Nathan Kellum and Shane Mills spent the opening weeks of Albion College's summer recess deep in the archives of libraries in Boston and Philadelphia in search of documents they hope will prove enlightening as they strive to tell the stories of the people who share their heritage.
For Kellum, that includes the research of black people in the north in the years immediately following the Civil War and the legal end of slavery in the United States.
"Having the chance to read rare books and manuscripts in real life was an opportunity I could not pass up. It is one thing to hear about certain documents and events in class, but being able to see these documents and locations in person that I have been learning about for so many years is truly amazing," said Kellum, a rising senior from Northville, Mich., who minors in history and completed his first season as a forward on the Briton men's basketball team last season.
"I pulled The Liberator when I was in Philadelphia, the most well-known abolition newspaper published from 1831-1865, and seeing the old worn-out pages is something I will never forget. I also pulled a letter that Frederick Douglass wrote himself in 1882. Seeing documents like this in person really changed my perspective on life. Every time I open a new book, an answer to a question is found, and a new question arises."
The discovery of the newspaper and Douglass' letter were just some of the historical gems they have uncovered working under the direction of history professor Marcy Sacks. A portion of Mills' work is funded by a grant from the college's Foundation for Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity (FURSCA) while Sacks has contributed her own research funds, as well as support from the Faculty Development Committee.
Kellum added he has enjoyed the opportunity to visit sites and visualize the history that was made there.
"Being able to see the Liberty Bell, Paul Revere's house, and stand in the street that the Boston Massacre happened in is life changing," he said. "Learning about something on a television screen is one thing, but when you can see it with your own eyes, the fact that these things really happened seems to resonate a little better."
When he is not entering keywords as part of a web search to find more materials, Kellum can be found at a coffee shop working on a book sharing on what he has learned from the successful black Americans from the past.
"It is hard to be a black man in America," he said. "It is no secret that we deal with racial prejudice every day. In fact, African Americans are three times more likely to be searched during a routine traffic stop than white motorists. African Americans were also twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police. Black people are also three times more likely to be unemployed at every education level when compared to white Americans.
"The premise of this book is that although black Americans deal with prejudice every day, and it is statistically proven that it is much harder to succeed as a black American, there are people who are looking to help you," he added. "There is an unspoken fraternity within the black race of wealthy black men and women that are looking to help the next generation succeed. If you follow the principles of success, which I will elaborate on in my book and have in fact been around since the 1800s you can and will be successful."
A history major from Philadelphia, Mills has always been interested in why a group will migrate to a particular place. People from Jamaica, the Caribbean and the West Indies have a distinct presence in his hometown, for example, while he says Boston has an enclave made up of Hispanic immigrants.
"I'm interested in my heritage because how the slave trade got involved through the Caribbean and the West Indies doesn't get taught in school and that motivates me to follow through," said Mills, a rising senior who is a runner for the Britons in cross country and track and field.
Mills, who has spent hours sifting through handwritten books and journals, recalled his most interesting find was an entry of two men from Haiti who approached a sugar plantation owner in Jamaica for support for a rebellion back home.
The research at sites ranging from the Massachusetts Historical Society, Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of technology usually stretches from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. each day, allowing Mills and Kellum an opportunity to experience more of the cities. Both say they have learned from having to live on a budget for meals and navigating public transportation.
"This experience is preparing me to be an adult in a year," said Mills, who says he hopes to show kids in neighborhoods like the one he came from in southwest Philadelphia that there is a path to success. "I have learned how to present myself, how to reach out to get my goals and dreams. I now have the tools to apply for research assistant jobs that I could not have gained by myself."
And Mills has learned the importance of each individual's unique story.
"While we come from different places, we have the same goals – everyone wants to be successful in life," Mills said.