To prevent whitewashed history, a scramble to archive voices of pandemic, protests

A coalition of curators is working to ensure accurate, diverse historical record

As COVID-19 and civil unrest over police brutality land a double punch in communities nationwide, an informal coalition of American historians, photographers and podcasters is scrambling to ensure the experiences of people of color are not lost to history or whitewashed away.

"There is a sense of urgency," said Melanie Adams, director of the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum. "It is really important for us to begin collecting these stories, because as the country begins to open back up, a lot of those stories will be lost or forgotten."

The voices of minorities -- like the slaves who helped build the White House, and the Japanese Americans who endured internment camps during World War II -- have, historically, been glossed over or ignored in official records of events.

The museum, which is gathering photos, poetry, journal entries and other "moments of resilience" related to the pandemic and protests over the death of George Floyd in police custody, is part of a growing nationwide effort to ensure this extraordinary moment in U.S. history is fully preserved from all viewpoints.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, which wasn't established until 2003, gathered signs -- strung along fencing around the White House during Black Lives Matter protests -- for its permanent collection on Wednesday.

Archivists across the country are now calling on the public to submit their first-hand accounts and personal artifacts to help build an accurate and comprehensive portrayal of the historic dual crises.

"In order to live and survive and get past what's happening, you have to be strong, you have to be resilient, you have to be positive -- you have to know that this too shall pass. You have to look at your history," said Dianna Hall, a 27-year history teacher in Washington, D.C., public schools, who has contributed a journal essay to the budding Anacostia community archive.

"Now the history of what I went through is documented somewhere for my great grandchildren to go look at, and that in itself just thrilled me," Hall said.

A worldwide repository of artifacts and testimonies, built by a team of 50 universities and local historical societies, is also gaining steam.

Arizona State University's "Journal of the Plague Year" database began focused solely on the pandemic but is now capturing the double impact of the coronavirus and the protests for equality and civil rights.

"We've said to ourselves, we want to recognize the diversity of the American experience," said Mark Tebeau, a historian at ASU, who co-founded the project.

The ASU-led database contains images, audio recordings, video clips, internet memes and journal entries -- a vast and diverse sampling of how everyday life has been dramatically changed, coast to coast. It has more than 5,000 submissions so far.

"Archives contain vast silence. They don't tell us the story of non-elite folks outside the middle class, folks who aren't white. They may touch on them. They may hint at them. But we need to do a better job," Tebeau said.

One family shared a candid photo documenting how children now hose-off before going indoors to avoid bringing in the coronavirus. Personal snapshots show scenes within packed protests, including a New Orleans city waste collectors strike demanding personal protective equipment and hazard pay.

The physical artifacts received include homemade crafts: a cross-stitched reminder to wash hands -- and reject racism; and, custom facial masks crafted for the marches that erupted after Floyd's death.

A Vietnamese American health care worker in California submitted a poignant journal entry about the "microaggressions" she faces based on her race.

"Just because we're Asian does not mean this pandemic is our fault," she writes in a document that will be preserved for posterity.

StoryCorps, the nonprofit organization that records and preserves conversations between everyday Americans, says it's contributing to the organic movement by diversifying the historical record with audio.

"It's no politicians; it's no famous people. It's just regular people talking to each other," said StoryCorps founder Dave Issay of the group's collection.

After social distancing guidelines shut down the group's traditional method of face-to-face recording, StoryCorps launched an app -- StoryCorps Connect -- allowing participants to remotely submit their stories. Many become publicly available podcasts; all are archived with the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world.

"This is really just about generosity and love. You can hear that in the voices," said Issay. "There are many people whose lives have been rocked in ways that are, you know, incomprehensible to others."

Independent photographers are joining the effort as well, helping archivists create a tapestry of human resilience and resignation through poignant portraits of everyday people.

James Trudeau, a hospital worker in Baltimore who tests potential COVID-19 patients by day, picks up his camera after hours to document scenes he said many people might overlook.

"This is not the way things are supposed to be, you know, having to worry about going to work or, you know, not being able to see your loved ones," he said of the scenes he's captured in inner-city Baltimore. "So, never forget."

Adams says all Americans have a part to play at ensuring that future generations remember and learn from this moment in time.

"Keep that journal that you've been doing. Keep that picture that your child drew that you probably put in your window. Take a picture of that chalking out on your front lawn. Keep all of those things, because those will be important as we continue to tell this story," she said.

ABC News' Elizabeth Winter and David Canady contributed to this report.

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