Finding the Unexpected - Oklahoma Center for the Humanities

Finding the Unexpected

Lizy Bailey is a senior English major at the University of Tulsa. Her current research covers the “missing” women of the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls, the predecessor of the University of Tulsa. In this essay, Bailey discusses a particular letter she found in the archives, a document unrelated to indigenous histories yet one that left a lasting impression.

Do you have a phone? Does it connect to the internet? If so, you hold thousands of years of knowledge in your pocket. Be it Google or Bing or Ask Jeeves or God-forbid ChaCha, you have some sort of way to get information about nearly anything you want to know. This is a privilege no other era has experienced, and we use it in so many different ways. I personally look up how to spell normal words all the time. ‘Restaurant’? The internet spells it for me every time, and for that I’m grateful.

But do we realize how much knowledge is hidden away?  And how essential it might be to understanding the complexities and conflicts of our current moment? In archives at universities, libraries and museums, untold knowledge sits in ugly grey boxes, waiting for someone to take it out and put it to use. Or maybe not put it to use; maybe the knowledge just wants to be known. Maybe the knowledge is waiting, begging for us to reveal it to the world. It can’t be content lying alone in secret.

Presbyterian Mission School, 1892. McFarlin Library Special Collections.

In the last year, I’ve been digging into in the Special Collections at the University of Tulsa, specifically the Robertson/Worcester Papers. This collection includes 66 boxes, each with 30 or so folders, all packed with papers. I’m doing this work as part of a project that aims to recover the names of women and girls who went to the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls, the predecessor to TU. As a result of this research, I now know too much about Oklahoma milk sales in the early 1900s.

But there are nuggets of gold amid this welter of detail. Unexpectedly I found a letter* from Ethel M. Alexander to Alice Robertson, second ever congresswoman in the United States and first congresswoman from Oklahoma.  In the letter, Ethel writes, “I fully expected you to win [a congressional seat] – and I only wish I might have been able to cast my vote for you.” For context, Alice Robertson was against the suffragette movement for most of her life, including when she served in Congress. Ethel wrote this letter probably in 1921, after the 19th Amendment was passed. Considering the letter, a series of questions arise: Did Ethel’s husband not approve of her voting? Was Ethel coerced to vote for Robertson’s opponent, William Hastings? Was Ethel being ironic because she also did not support women’s suffrage? I don’t know, but I love that I know Ethel had opinions. I love knowing that Ethel existed and corresponded with at least one politician. For me, Ethel still lives in these archives.

Alice Mary Robertson, member of the 67th Congress. Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives.

I can’t speak for all universities and libraries, but those I’ve interacted with are open to the public – when we’re not in a pandemic, that is. These archivists are eager for people to come and learn from the letters, newspapers, stories, translations, report cards, political addresses, and the many other items they hold. With just a bit of training on how to handle old materials, any person can become an archival researcher. Any person can take an interest in a now obscure woman’s life.

They say that history repeats itself. This may be true, but we also learn from history and can choose better paths. Gaining knowledge about the past helps us make wise decisions for the future. In a society desperate for renewal and recovery, we can take the archival information available to us and use it to our advantage.

I’ll leave you with two challenges– 1) Call up your local university and ask if you can visit their archives. 2) If life is keeping you from visiting in person, check out the Smithsonian transcription project. There are hundreds of photocopied documents that need to be transcribed, and you can help from your home with your laptop. It’s a wonderful opportunity to help present and future historians and researchers, and to learn things that not many other people in the world know. You may even find your own Ethel.


*Robertson Papers Collection 1931. “Letter from Ethel Alexander to Alice Robertson.”