Hidden History

Alex Brinson and Alex McGee

This spring, the Library launched Uncovering Hidden Narratives, an online learning module that makes the Institute’s history more accessible. It originated from one student’s question about her family’s story and how it intersected with the history of Georgia Tech and the Board of Regents (BOR) of the University System of Georgia.

box of records

Where Were the Letters?

In February 2023, President Ángel Cabrera introduced first-year student Sam Bolton to Dean of Libraries Leslie Sharp and university archivist Alex McGee. Bolton shared the story of her grandfather, Robert Cheeseboro, a Black student, who had attempted to apply to Georgia Tech in 1953 and was encouraged to apply to out-of-state engineering colleges instead.

He did eventually receive a response from Tech — several months later — but a new BOR policy had been devised requiring all applicants to provide attestations of “good moral character” from two alumni. In the segregated South, this was virtually impossible for Black students.

Bolton found this information in the NAACP records at the Library of Congress and asked the question: What records did Georgia Tech have on this part of its history? The Archives had recently completed an exhibit on Title IX and, McGee said, “We knew we had correspondence between the BOR and Tech President Blake Van Leer in his papers from the early 1950s.”

Surely, she thought, Bolton’s grandfather’s letters would be there. But they weren’t.

alex mcgee and alex brinson
Alex McGee and Alex Brinson review records from the Early Presidents Collection at the Georgia Tech Library.
reviewing records
Alex Brinson reviews records at the Georgia Tech Library.

Inclusive Description

McGee scoured the database for names and other relevant search terms and came up empty, except for a “Board of Regents Records” collection. Within that collection, materials from 1929 through 1965 included letters to Cheeseboro, letters from Van Leer to the BOR, and the new application requirements. The way they were labeled, though, made them difficult to find.

Because archives are living artifacts that require ongoing refinement to ensure their usefulness, the practice of returning to archival materials — whether for redescription or an acknowledgment of harm — is becoming more prevalent in archival work. “We knew we needed to remediate the description,” archivist Alex Brinson said. “In this instance, it was important to us to make these stories accessible — and to do so responsibly. We employed inclusive description, which recognizes that no archival function is neutral and that we can take specific actions to avoid bias and harmful language in our records.”

Brinson is also an ACRL Diversity Resident at the Library. An initiative of the Association of College and Research Libraries, the residency program gives early-career librarians and archivists an opportunity for professional growth and helps create diverse and inclusive communities in academic and research libraries.

One component of this position is a capstone project that the resident designs in their area of interest. In this case, Brinson chose archives and inclusive description work. She began by reviewing the materials in the BOR records and providing better descriptions.

alex brinson and alex mcgee
Alex Brinson and Alex McGee

Stories Uncovered

During her capstone project research, in addition to Cheeseboro’s letter, Brinson found correspondence involving other Black prospective students before 1961 — the year Tech desegregated. Also present in the collection were materials focused on the 1956 Sugar Bowl student protest, Tech during World War II, the Loyalty Oath Act, and more. To improve discoverability, these records were moved to the Early Presidents Collection, which contains correspondence, press releases, school records, and other materials from Tech’s first four presidents.

Following the initial redescription work, McGee said, “We wanted to share the project with the larger campus community. Uncovering Hidden Narratives, created from Brinson’s capstone project, enables people to explore these stories and shows the importance of conscious description.”

Expanding Our History

“As archivists, we know there will always be more to learn about Georgia Tech's history and we will always be expanding it,” McGee said. “Archiving and understanding that history is iterative work, and we will always be building and redefining what we know. In our minds, the Library and Archives are important partners in this work, and we will continue to look to the Georgia Tech community to help us understand what more can be done, what can be done differently, and what is still missing.”

The oft-repeated narrative of Georgia Tech is that it was the first public university in the Deep South to integrate without a court order; however, said McGee, “This example illustrates the reality that our history is much more complex, and we should own that.”

Read what the archivist found in Uncovering Hidden Narratives.

georgia tech records

A letter written to Georgia Tech President Van Leer in 1953. View larger.

NAACP record

A letter written to presidents of University System of Georgia institutions in 1953. View larger.

georgia tech records

A letter written to Robert Cheeseboro in 1953. View larger.


Written by Alex Brinson and Alex McGee
Photos by Joya Chapman
Edited by Stacy Braukman
Layout by Kristen Bailey