University of Maryland Libraries Contributing National AFL-CIO Records to Digitization of Historical Labor and Civil Rights Materials

University of Maryland Libraries Contributing National AFL-CIO Records to Digitization of Historical Labor and Civil Rights Materials

The University of Maryland Libraries and Georgia State University Library are embarking on a 3-year long project to make accessible online records that tell the story of the labor movement’s inextricable ties to the civil rights movement.

The project, “Advancing Workers Rights in the American South,” is funded by a $350,000 grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). It will digitize and provide access to records of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) Civil Rights Southeast Division and national-level records from the AFL, CIO, and AFL-CIO Civil Rights Department.

The award is part of CLIR’s “Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives” program, which is made possible by funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

UMD’s contribution to the project is a collection of textual materials, photographs, and films that document AFL-CIO national work from the 1940s to the turn of the millennium — unique records held exclusively by the University of Maryland. One of the films, titled “The Challenge,” provides vital context about the murder of a local civil rights leader in Florida — but it has not been watched in at least 40 years due to its delicate condition.

Currently, only 27 documents from the collection are available online. This project will expand that number to 54,000.

“These records are the most important records connecting the national labor movement to the civil rights movement,” Ben Blake, UMD Libraries’ AFL-CIO Social Justice and Labor Archivist, said. “Nothing compares to this definitive collection.”

Blake noted the collection’s digitization is happening at a crucial moment in American history, as civil rights and labor rights surge back to the forefront of national consciousness. The AFL-CIO is the largest federation of unions in the United States, made up of 56 national and international unions. With 12.5 million members, the AFL-CIO is second only to the NAACP in Black membership.

“There’s a rich history of the labor movement supporting civil rights, but it’s largely an untold story,” Blake said. “The movement played a transformative role in countering the Ku Klux Klan in the South, for example. Digitizing these historically significant items makes these documents, currently only viewable in person at UMD’s Hornbake Library, available online to the public around the world for the first time.”

The digitized collections will be freely accessible in UMD Libraries’ and GSU’s digital collections repositories. They will also be available through the Civil Rights Digital Library, the Digital Public Library of America, and Umbra Search Engine for African American History.

The Council on Library and Information Resources is an independent, nonprofit organization that forges strategies to enhance research, teaching and learning environments in collaboration with libraries, cultural institutions and communities of higher learning. To learn more, visit and follow CLIR on Facebook and Twitter.

For more information, contact Ben Blake, or visit:

Original news story written by Sahana Jayaraman 

May 14, 2021

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