Berkeley is gaining a treasure of activist scholarship: A historical archive documenting more than 60 years of national and international progressive movements is in the process of moving from San Francisco’s Mission District to North Berkeley.
The Freedom Archives purchased a one-story commercial space at 1615 Hopkins St., a persimmon’s throw away from Berkeley’s iconic Monterey Market, and hopes to be up and running by March 2022.
The nonprofit educational media archive was founded in 1999 by a collective of movement veterans, who were also radio journalists, and is dedicated to the preservation and dissemination of historical audio, video and print materials documenting progressive movements and culture from the 1960s to the present. The collection contains recordings of KPFA programs including The Real Dragon, Nothing Is More Precious Than and Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, along with recordings of a diverse series of often bilingual programs such as Reflecciones de la Raza.
The current scope of materials largely reflects the political experiences from the “long 1960s,” and due to being built from mostly donated collections has strengths and gaps. The Bay Area is well-represented, as shown in the archive’s timeline of primary sources from 1965-77 on the theme of resistance to urban renewal. But internationalism is also prominent in the collection, as shown by the dozens of issues of the monthly magazine Tricontinental — published in Cuba by the Organization of Solidarity of the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America — and by a rare audio recording of Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh speaking in English to express gratitude to people in the United States who opposed the war.
Housed at the archive are over 12,000 hours of audio and video tapes as well as thousands of historical documents, pamphlets, journals, newspapers and other print materials from radical organizations and movements. Many of these materials are digitized and free for use on their searchable website.
“Berkeley has a dynamic legacy of social justice work and feels like a natural fit for the Freedom Archives’ new home,” said the archive’s co-director, Nathaniel Moore, a Berkeley resident who works as an archivist at UC Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies Library. “We look forward to engaging Berkeley’s schools, community members and progressive spaces as we deepen pre-existing relationships, cultivate new ones and continue our work for years to come.”
Originally located at 522 Valencia St.in San Francisco, the volunteer staff of the Freedom Archives found its office bursting with materials. It took almost a year and a half of pandemic-hampered searching, coupled with extensive fundraising and support from allies, but the archive recently managed to purchase the North Berkeley building.
The archive’s new home on Hopkins Street was converted to commercial property from residential in 1924. It opened as a Piggly Wiggly food store (the link’s worth a click) in 1927; subsequent tenants have included a law office and, most recently, a hair salon called Susie’s, which struggled during the pandemic.
The new building doubles the size of the Freedom Archive’s San Francisco location, providing a larger meeting space for community groups to visit and engage with movement history, and improved ADA accessibility. It was important to the organization’s leaders that it still be reachable by public transit.
The archive is a national and international source of media for young people and students, teachers, community organizations, filmmakers, activists, historians, and artists. The archive’s materials are regularly used in schools and as tools for community building and social justice education, joining other similar alternative East Bay collections such as the H.K. Yuen Social Movement Archive at UC Berkeley and the Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library.
As an activist archive, it also produces special events. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Black Panther George Jackson’s murder at San Quentin prison on August 21, 1971, the archive launched a series of programs titled 99 books, referencing the inventory of his cell’s extensive library of publications on self-determination and community resistance.
The archive’s internship program attracts talented young Bay Area students from San Francisco State University, Oakland’s MetWest High School, and Mission High School in San Francisco and elsewhere. These interns catalog materials and develop curricula on historic topics that tie into current progressive movements and issues. Some of the broad topics include Black liberation, Chica@/Xican@ struggles, gender and sexuality, government repression, indigenous/Native American self-determination, North American social movement organizations and Palestine.
The archive encourages engagement with these historical materials and provides media production training for interns. In 2017, Freedom Archives interns and staff produced Symbols of Resistance: A Tribute to the Martyrs of the Chican@ Movement, a documentary film which drew on footage from a 2014 conference organized to commemorate the still-unsolved murders of six Chicano activists who became known as Los Seis de Boulder (Boulder Six). It’s a powerful cross-generation memorial to those who fought and died in the name of liberation and justice, and was shown at the 39th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana, Cuba. Other films and CDs also draw upon the historical materials, adding current commentary.
One intern, Charlotte Perry-Houts, remarked in 2014: “What’s the point of historical material if the only people who engage with it are academic historians? Everything here is collected, cataloged, and shared online and at events with its relevance to today’s struggles and today’s youth in mind.”
Another intern, Kaila Rain Thomas, researching the connections between the American civil rights movement and the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, came across a letter written by her grandmother in documents about the 1970s Alabama prison system. She turned a page and found herself looking at a picture of her grandfather, a founding member of the Alabama Black Liberation Front affiliated with the Black Panthers.
How cool is that? History in the hands of the people.
Archives changed a lot in the late 20th century, no longer claiming to be neutral arbiters of one truth. The new generation of alternative special collections is more hands-on, more activist, more representative of the communities they serve than ever before. Primary sources become the basis for re-learning new truths. Analog becoming digital breathes life into fading memories and continues the life cycle of cultural artifacts.
The Freedom Archives expects to be up and running by March 2022. Check their website for physical access details.
Lincoln Cushing is an archivist and author who documents, catalogs, and disseminates oppositional political culture of the late 20th century. His books include Revolucion! Cuban Poster Art and Agitate! Educate! Organize! – American Labor Posters and he was curator for the All of Us or None: Poster Art of the San Francisco Bay Area exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California in 2012.