Primary sources are a vibe
Historian Melanie Newport turns to eBay
Upcoming Virtual Events: On November 17, I’ll be giving the final talk in the Carole Weinstein Author Series at the Library of Virginia. On November 18th, I’ll be in conversation with H.W. Brands about his new book, Our First Civil War, at the Library of St. Louis.
ICYMI: I went on the TODAY show to discuss DST.
Primary sources mean more to historians than quotes and citations. When I’ve found the right one, everything around me fades away. I give in completely to the documents, the letters, photographs and ephemera. They tell me their secrets. They advise and surprise me. And then it’s over. I leave an archive with a skip in my step or quite the opposite. I never forget that feeling. I can look at the image I took a year later and remember how it moved me.
Since March 2020, that’s been rare. Most research libraries have been closed to my kind. Historians have had to rely on digital sources and the generosity of colleagues and librarians, but it’s impossible to recreate the experience at a distance. That’s no great tragedy in a pandemic, but it bums me out.
This isn’t lost on friends. One recently sent me a 1963 copy of JET Magazine and a 1964 issue of Sepia, a now defunct magazine. They fall slightly outside of my time period, but over the last month, they’ve become like a talisman. I read every sentence. I stare at the covers and absentmindedly flip through them. I do it for the vibe.
I’m not alone. Today’s post is by Melanie Newport, an assistant professor of history at the University of Conneticut-Hartford who specializes in carcerality and disaster in America. Dr. Newport is getting ready to publish her first book, This Is My Jail, next year, but even at that late stage in the game, she still needs to vibe, too.
And for her, that sometimes means turning to eBay.
I should be finishing up edits on my book, a history of jailing in Chicago, but I can’t stop watching an auction on eBay. I bid on two homemade campaign buttons featuring a photocopied image of Harold Washington, the first Black mayor of Chicago. Washington’s opponents made these buttons with Washington’s face, as he looked in the early 1980s, positioned above an invented number and “Cook County Jail.” They wanted to make it look like a mugshot. They wanted to diminish the electrifying candidate by calling him a jailbird. This isn’t Washington’s mugshot, but he did have one. In 1972, Washington was served a forty-day jail sentence for tax evasion, and I want to know how it impacted his 1982-1983 run for mayor. have tried to learn everything I can about Because I am writing a history of race and jail politics in Chicago and Cook County, and I want to know about how the backlash to Washington’s victory fueled the tough on crime politics that drove overcrowding at Cook County Jail.
Researching during a pandemic is challenging. I have been able to reconstruct stories like this from home, with books and newspapers.com. It’s doable, but it’s not the same. I want to hold history in my hands.
If somebody outbids me, I’m going to be pissed.
While most of the people I’m writing about have died, the main character of my story, the Cook County Department of Corrections (CCDOC, colloquially referred to as Cook County Jail), is still very much alive. Jails are distinct from prisons as local institutions of confinement for pre-trial detention and short sentences; they are political institutions that prioritize controlling marginalized people.
My book tells the story of racialized justifications for jailing in Chicago from its founding up until now, with particular attention to the heyday of jail reform from the 1950s to the 1970s. People had high hopes for jails as engines of rehabilitation and job training, but over the course of the twentieth century, these politics changed.
The jail came to house a predominantly Black population. Today, CCDOC is run by Sheriff Tom Dart, who does everything he can to make sure the conversation about jails does not touch on race. He likes to control the narrative. When everyone was talking about mass incarceration, he became famous as a reformer for branding the jail as a mental health facility. This year, he’s been trying to maintain this image. He wants everyone to know that he’s still a good guy in spite of COVID deaths in the jail. Right now, his body count is 10.
Most historians are waiting for the archives to reopen. I never had that option. I am buying sources for my book on eBay because of state failure. Unlike most major cities, Chicago lacks a municipal archive and centralized retention practices. This means that the city jails that were merged into the CCDOC in 1968 are all but scrubbed; the papers of the city’s mayors that are scattered across Chicago libraries. Records requests to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office have been either rejected or ignored. The CCDOC was used to consolidate the power of sheriffs, just as activists in the 1960s feared.
Do the jail’s official historical records even exist? I have been told that have been destroyed. I’ve also been told that some might exist. I have seen l documents that speak to the jail’s politics through government documents and legal records, they don’t say much about what jail means to people. I had to get creative. Inspired by historians of religion who use the #ebaymethod to unpack everyday religious life, collecting objects and images that people use for daily devotion and affirmation of religious identity, I have made a daily devotion of searching eBay for literally anything that will help me feel connected to this institution’s past.
The primary challenge of buying sources about Cook County Jail on eBay is cutting through the endless supply of BB King’s Live at Cook County Jail, recorded on location in 1970. The legendary album is available in every format, each recording carrying the enthusiastic shouts of jailed people. There was a time when it was trendy to perform in places of incarceration.
I also bought this recording of the Triton College Jazz Band’s performance at the jail for five dollars. The performance is schmaltzy and sincere. I can imagine these young performers going through security, joking later about how they “went to jail.” This record is evidence of a part of jailing that the public feels good about.
I have a dozen saved searches that signal that something new has popped up. It’s how I find a disappointing 1967 issue of The Grapevine, a jailhouse newspaper founded by and for prisoners of Cook County Jail in 1954.It is censored to the point of emptiness. The old issues I saw [at x, or that I previously purchased?] are vibrating with life— tributes to friendships among jailed people, explicit calls for the administration to address the bedbug problem— this paper feels almost haunted.
Buying stuff on eBay is not a substitute for open records or safe storage in an archive. But each time bubble wrap mailers show up on my stoop, I feel hopeful. They remind me that there’s a lot of garages and attics out there. There are still discoveries to be made. I’m not striking out. I’m gearing up.
And I won. The Harold Washington buttons are mine for eight dollars.
Thank you to Dr. Newport for the guest post, and to all of you for reading! You can find me on Twitter and Instagram and my books, as well as others mentioned on SMK, on Bookshop, Amazon, and your local bookstore or library. If you have a question or comment, I want to hear it! email@example.com.