Archives acquire materials in a myriad number of ways; it could be through outright purchases, materials bequeathed by planned giving or estates; or donations from collectors who’ve run out of space, time or energy to continue their pursuits. There are those other times when people find material that they deem not useful to them but of enough sentimental or historical value that makes throwing items in the trash not an option.
The Martha Gayle Collection falls into the latter category. Donated by George Camarda in 2016; it documents the life of a Caribbean immigrant Martha Gayle and her niece Daisy Parnell who lived in Brooklyn in the 1940’s through the year 2000. The collection consists of correspondence, medical documents, identification papers, financial records and photographs, all tools to weave the tale of Gayle, and her trajectory from domestic worker, to becoming the owner of several brownstone buildings in Brooklyn. Mr. Camarda found the material in the basement of a property he purchased that was once owned by Gayle. Seeing the breadth of the items he found, and the value that it had to tell the story of Caribbean immigration in Brooklyn, he sought out a home for the material here in the Brooklyn Collection.
Martha Adina Gayle was born in the parish of St. Elizabeth in the district of Cambridge on the island of Jamaica on October 22, 1902. According to her birth records, she was the daughter of Olivia and Richard Gayle. On April 16 1924, Martha traveled to the United States of America on board the S.S. Alegria from Port Antonio, Jamaica, landing six days later on April 22nd with her final destination being Brooklyn, New York. Records listed Martha’s occupation as a domestic worker and that she was not married.
Having established a good footing in the United States, Martha Gayle was able to accommodate and help her niece Daisy May Parnell, who lived with her in Brooklyn for many decades. Martha was also very helpful to her family in Jamaica with correspondence records indicating that she often helped out in whatever way she could. On April 15, 1947 Martha became a naturalized citizen of the United States of America. For the next few decades, Martha lived in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn where she started out renting and eventually owned three apartment buildings at 164 MacDonough Street, 51 MacDonough Street and 285 Macon Street. It was through the rental income those properties provided that Martha was able to transition from domestic work to self-employment as a landlord.
Martha was a very active and longstanding member of the Siloam Presbyterian church as well as a women’s missionary group. In the latter years of her life, Martha had several health issues and was in and out of the hospital. Records indicate that she had serious health issues in the year 2000 and at one point was living in a hospice. She passed away in 2000 at approximately 98 years old.
To process this collection we were fortunate enough to host Demar Ludford, an Archives and Records student intern from the University of the West Indies, Mona campus in Jamaica. Demar is also a Research Officer at the National Library of Jamaica and the perfect fit to bring some much needed context to the story of Gayle.
Over the course of 6 weeks, Demar was tasked with arranging and describing the collection and conducting some genealogy research, to be able to provide context and piece together Gayle’s story. In addition to seeking information about her past and origins, he attempted to locate any present day relatives that we could reach out to, to reunite the collection with the descendants. We were not successful in locating any living relatives but through the collection and genealogical research, Demar was able to piece together parts of Martha’s life to establish her connections with her community and family at the time.
Demar recounts his experience working with us at the Brooklyn Collection this summer and processing a collection such as this one:
Q. What were your first thoughts when you were first given this collection to process?
A. To be honest, my first feeling towards this collection was one of nervousness. I am coming from a place where I am familiar with archival processing and application from a theoretical sense, so to now apply all that I have learned in theory and put in practice, made me a bit nervous since I am someone that does not like to make mistakes, or be unsure of what I have to do. As time went by, and as I was shown by two very awesome and brilliant women; Diana Bowers-Smith one of the Archivists at the Brooklyn Collection and Natiba Guy–Clement; the Manager of Special Collections, the steps that I should take to process the collection; my nervousness was somehow no longer there and I was able to link the archival theories and practices that I had learned, with those in the actual field of practice.
Q. What parts of the Martha Gayle Collection did you find most fascinating?
A. I found all of it to be fascinating. One of the things that really got at me when I first came here and was looking through the project was the fact that she was a Jamaican immigrant. I was able to instantly connect with this collection on that basis because I too am a Jamaican citizen, so I was keenly looking forward to the things that I would discover going through the collection. I will point out two things that I found particularly interesting. The first is what I like to describe as the richest part of the collection which is the correspondence. From the day Martha arrived in the United States to the very end of her time here, she was in constant dialogue with friends and family in Jamaica. It is almost like she never left. To see the actual handwriting of persons and to see how they phrased their sentences, which speaks to how peeople interacted at the time was fascinating and historical in a sense. Through the correspondence I could also see how Martha maintained her presence in the family helping out however she could.
The second thing I found interesting was how she built herself up. When she came to the United States, she started working as a domestic worker. Over time, she was able to move on from that to self-employment as a landlord owning three premises in the process. That transition is one that I find amazing and going through the collection you will be just as fascinated by this as I was.
Q. What was the most difficult part of processing this collection?
A. The most challenging part of this collection I would say was the arrangement section of the processing. The bulk of this collection is mainly textual based and there were quite a few documents that I had to try and see where the best place for it would be. Correspondence and financial records were the two areas that were most challenging. There were also times when I ran into a bit of difficulty and Diana and Natiba gave me some excellent choices that made those challenging times much easier.
Q. Having completed this project, what do you take away from it or are most thankful for?
A. I have learned so much since I have been here. I am most grateful to Diana and Natiba, they have taught me so much, lessons that I will always carry with me and ones that I believe will make me a better archivist in the future. From this project I will take with me that there is no one right or wrong way in archival processing of collections. One needs to be astute and always open to suggestions; also, for every decision that is made there should be a solid reasoning behind it. All in all, the experience here has been wonderful, the people here have been extremely helpful, friendly and welcoming from the very first day and that is one if not the most that I am thankful for.
We were very grateful to have Demar come on board this summer and connect with the history of Martha Gayle. Come visit us at the Brooklyn Collection to view the newly processed Martha Gayle Collection. And as always, feel free to leave us a note or question in the comment section.