Support for Reuther Library promotes passion for history

Support for Reuther Library promotes passion for history
Erin Casey '11 B.P.A. and Professor Emerita Beth Bates examine historical documents in the Walter P. Reuther Library.

Erin Casey '11 B.P.A. was searching through cardboard boxes filled with old documents and photos, the way she spends most of her time in the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University. She stopped, her hand absently resting on the nearest piece of paper, while she checked the list of documents she had to find that day. When she looked down again at the paper, she slowly realized it was a historical treasure—an original document signed by Martin Luther King, Jr. "It was really emotional, and I got a little choked up," Casey recalled.

Casey earned her bachelor's degree in public affairs at Wayne State and is now a student in the master of public administration program. Her work as a research assistant for Beth Bates, professor emerita of African American studies, has provided new experiences for both of them. Bates currently is conducting research for a sequel to her 2014 book The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford. She is focused on Detroit's civil rights movement at the grassroots level, from the 1940s through the 1960s.

Bates had never used an assistant before her current research project. She viewed research as a solitary process, but working with Casey has provided a new perspective. "What's exciting is to watch Erin get so hooked," said Bates. The Reuther's archival collections enable researchers like Bates to pass on their passion for history to the next generation of scholars.

Activists in the archives

One particularly important resource for this research is the Reuther Library's Ernest C. and Jessie M. Dillard Collection. "The collection documents how the civil rights movement nationally owes a debt to Detroit," said Bates. It contains a wide range of first-hand materials—including speeches, flyers, hand-written reports and personal correspondence—chronicling the Dillards' civil rights activism. "It's a pretty spectacular collection," said Casey. "We’re very fortunate to have access to it at the university."

Both Ernest and Jessie Dillard graduated from the Labor School, a program sponsored in part by Wayne State University. They were active members of the Detroit branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and they led successful sit-in efforts to integrate the city's businesses. Ernest Dillard was the first African American elected to a leadership role within the United Automobile Workers.

Even at age 100, Ernest Dillard continues to advocate for racial equality. In lieu of gifts for his 100th birthday in January, Dillard requested that donations be made to the Walter P. Reuther Library Archives Fund to support the collection and sharing of labor and race relations history.

Pivotal moments preserved

When collections such as the Ernest C. and Jessie M. Dillard Collection are donated to the Reuther Library, they must be processed and organized before researchers can access the primary source materials and learn more about the pivotal moments of the past. Because processing archival material is so resource-intensive, contributions help ensure collections are made available to researchers more quickly. "It's a wonderful gift to the future to give to the Reuther," said Bates.

Casey and Bates both described the Reuther Library as a treasure for not only Wayne State and Michigan, but the entire country. "The archives are not just about resurrecting and reconstructing the past," said Bates. "They are about helping us understand the present, which in turn shapes our future."

As Casey nears the completion of her graduate program, she continues her work as Bates' research assistant in addition to working at Wayne State's Center for Urban Studies. She hopes to someday work on policy issues for the state legislature, but she truly enjoys the work she's doing now. "I absolutely love being in Reuther," said Casey. "I get to sift through history. It’s pretty incredible."

To give to the Walter P. Reuther Library Archives Fund in honor of Ernest C. Dillard’s birthday, visit and select Reuther Library.

To learn more about the Walter P. Reuther Library, visit

(March 31, 2015)

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