Navigating silences and filling gaps: finding Black stories in the Archives

February 21, 2023
South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu receives an honorary doctorate degree from SFU at a special convocation ceremony held in April 2004 (Image F1020037)

Tiara Cash is a PhD student in Social Psychology at SFU. As a research assistant for the Black Caucus' Black History Project, she is seeking relatable stories and photos of Black faculty, staff, students, and guests from SFU's past. In this post, Tiara shares her experiences navigating the university's archival holdings in her search for relevant material.

Archives: Describe your process for finding material relating to Black history at SFU in the Archives.

TC: From May to July [2022], I would come into the Archives about once a week to search through material. I began with the 1960s looking through The Tartan and The Peak. Eventually I moved through the faculty boxes, IMC boxes (which include images), athlete yearbooks, and online images. I compiled all of the finds, and stories if there was indication of such, on Notion [software] to share with the Black Caucus team.

Archives: What are the biggest challenges that you have encountered? Rewards?

TC: The biggest challenges were not really knowing where to begin the search; when coming into the archives I was lucky enough to have support from the staff who helped to point me in places that they thought might include images, stories, and important information that included Black individuals. The other challenge was trying to connect the images and information found to origins or stories so that we could have some background. The biggest reward was actually finding information! I was pleasantly surprised when I found a few really cool highlights that are mentioned below.

Archives: What are some interesting finds? Did you find anything that surprised you?

This photo of Bill Robinson was published in the October 22, 1969 issue of The Peak with a write-up commending him on his production of the Afro-American Night event held at the SFU Theatre the previous weekend. (Peak Publications Society fonds)

TC: The bulk of what has been found includes photos of Black individuals. Many of them do not have names or events attached to them. However, to create a database and to piece some of these together to try to create a “story” from these, two software systems have been used to help track – Notion and SFU vault.

Highlights include:

  • Desmond Tutu being honoured at a special convocation in 2004 as an honorary doctorate
  • Dr. Henry Daniel’s School of Contemporary Arts photos in 2003
  • Dick Gregory and Dizzy Gillespie invited on campus in 1966
  • Bill Robinson – SFU athlete and activist in the late 1960s


  • Black face featured in [the yearbook] in 1967 – there was one story that included actors from a community center using black face to portray black characters instead of just hiring black actors.

Archives: Any reflections on silences, gaps in the archives and what they suggest? What types of records are missing?

TC: There are so many gaps in the archives on the presence of Black individuals on campus. Because of this, we have had to resort to utilizing word of mouth and marketing to try and find former Black faculty, staff and students to help fill in some of those gaps through interviewing (IRB approved). These gaps indicate an erasure of the important inclusions of Black individuals to SFU’s success and also the experiences that folks of Black and African descent have had since SFU’s inception.

Interviews with comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory and musician Dizzy Gillespie published in The Peak and the 1965/66 SFU yearbook. Gregory visited SFU in January 1966 and Gillespie was on campus in March of that year. During their interviews, both men reflected on issues of race and the civil rights movement.

Archives: Do you have any suggestions for making material documenting Black history at SFU more accessible?

TC: If there was a way for there to be a dedicated researcher that supports finding stories and information in the archives that are connected to Black experiences, this would further help outside researchers at SFU by making the information more accessible.

Archives: How do you plan to use what you have found?

TC: We plan to create a storyboard over the next year or so highlighting what we have found, including the information that will be gained from the interviews of alum, faculty, and staff.