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Charles B. Sears Law Library SUNY Buffalo Law School

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Oh, You Mean You Wanted That Back?

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October is American Archives Month. Sure, when a month is dedicated to something, you’d typically shout it from the rooftops on the first, but a mid-month—or in this case, post-mid-month, practically end-of-the-month—shout out works too. Not sure exactly what an archives is? You’re much more familiar with them than you would think. Archives helped Benjamin Gates in both National Treasures movies. They also helped a girl with a dragon tattoo when she went digging through a company’s history and a certain scholar who found himself drawn into drama dating back to biblical times. Archives can contain anything from letters or emails, diaries, photographs, legal and financial documents, and other records that provide firsthand information about history, be it recent or distant.

Maybe because of the month, but archives have been in the news quite a few times. Some was lighthearted, such as yesterday’s report about the collection of Supreme Court Justice Bobbleheads at Yale’s law library or more serious like the opening of Robert F. Kennedy’s papers related to the Cuban Missile Crisis to the public.  Following the more serious note, there was a case in North Carolina concerning the papers of one of the first justices of the Supreme Court, James Iredell Sr.  Iredell’s decedents had lent his papers to the North Carolina Historic Commission . . . 100 years ago.

Now I prefer to think of any fight over an object playing out as it would in a 90s sitcom, but the situation here is a bit more delicate. Back in 1910, Charles E. Johnson loaned Iredell’s papers to the North Carolina Historic Commission, accompanied by a letter reserving his right to recall the collection—it included the papers of a few other Iredell relations, including Iredell’s son who was a U.S. senator and governor of North Carolina in the early nineteenth century—whenever he wanted.  Johnson died in 1923 without ever having asked for the collection to be returned and did not mention it in his will. But in 2008, Harvey Wilson Johnson found the correspondence between his the Commission and his ancestor from 1910 and decided that it was time to reclaim his family history. When the Commission refused to return the papers, claiming that the collection became a gift after Johnson’s death in 1923, Harvey got some other relatives together to file suit.

The court did not find that ownership died with Johnson and awarded the collection to the descendants, and that ruling was upheld in appeal. In an interesting twist, now that Iredell’s descendants regained ownership, they’re looking to potentially sell the collection back to North Carolina so it can remain in the archives. Oh my.

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