Ola Mae Spinks, Who Helped Preserve a Slave Archive, Dies at 106

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Ola Mae Spinks, a librarian and descendant of slaves who went to the Library of Congress in 1972 to bring order to a vast but scattered archive of interviews with former slaves, thus helping to preserve them for scholars, died on June 16 at her home in Southfield, Mich. She was 106.

Her son William Spinks Jr. confirmed her death.

Mrs. Spinks was a middle-school librarian in Pontiac, Mich., when she and Phyllis Williams, a friend and fellow librarian, spent the summer of 1972 as volunteers at the Library of Congress in Washington collating and indexing a daunting trove of paperwork about slavery in Alabama and Arkansas.

Her sons William and Adrian, her only survivors, believe that she had learned of the archives through librarian channels and that the Library of Congress needed help in organizing them.

The trove — including newspapers articles, photographs and, most important, typewritten, edited transcripts of interviews with some 2,300 former slaves conducted by the New Deal-era Federal Writers’ Project — had been were left unorganized in file cabinets, boxes and baskets for years in the library’s Archive of Folk Song. (Documents from 15 other slave states had been organized and bound by 1941.)

The Slave Narratives, as the transcripts were called, offered raw, painful-to-read accounts by former slaves like Moses Jeffries, a plasterer from Little Rock, Ark., who was 81 when he was interviewed during the Depression years.

“I have known slaves to run away and stay three years at a time,” he was quoted as saying. “Master would whip them and they would run away. They wouldn’t have no place to go or stay so they would come back after a while. Then they would be punished again.”

Or William Jackson, a farmer from Pine Bluff, Ark., who was 84 at the time of his interview. “A fellow bought me in Tennessee and sold me to a fellow named Abe Collins in Mississippi,” he recalled. “He sold me to Dr. Maloney and then Winn and Trimble in Hempstead County bought me. They run a tanyard.”

He added: “I went to school one day in my life. My third master’s children learned me my ABC’s in slavery times.”

Mrs. Spinks and Mrs. Williams could not complete the project in the two months they had — they had hoped to return but never did — and so they asked a history professor at Federal City College (now a part of the University of the District of Columbia) and some of her students to finish it, which they did.

Sometime after the Alabama and Arkansas papers were organized, they were transferred to microfilm and, in about 2001, digitized for an online exhibit called “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938,” which included documents from all the slaves states.

Ola Mae Walker was born on May 15, 1914, in Mansfield, La., to Willie and Lula (Cato) Walker. Her father was an oil field worker, her mother a domestic. When she was 2, her family (minus her father, who had left them) fled to the all-Black town of Vernon, Okla., after the sheriff in Mansfield threatened to kill one of her uncles.

She attended high school in Muskogee, Okla., graduated from Philander Smith College in Little Rock with a bachelor’s degree in home economics in 1938 and began teaching disabled children in Augusta, Ark., a year later. During World War II, she and her husband, William Spinks, moved to Vallejo, Calif., where he was stationed in the Navy. They returned to Muskogee in 1945.

Mrs. Spinks taught first and second grade in Oktaha, Okla., near Muskogee. Her marriage ended in divorce in 1949, and in 1954 she moved with her sons to Detroit. After teaching first grade in Pontiac, she earned a master’s degree in library science from Wayne State University in Detroit in 1961 and was a librarian until retiring 15 years later.

Mrs. Spinks traveled widely and played bridge expertly during her long retirement. Inspired by her work in Washington, she joined a genealogical society that met weekly in Detroit.

She traced her maternal family’s roots to South Carolina in the 1790s and discovered that one of her relatives had founded a church there, in Mansfield, attended by slaves. Mrs. Spinks was christened there.

When she was growing up, a grandfather of hers would tell her of his time as young slave — the kind of stories she would read decades later in the Library of Congress.

“His stories are painful to talk about,” William Spinks said. “He remembered how they fed the slaves: they put buttermilk in a pig trough, crumble up cornbread and people would scoop it up with their hands. He could see the dirt on their hands go into the buttermilk.”


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