After over two years of efforts and a few surprising phone calls, the work of a man The New York Times once described as the “most visible” prisoner on death row is now at the John Hay Library.
This past August, the University acquired the personal papers and items of Mumia Abu-Jamal, an incarcerated political activist and journalist, marking a broader move by the Hay and the Pembroke Center to bring the voices of those impacted by mass incarceration into their collections, University archivists explained.
The archive, which includes Abu-Jamal’s papers, prison records, original sheet music, artwork and even a pair of his glasses, has the potential to catalyze groundbreaking research, according to professors and the archive’s curators.
“It’s the only archive of its kind in the country,” said Johanna Fernández ’93, a history professor at Baruch College whose papers were recently purchased by the University as well. Fernández is a close friend of Abu-Jamal’s and played an instrumental role in the acquisition.
Abu-Jamal, born Wesley Cook, was a journalist, political activist and founding member of the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party. In 1982, Abu-Jamal was convicted of shooting and killing Daniel Faulkner, a Philadelphia police officer. At the time, Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death, but in 2011, a federal appeals court ordered a new sentencing hearing, eventually leading prosecutors to drop their pursuit of the death penalty.
Over the past 40 years, Abu-Jamal’s imprisonment has proven to be controversial. A 2000 report from Amnesty International concluded that Abu-Jamal had not been given a fair trial based on international standards, and advocates the claim that he was framed by the police.
‘And then there was a mic drop…’
The “odyssey” to acquire Abu-Jamal’s papers, as described by Pembroke Center Archivist Mary Murphy, began with the Pembroke Center Archives, which collects the papers of notable women, transgender and nonbinary people who’ve attended Brown, in addition to historically important women in Rhode Island, feminists and queer theorists.
One of these women was Fernández, who was one of the leaders in the Students for Aid and Minority Admission movement on campus in the 90s. During those protests, students took over University Hall in support of need-blind admissions. In 2017, Murphy conducted an initial oral history interview with Fernández speaking about that history, and the two began talking.
“I loved this story,” said Murphy. “I thought she would be perfect for us to collect her papers.”
Murphy eventually broached the subject with Fernández, who agreed to archive her papers at the University. But, five or six conversations in, Fernández said she realized she forgot something important.
“The papers you really want are those sitting in my closet that belong to Mumia Abu-Jamal,” Fernández recalled telling Murphy.
“And then there was a mic drop,” Fernández said.
That call set in motion the eventual acquisition of the archive. Upon hearing the news from Murphy, Amanda Strauss, associate university librarian for special collections and director of the John Hay Library, said she was falling out of her attic chair.
But despite the initial interest, the archive faced obstacles. As Abu-Jamal was being transferred from death row to the general prison population, he faced pressure to get rid of his papers, he told The Herald.
“Four or five guards came to the cell one day and said ‘you gotta get rid of all the shit,’” Abu-Jamal said over the phone from the State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy, Pa. “What am I going to say? ‘No?’”
Abu-Jamal said that he “really wanted to throw a lot of stuff away,” but Fernández insisted he keep his papers.
“She said it’s history. I said, ‘C'mon, it’s old mail,’” Abu-Jamal said.
“I literally begged him to not throw them away,” Fernández said. Over the course of a week and a half, and with some debate, Fernández was ultimately successful.
“I don’t think he understood the significance of his papers. I mean nobody does. Who thinks that their papers are significant?” she said.
When asked about the impact he wants his archive to have, Abu-Jamal said he hopes it has an effect on the incarcerated as well as those not in prison.
“By its very existence, it has an impact outside because it is literally outside of the carceral space,” Abu-Jamal said. Incarcerated people are “real human(s), thinking (and) feeling human beings. They have something to say and something to share outside of the cells, outside of the brick and stone and steel and mortar.”
In the era of mass incarceration, those involved in the acquisition also highlighted the particular significance of the archive, as well as its unique position within the research space. There are already a few special collections and archives of incarcerated people, most of them small, Strauss said.
“It is really telling us this modern history of mass incarceration in America,” said Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, an associate professor of sociology who studies mass incarceration, racism and punishment in America. Gonzalez Van Cleve noted that Abu-Jamal’s imprisonment coincided with an “acceleration of incarceration.”
“Our society is defined by incarceration,” Fernández said. “We live in a country that hyper-incarcerates Black people, and Black Americans in particular, and Latinos.”
‘Please find a morsel in there and tell the story’
Abu-Jamal’s archive, Fernández’s papers and an additional mass-incarceration-focused archive, including oral histories, created by one of Gonzalez Van Cleve’s classes will be part of the Voices of Mass Incarceration in the United States collection at the Hay.
The three archives are the “anchor collections for this new collecting direction,” Strauss said. The project is part of a broader emphasis on finding “the stories of individuals, their families and their communities” within the study of American incarceration, she said.
Curators and professors said that Abu-Jamal’s archive offers the opportunity for new, exciting research. For example, Murphy highlighted the fact that Abu-Jamal’s documents combined with Fernández’s papers offer a rare perspective on relationships between prisoners and their advocates.
“You’re opening all the boxes, it’s like Christmas morning,” Murphy said.
“This is an archive that I think can engage a lot of students across disciplines, everything from the arts, to poetry, … Black studies, sociology and probably so much more,” Gonzalez Van Cleve said.
Fernández expressed similar sentiments, explaining that the archive could lead to research in a variety of subject areas, including the Black radical tradition, philosophy and literature.
Gonzalez Van Cleve also highlighted the opportunity for students to conduct original research.
“I can honestly say to a classroom, there is a treasure trove of data and primary sources that have never been sorted through,” she said. “Please find a morsel in there and tell the story.”
Gonzalez Van Cleve recently took a group of PhD students from one of her classes to visit the archive and help sort through some of the many letters Abu-Jamal has received during his time in prison. Yet, a different type of item caught the eye of a musicology student in her class: sheet music written by Abu-Jamal himself.
“His face lit up,” said Gonzalez Van Cleve. “I could just see the spark in this musicology student in a way that I hadn’t imagined as a sociologist. To me that is the gold standard: When I can take a PhD student from an arts PhD, and I can bring him to this archive, and he will see things that I can’t possibly imagine.”
Gonzalez Van Cleve said that she quickly began brainstorming with the student, wondering if the song could be played at Brown, how they would get the musicians to do so and more. From behind bars, Abu-Jamal had a simple response to the student upon hearing the anecdote.
“Maybe we could work together some day. I still have melodies in my head, I just need to get it down,” he said.
The archive also provides a rare perspective on Black political thought, given that many of Abu-Jamal’s contemporaries were killed rather than imprisoned, Gonzalez Van Cleve said.
“We think of the likes of Fred Hampton and others who didn’t have the longevity of life to produce work and essays and books and letters and thought pieces on American life, racism and politics,” she said.
Abu-Jamal’s archive will open by Fall 2023 after archivists sort through the material and generally bring “order to chaos,” Murphy said. At the opening, the Hay hopes to have a multi-sited exhibition, including at the Pembroke Center, and possibly even a portion in Abu-Jamal’s hometown of Philadelphia, but that remains to be determined, Strauss said.
At some point in the future, the hope is to digitize the collection as well, she added.
The Hay is working with the Pembroke Center and the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice to have a symposium after the opening, Strauss said.
“We’re figuring out what that looks like to really mark the opening of the collections and to invite scholars to think on these topics,” she said.
Gonzalez Van Cleve said that centering Abu-Jamal’s papers in “places of the highest intellectual importance” like Brown “gives the appropriate amount of reverence to people who have been impacted” by incarceration.
“That, to me, is an act of racial justice,” Gonzalez Van Cleve said.
Jacob Smollen is a Metro editor covering city and state politics and co-editor of the Bruno Brief. He is a sophomore from Philadelphia studying International and Public Affairs.