What does public television have in common with many libraries and archives? As arenas of discussion, education, and reflection, all three aim to engage with the communities they were ostensibly created to serve. How are communities enriched and strengthened through engagement with collections of manuscripts, text and mass media? What role does this type of engagement play in civic discourse and reflection?
Recognizing the important role of public television in cultural dialogue, Maryland Public Television (MPT) founded, in 1969, the Urban Affairs Advisory Council, a group of 60 men and women from the Baltimore area. Together, this group designed a variety of half hour-long programs that addressed issues specific to Baltimore, including the daytime serial Our Street and the documentary series Afro-American Perspectives, produced as part of MPT’s educational arm, ITV. Episodes of both these programs are available in the University of Maryland Libraries Digital Collections, and in watching them, viewers get access to both the perspectives of the past and commentary on the present.
The 56 episodes of Our Street tell the fictional story of the Robinsons, a Black family from East Baltimore. Syndicated to 20 stations around the country, Our Street introduced Baltimore to communities beyond Maryland, examining challenging themes within the framework of domestic drama.
A 1972 episode, for example, grapples with race, identity, memory and legacy through the device of mistaken identity. Three generations of women in the Robinson family, the matriarch, Grandma (played by Alfredine Parham), the mother, Mae (played by Barbara Mealy) and the daughter, Kathy (played by Sandra Sharp) confront the past, ever present. Mae pushes Kathy to understand her own experiences as existing on a spectrum, saying, “The world didn’t just begin yesterday. Or the day you were born. Your grandmother…ask your grandmother what she had to crawl through just so that I could stand here and you could be wherever it is that you are. My instincts? I’ll tell you what they were. To survive. To survive.” Shot without an audience or laugh track, Our Street is like watching a piece of theater; its immediacy is disorienting given its age of almost fifty years. Today’s viewer will be charmed by the distinct 1970s style and somewhat avant-garde opening sequence, but will also recognize ongoing themes about issues of race and representation in America. This episode is available for streaming onsite at WGBH and the Library of Congress, and upon request from the American Archive of Public Broadcasting. Over 1,000 episodes of MPT content are available through AAPB.
The MPT documentary series Afro-American Perspectives provides historical contextualization and analysis. A 1975 episode discusses protest and features conversations with Dr. Zola Boone, Chairman of the Department of Education at Coppin State College in Baltimore and Floyd W. Hayes III, instructor of African American studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. In warning against the tendency towards historical discontinuity, Hayes resonates very much with the 2020 viewer, reminding us to regard the present moment as a continuation of a long struggle. His discussion of the role of political symbols versus political reality is the same one currently taking place both locally and in the country at large ITV’s instructional content is just as relevant now as it was 45 years ago.
The objects of our past serve to remind us that we exist within its legacy. The collections of a culture’s libraries and archives remain living objects that are continually reinterpreted and understood differently through time and space. As visual embodiments of an idea, a narrative or an experience, collections, and indeed television programs, can simultaneously challenge and validate. Representation and seeing oneself is empowering, and institutions like archives and public programs can serve as conduits of knowledge through access, visibility, and the recognition those gestures imply. By engaging with collections, we locate ourselves within history and can examine it as both an event and a construction. In visiting the archive, we recognize the presence of the past within ourselves, opening a conversation with the present.
Emily Moore is a second year MLIS student with a background in art and theory. In addition to her role as a student assistant at Special Collections and University Archives, she works as the Archival Assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.