Hello there, welcome to the 2nd edition of Voices of Genealogy. This is the 7th interview of the Voices of Genealogy series. This season we are expanding past professional genealogists and showcasings some other careers within genealogy and also some #GenZGenealogists.
Today’s interview is with archivist and creator of #BuildYourArchive, Sierra King.
A little about Sierra…
Sierra is an Atlanta based Artist, Photographer and Archivist. Her creative and arts administration work is dedicated to documenting, preserving and archiving the work of Black Women Artists. She has had the honor to work on the archival team as the Lead Photo Archivist for the Kathleen Cleaver Papers before it was acquired by Emory University. She is currently building and preserving the archives of Printmaker Jasmine Williams and Director, Ebony Blanding. Sierra holds a Bachelor’s of Arts Degree in Art from Valdosta State University. In 2020, she was awarded the Billops Hatch Fellowship Award to continue research for Build Your Archive, an interactive assessment plan to help Black Women Artists build their archives in real time. She served as the Community Manager for TILA Studios, a visual arts incubator for Black Women Artists from December 2017 to August 2021.
The Interview Questions
What is your family history story? (Brief overview)
I am the Granddaughter of Horace Walter Stephens Jr., a quiet man who traveled in the early sixties from Quincy, Florida to attend college at Morehouse in Atlanta,GA. There he would not only meet Martin Luther King Jr. in the library regularly but he also met his wife, my Grandmother and woman of Spelman College, Ethelyn Willis. They would go on to have two children, the oldest and brightest being my Mother, Swarita Stephens. They became frequent members of one of the oldest African American Methodist Churches in the city, Hoosier Memorial United Methodist Church. This is where my Mom’s side of the family would cross paths with my Dad’s side, as my Great Grandmother and his Grandmother, Annett Battle also was a member of the church and brought her family to sit in the second pew. My Dad, Gary King Jr. and my Mom, also would see each other in passing at one of the most notable high schools in Atlanta Public Schools, Benjamin E. Mays. My Mom would later attend Spelman College and I was born in 1992, a year before she graduated.
How did you get into genealogy? Did you do it by yourself or did someone help you?
Like almost everything, I just kindv’e fell into it and it happened organically within this project. I started connecting my family trees after realizing that instead of one archive, I was building six. I wanted to know more about the stories and narratives about how our families came together beyond marriage. I’m really enjoying adding family members to my ancestry account and talking with my Grandmother about the connections.
Did you meet anyone your age at the time who also was interested in family history research?
I’m in a group of Black Memory Workers, created by Zakiya Collier, a digital archivist for The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, who meet monthly. It has been nice to know that there are other archivist “out there”
What were the challenges of searching for family back then? How did you do your research with limited technical or less access to information?
Back then?! I think one of my biggest challenges has been including my family in the work and how to do it efficiently. There is somewhat of a technical barrier because I’m not a “institutionally” trained archivist nor do I have a Master’s Degree in Library Science, so much of how I’m approaching my work is green from existing processes that one would consider “formal” or “correct”. I’ve been combatting that by learning tools like ancestry.com, reading articles about different approaches to community archiving and looking more into data engineering.
What was your introduction to archives?
I like to say that I’ve been doing some sort of archiving my entire life. I approach archiving from a communal and familial lens, so walking into my Grandmother’s living room and seeing all of the photographs of our Family and friends on the wall was an archive to me. My first “formal” archival project was working with Kathleen Cleaver and the team that was curated by Leigh Raiford, Associate Professor of African American Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.
What is one of your favorite things you have discovered creating your own archive?
I just started it this week! I created a form for people to submit photographs and other forms of documentation that they have of me. I think one of favorite things will be seeing the different perspectives that everyone has of me. As a photographer, I’m usually the one that is taking the photos so when people take the time to include me or take their own photographs of how they see, that’s really special. I appreciate that.
What’s the oldest thing within your family archive?
I don’t think I found it yet.
What is your family’s main form of archives? Photos, stories, videos, journals,etc?
As of right now, Photos for sure. My Grandfather always had a disposable camera or was taking photos when we weren’t looking. And I’m sure now that we are in the digital age, everyone has amassed over thousands in their phones that will need to be assessed eventually.
For younger people who are getting started in learning their family history, what would be 3 pieces of advice that you would give them about archives?
Start now – Even if it’s one photograph, take the time to describe it, note the people in the photograph and place it in a safe place. Get an audio or video recording from the family members included in it. You can always come back to it but it’s better than being overwhelmed with decades worth of information and lost stories. Keep record. – Of everything, from your small updates, conversations and notes. It gets to get sucked into the work of learning but just make sure you’re keeping record and log of sorts for yourself so that you’re not doing double the work later. Ask for help. – Family history is collaborative. Building archives is collaborative. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from your family, they usually have more details about what you’re looking for that you might assume.
What are some of the services you offer through your business?
Currently, I’ve been helping Black Women Artists write their project statements and things for grant or proposal applications. As far as archiving services, it’s more project and consulting based.
What does BuildYourArchive mean?
Just that. It’s a reminder to be in a constant state of building your archive. To be aware of what you want your narrative to be and how you want to tell that story.
How has building your own archive helped you in your family history research?
It has been a conversation starter for my family. I’m able to pull photographs or objects and ask what they mean or what was the significance. Once you start the conversation it’s easier to connect the time periods or people. There’s so many gaps of information, history and memory that you have smaller pieces that trigger memories, good and bad, to unearth the larger story. I still think that I am fairly new to the family history part of it all but I am glad to have these things to be able to bring us together.
If you would like to learn more about Sierra’s projects check out the links below:
Personal Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sierrachasity/
Project Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/buildyourarchive/