Black History Month Spotlight on Dr. Janet Sims-Wood, conservator of Black history and heritage
Union alumna Dr. Janet Sims-Wood is a gifted and acclaimed historian, author, publisher, and reference librarian. The 1994 Ph.D. graduate, who focused her doctoral work on Women’s Studies, History, and Oral History, has made it her life’s work to preserve the rich legacy of Black history, especially Black women’s history.
Dr. Sims-Wood began her career in library science in 1972 as a Reader’s Advisor in the Black Studies Division of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C. This experience led to her interest and specialization in Black history. “It’s so important to know our own history, heritage, and achievements. It’s also important to get the correct information to the general public. I’ve been recording and researching for over 45 years and I am still learning untold stories and facts,” said the retired assistant chief librarian for Reference/Reader Services at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center (MSRC) at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
She is the author of Dorothy Porter Wesley at Howard University: Building a Legacy of Black History, which highlights how Wesley helped to create a world-class archive, known today as the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard. “Dorothy’s story is important. She was hired in 1928 and tasked with the job of building and preserving a repository of Black history that didn’t exist. One of the first people she contacted for guidance was Dr. Carter G. Woodson, founder of Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), who in 1926 founded Negro History Week, the first week dedicated to Black heritage, culture, and achievements, the forerunner to the month-long celebration of Black History Month started in 1976. Dr. Woodson and Dorothy became friends and he helped her unearth material from around the country. Her enthusiasm for the work earned her the name of Shopping Bag Lady. People came from all over the world to use her collection for their research.” A feature on Ms. Porter in JSTOR Daily (August 22, 2018) said, “As a result of Porter’s vision and dedication, Black special collections began to occupy more prominent roles in their institutions, allowing engagement with historically marginalized narratives through the palpable past.” Dorothy Wesley was the first Black woman to receive a library science degree from Columbia.
Another area Dr. Sims-Wood has illuminated is Black women in the U.S. military. Her Union dissertation was titled, “We Served America, Too.” She recalls, “At that time, Union had an office in Washington D.C. I was searching for a novel dissertation topic. I interviewed several women who had served in the Women’s Army Corps (WACS) during World War II, and I decided on four women to conduct an oral history of their experiences.” Her work uncovered that for the first time during World War II, African-American women were allowed to enter the military. The first contingent trained in Fort Des Moines, Iowa. Despite being housed in segregated barracks and forced to use segregated dining and recreational facilities, 36 of the original group graduated and were assigned to Officers Candidate School, Cooks and Bakers School, the Transportation Pool, and the Clerical School.
Dr. Sims-Wood’s seminal research and oral history recordings led to several articles and the creation of the 1993 World War II Black WAC Calendar, the first of its kind. She received a $30,000 dissertation fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities to complete her oral history dissertation. She also earned a $1,500 grant from the D.C. Community Humanities Council to develop a presentation and public program on “Black Women in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) During World War II.”
Dr. Sims-Wood’s illustrious career includes her service as founding associate editor of SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women who published the anthology Double Stitch: Black Women Write About Mothers and Daughters. She is the founder of a small publishing company, Afro Resources, Inc., and also the founder of Cherishing Legacy. She has written numerous publications, including six book-length bibliographies, newspaper articles, print and online journal articles, and chapters in books.
Dr. Sims-Wood is a life member of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) and the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH). She served as national vice president and chair of the Membership Committee of ASALH for nine years. She advises librarians who are entering the field to become involved in their communities and organizations. She credits her association with and service to ASALH, and ABWH with her drive and the opportunities she has had to share African American history with the public.
Her distinguished career preserving Black history has been recognized by many. She is the recipient of the Lorraine Anderson Williams Leadership Award from the Association of Black Women Historians. In 2012, she received the Mary McLeod Bethune Service Award from the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. She was awarded the James Partridge Outstanding Award for African American Information Professionals in 2014. In 2015, she was awarded an Honor Book Award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association for her book on Dorothy Wesley. In 2018, she received the Harriet Ross Tubman Lifetime Achievement Award from the Baltimore Black Heritage Tours (BAAT), along with a Proclamation from Maryland Governor Larry Hogan.
Her achievements are many and varied. Please visit The HistoryMakers profile on Dr. Sims-Wood for an outline of her remarkable career.
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