Interview by Jeffrey Donahoe
Georgetown’s archives turned 200 in April, making it one of the nation’s oldest archives and one of the university’s greatest resources. More than a collection of books and papers, it is the human story of the university.
Some of the stories are harrowing, such as the records documenting the enslaved people of the university’s first five decades. Other stories are humorous in their observations of everyday life.
University Archivist Lynn Conway tells Georgetown Magazine about one of her favorite items in the archives.
“People expect the archives to have the official university records. We have minutes and reports and memos. But we also have some really interesting student-produced documents which show university life from a slightly different perspective. There’s color and realism that you don’t get in the official records.
“This is a poem written by Warren Chism, a student who arrived on campus in October of 1867, so it dates from the 1867-68 academic year. At that point, the food on campus apparently was really bad. And of course, it’s a Georgetown tradition to complain about campus food. John Carroll himself complained about the food. In 1812, he wrote a letter that said that our food was ‘good in substance,’ but he ‘feared our cook was deficient.’
“The poem reads:
Come rally round your flag boys,
And strike for better grub.
We’ve stood it long enough, boys,
But now we’ll make the rub.
Let it cost us what it might boys,
Let it cost us what it may.
We can’t live without eating boys,
Not on a darned day.
If the petition is not heeded boys,
We’ll all dine out in town.
But we can’t live without eating boys,
And we won’t eat John Brown.
“The notes underneath explain that John Brown was a kind of hash—a horrible, dry kind of hash that was served regularly.
“This poem was surreptitiously passed around the classroom or the study hall. You can how it was folded. The back says, ‘open, read, and pass on.’ Somebody wrote ‘Hurrah for Chism’ along the side. I like this document because it’s so interactive. It had a life. It wasn’t just somebody writing a poem. This is what students here did. And students are still doing it, except they’re probably texting each other now.
“It’s amazing that this piece of paper survived.”
“The second half of the document has notes in a different handwriting with the initials FB at the bottom, and May the 28th, 1899. That’s Francis Barnum. He became Riggs librarian in 1898, and he was the first person to attempt to organize the material that was in the archives. When I see his handwriting, I always feel a bond with him, because he came before me. He always has interesting things to say, and he’s always reliable.
“It’s amazing that this piece of paper survived. The last person to see it could just have thrown it away. This one item illustrates what the archives does. We collect material. We preserve material. We educate and interpret what it means. This poem came to us, according to Barnum’s notes, in April of 1899. It’s still here today.”