Charla Wilson preserves history, uplifts student voices as Northwestern’s archivist for the Black experience


Photo courtesy of Charla Wilson/Shane Collins

Since she took on the new role in 2017, Wilson has worked on several archival projects about the Black experience at NU.

Charlotte Varnes, Senior Staffer

A San Diego native, Charla Wilson knew she wanted to write about the history of the city’s Black community for her master’s thesis at California State University San Marcos.

Sifting through documents from San Diego’s Young Women’s Christian Association, Wilson discovered the organization once had a segregated chapter in the predominantly Black community of Logan Heights during the early 20th century. Wilson and her relatives in San Diego had no idea the chapter existed, which she said sparked her curiosity about the group’s “unknown history.”

“It was an eye-opening project and a pivotal moment for me,” Wilson said. “It was the catalyst for my decision to become an archivist. I had so many questions about how collections make their way to archives, what gets preserved (and) what doesn’t get preserved.”

Now, in her role as Northwestern’s archivist for the Black experience, Wilson embraces these questions day in and day out. Wilson said she centers Black students’ experiences at the University by communicating with students, faculty, staff and alumni about preserving their papers and records related to their time at NU. She also curates exhibits, supports researchers through answering questions about the archives and leads various other projects related to the experiences of Black community members. 

The University created the archivist position in response to protests over proposed plans to combine the Black House and Multicultural Student Affairs in 2015. At the time, the Northwestern University Black Alumni Association called for the creation of a role dedicated to educating the community about Black student life. Wilson, who said she was limited in her ability to work with Black archives in her job in San Diego, said she felt the NU role would be a “perfect fit.”

Since she took on the new role in 2017, Wilson has worked on several different archival projects, including the Black Student Experience Audio Tour, the Decentering Whiteness Initiative and an online exhibit honoring the 50th anniversary of the Bursar’s Office Takeover. 

Jill Waycie, a former archival processing specialist at NU, worked closely with Wilson for the Decentering Whiteness initiative. The project involved rewriting blurbs about items in the library’s collection to remove racist elements from them and center diverse voices.

Waycie said she appreciates Wilson’s “thoughtful approach” to her work.

“She makes sure to involve a lot of experts and stakeholders and get their feedback on the work we do,” Waycie said. “That’s really important. She’s built a lot of trust.”

Last summer, Deering Library debuted a collection of Frederick Douglass’ letters as part of the Decentering Whiteness initiative. Marquis Taylor, a third-year history Ph.D. student and the exhibit’s curator, worked with Wilson and Waycie to redescribe Douglass’ items. He said Wilson was supportive of him as he curated the exhibit in addition to being a Teaching Assistant, taking courses and working at the library.

Beyond working together on the Frederick Douglass exhibition, Taylor said Wilson has been a resource for professional growth.

“If there’s an opportunity she thinks I might be interested in or might be beneficial to me, she’ll loop me in,” Taylor said. “That’s a testament to how she really cares about the work she does and who she’s engaging with.”

Wilson said one of her favorite experiences during her time at NU was inviting Kathryn Ogletree to speak on campus for the 50th anniversary of the Bursar’s Office Takeover. Wilson said Ogletree, who played a central role as a student negotiator during the Takeover, was previously overlooked in the archival collections. She said Ogletree’s discussion of her experience during the Takeover had a “tremendous impact” on her understanding of the power of oral history.

Beyond working on larger projects, Wilson said she loves speaking with Black students, alumni, faculty and staff and helping them preserve their history. Working with Black archives as a whole is a “dream come true,” she said.

“Interacting with history in a tangible way is really neat,” Wilson said. “I’m just amazed — like, ‘Wow, I get to do this as a job.’”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @charvarnes11

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