown by organizers and protestor-participants alike in that I was taking photographs that would be accessible online at California State University, Northridge. It gave me an added sense of purpose when they thanked me for capturing their participation in the events taking place.

Protest Against Breonna Taylor Charges; Sunset and Vine; September 25, 2020 (left).

Simi Valley Protest Against Breonna Taylor Charges; September 26, 2020 (right).

In addition to capturing the protests for the participants and generations to come, I thought it would be a teachable moment for my twelve-year old granddaughter, Taylor. Protests were happening on a daily basis and because of COVID-19 Taylor was staying with us during the week while her mother worked. She started going with me on the second protest I attended. As a historian, I am aware of the many possibilities of how this particular time could be viewed in the future. So I thought it was extremely important that she be a primary source by actually documenting and participating in the protests. We learned how to photograph together so I included her as a creator of the collection on the donation paperwork.

I started documenting protests about two weeks after they started in Los Angeles. Therefore, I didn’t attend the earlier protests that resulted in looting or rioting. I witnessed peaceful protests in almost all of the events I attended. There was one time that stands out to me in which a group of people wearing protective gear tried to instigate a confrontation with Los Angeles County Sheriffs. It is still fresh in my mind how quickly the leadership of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles denounced their actions and shamed them into backing off, because they were being disrespectful to the people of a community who had recently lost someone in a police shooting.

Black Lives Matter Los Angeles George Floyd One Year Rally; May 25, 2021.

To be fair, not all protestors were in support of Black Lives Matter. I also documented events that supported police officers and former president Trump. At their best, those images show how America functions as a country where people have the right to protest. At their worst, they show the ongoing division over race in America and the ignorance or denial of the existence of a worldwide pandemic that was in the midst of taking the lives of millions of human beings. For me this was a stark reminder that my initial fears of COVID-19 and being in crowds to document the protests were not unfounded. Nevertheless, it did not dissuade me from continuing on my newfound responsibility of creating an archival collection documenting one of the most important times in American history.

Sherwin “Keith” Rice is the historian and archivist at the Tom & Ethel Bradley Center, California State University, Northridge. Keith earned his BA in history and his master’s degree in history with secondary studies in Latin American history and archival management from California State University, Northridge. He is currently completing his dissertation in the PhD history program at Claremont Graduate University.