By David Greisman
It’s fitting and rather poetic, the role that history has played in Lela Sewell- Williams’ life and career. You have to go back in time, after all, to see what led her to what she’s doing today.
When she was young, Sewell- Williams’ parents instilled in her the importance of black history and culture. She took that appreciation for history into college and beyond, working for the past two decades as an archivist. That experience has helped land her a job as the new manager of Columbia Archives — the institution whose mission is collecting and preserving the history of Columbia, Maryland.
“I’m looking forward to building on Columbia Archives’ legacy and expanding the program to be more accessible and engaging,” said Sewell- Williams. “We want the community to be as involved with Columbia Archives as those of us who work here are.”
Sewell-Williams received her bachelor’s degree in American history and black studies from South Carolina State University and has a master’s degree in archives, museums and historical editing from Duquesne University. She was the first archivist at South Carolina State University, which also documented the region and the organizations in the area — a mission akin to that of Columbia Archives.
Sewell-Williams went on to be a manuscripts librarian at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library; the initiator and project archivist for The Schomburg Center’s Hip-Hop Archive Project; and the assistant curator of Manuscripts at Moorland Spingarn Research Center.
While working at Moorland Spingarn, Sewell-Williams developed an initiative with Howard University to collect the records of regional black dance companies. She also founded Preserve Your Story (an archival consulting firm) and is the archivist for the International Association of Blacks in Dance.
(Dance is also something that dates back for nearly her entire life. Sewell- Williams was classically trained in ballet beginning at age 4. These days, she teachers Afro-Jazz periodically in community classes.)
“I’ve had the privilege to work with all kinds of documents and people and organizations,” Sewell-Williams said. “Coming to Columbia Archives is an outstanding opportunity to expand my skills into a community and have a larger focus.”
She will now embark on a journey similar to that taken by her predecessor, Barbara Kellner, who helmed Columbia Archives for three decades before retiring last year. Though Kellner was (and still is) a fount of knowledge about Columbia, she knew very little about the community when she moved here in the early 1980s.
“Lela comes with a great background, an outgoing personality and an archivist’s curiosity to learn as much as she can about Columbia and the collection,” Kellner said. “I feel really confident that she and the Columbia Archives staff are going to make the archives an even greater and more important resource to the community than it has been.”
Sewell-Williams was already familiar with Columbia; she’s lived in Howard County for more than 15 years. But she will do something that historians adore — immersing herself in books, presentations, videos and the many, many other items in the collection.
“This job is also about me utilizing that information,” Sewell-Williams said. “What’s great about archiving is that you can then bring records to life and make history available to the public through programs and exhibits.”
Columbia Archives is located in CA Headquarters at 6310 Hillside Court, off Stevens Forest Road. It is open Monday through Friday from 9am to 5pm. The public is welcome to visit and spend time researching to get a deeper understanding of the history of Columbia. Appointments are encouraged. For more information, call 410-715-3103 or visit ColumbiaArchives.org.