A Q&A with library Executive Director Sandra Parham on Meharry history timeline project

Installing historical murals.

ELLEN CLARE KIMBRO, Reference and Embedded Librarian • February 2023—Last summer, Meharry Library Executive Director Sandra Martin Parham launched an initiative in the hope of permanently displaying Meharry’s extraordinary story in the S.S. Kresge Learning Resource Center, which houses the College’s library and archive. That vision is now materializing just in time for Black History Month in a dynamic chronicling of Meharry’s history—a floor-to-ceiling narrative timeline and panorama which exhibits historic college photographs and prominent artifacts preserved in the library’s archives.


Meharry Medical College Library and Archives will host a public unveiling of its Meharry History Timeline Thursday, Feb. 23rd at 4 p.m., in the foyer of the Kresge building. Those who attend the unveiling event will take home a commemorative postcard which displays an actual Meharry postcard image that Parham found in the archives.


Beginning with chronicles from Meharry’s founding and the accomplishments of its first president, Dr. George Whipple Hubbard, the narrative of each president’s accomplishments and college happenings will be inscribed on large panels, interspersed with college photographs and artifacts which draw attention to each individual and event highlighted on the panels.


Wall mural installation

That content will populate the lower half of one of the Kresge foyer walls while massive archival photographs will cover the upper half and then span both sides of the foyer’s mezzanine.


Parham shares the impetus behind the Library and Archives’ ambitious plan to create a complete, paneled timeline, from the college’s inception as the medical college of Central Tennessee College in Nashville up to present-day activities under the administration of President James E.K. Hildreth, Ph.D., M.D.


What led you to take on a project of this size and scope as a director of an HBCU library and archives?


We are often asked by researchers and the community if they can now come to campus to visit the archives and view artifacts and photographs. While we began creating oversized photographs to use for exhibit materials, we realized that there was no dedicated space to showcase Meharry’s historical documents and rare artifacts. The exhibit cases housed on the lower level of the Kresge building are just not adequate to display Meharry and Hubbard Hospital’s incredible history. Knowing we were hindered in telling Meharry’s story by our limited library space, the foyer of Kresge seemed logical to utilize as an exhibit area.


The creation of the timeline has been months in the making. How did this new, permanent exhibition of Meharry’s history up to the present take shape as you envisioned a comprehensive display of the college’s history?


After compiling the Meharry Medical College photographic history book in 2021—now included in Arcadia Publishing’s national Campus History Series—the realization came that these iconic photographs deserve to be magnified and displayed to everyone who enters the doors of Kresge and that this desire could actually become a reality. As I visited other libraries and hospitals and viewed how they utilized wall space to tell their respective histories, I was determined to do so also at Meharry. The previous use of the wall recognized notable leaders at Meharry by picturing a variety of small photographs. The challenge was that there was no notation of who these leaders were. I asked President Hildreth if we could renovate the wall space to create an attractive area for press conferences and small receptions, and he enthusiastically agreed.


The Archives houses hundreds of photographs and other artifacts and ephemera which chronicle the college’s history from its inception. How rare is it for an HBCU—or any college or university—to possess such an abundance of intact artifacts whose significance stretches as far back as its beginnings?


I can speak for those both private and state-funded HBCUs that I have visited during my 50 plus-year academic journey. Meharry has one of the largest collections of artifacts that I have seen in respective archives. The norm is to have both paper or digital documents that reflect the college’s history. The keeper of the records from Meharry, dating back to 1876, kept everything!


From the brick taken from one of the first buildings on the South Nashville original campus to the trowel used to lay mortar during the groundbreaking of the North Nashville campus, to the medical instruments used in the dental school and the earliest microscope—just a variety of artifacts one would not expect to have been kept from this earliest period in Meharry’s history. Not only the artifacts were kept but also records of students from around 1910 to the late 1940s.


These records are an incredible source of information! They include letters written to admissions, pictures, grade records, and personal information that we classify as confidential. The Meharry Bulletins date back to 1878—just remarkable. These bulletins include class information, commencement activities, news of Meharrians, obituaries, marriage dates—again, a chronicle of the life and times at Meharry Medical College and Hubbard Hospital.


How many photos do you think you sifted through before settling on your final selections for display on and around the narrative panels and for display on the upper walls? What drove your decision-making on the final selections for both?


I can honestly say that I have only put a small dent in viewing the photographs in our archives. Thousands would be a modest number for estimating how many images are in the archives. The yearbooks begin at 1942 but the historical photos taken we can chronicle as far back as 1876. Of course, I have my favorite photographs that appear in the pictorial book, however, it never becomes old opening boxes of photographs that have been stored and labeled historic.


Those selected for the panels reflect the spirit of this place called Meharry. Viewing the enlarged panels on the murals provides the opportunity to look at the faces of the early Meharrians and see their tenacity, their fear, their jubilation and, yes, their pride at their accomplishments as they fold their arms, dress to a T, or line up at graduation with a look of “Yes, I made it” on their faces. I would truly use as the motif for these murals the title of Meharrian Charles Johnson’s work from the year 2000, The Spirit of A Place Called Meharry.