A North Laurel resident with a background preserving cultural history including precious manuscripts and hip-hop music has been named as the new manager of the Columbia Archives.
Lela J. Sewell-Williams, who previously worked as an archivist at South Carolina State University and as a manuscripts librarian at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York, has been hired by the Columbia Association to take over the archivist role that was vacated when Barbara Kellner retired last month after 25 years at the helm.
“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,” said Kellner in a news release from the association.
"We were impressed by Lela's experience as an archivist and putting on programs for the public," said Michelle Miller, director of Columbia Association's Department of Community Services. "She's a great fit for Columbia Archives."
Sewell-Williams said she is hoping to expand the work of the archive to be “more accessible and engaging with the public.”
“We want the community to be as involved with Columbia Archives as those of us who work here,” she said.
Located in the Columbia Association headquarters at 6310 Hillside Court, the Columbia Archives serves as the repository of items relating to the planning, development and history of Columbia, with a focus on preservation and public access.
Its James Rouse Collection chronicles the Columbia founder’s influence on urban and suburban development in America and abroad, and includes letters, speeches, photographs and memorabilia.
David Greisman, a Columbia Association spokesman, said Kellner was involved in the hiring process for her replacement “and has been helping Lela with getting acclimated to the new role.”
Sewell-Williams has worked for two decades as an archivist, according to a biography provided by the Columbia Association. A native of Pittsburgh, Pa., she obtained a bachelor’s degree in American history and black studies from South Carolina State University and has a master’s in archives, museums and historical editing from Duquesne University.
She served as an archivist at South Carolina State, then as a manuscripts librarian at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a research affiliate of the New York Public Library. She was project archivist for Schomburg’s Hip-Hop Archive Project, which serves to document the rise of hip-hop music in the early 1970s in the South Bronx.
While serving as assistant curator of manuscripts at Moorland Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, Sewell-Williams developed an initiative with the 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.
Her own background includes an emphasis on dance. She said she started dancing at a young age at a YWCA in Pittsburgh, and was classically trained, performing with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, the Pittsburgh Opera and at one time performing in Europe.
She moved to North Laurel in 2002, but said her knowledge of Columbia can be traced to her youth — a childhood friend had family members who lived here, and “always spoke highly” of the community’s philosophy of inclusion and diversity.
Sewell-Williams said she feels Columbia’s recent celebration of its 50th anniversary presented an opportunity for residents to learn more about its founding and appreciate its history, and she hopes to seize on that momentum to build relationships that could add to the archives’ 300-plus collections.
She said she hoped to tap programs offered through the Columbia Association as a way to reach out to and engage people of all ages and backgrounds within the community.
“My goal is to … take advantage of what is already established here,” she said. “I want to be involved in inter-generational opportunities, and engage young people and the community [to stress] that these records are alive.”
She noted that although Columbia is relatively “young” at 50 years, she is impressed with the pride of ownership that people take and the wealth of information that has already been preserved.
Part of an archivists’ task, she said, is encouraging people to share their stories.
“I want people to see [the archives] as a living institution that they are investing in,” she said. “At the end of the day, the Columbia Archives should look like Columbia.”
The Columbia Archives dates back to 1982, when Columbia resident Rebecca Orlinsky organized a display of clippings and other items around the time of the community’s 15th anniversary, according to a history on the archives’ website. The Museum and Archives of the History of Columbia — now known as the Columbia Archives — was incorporated a year later. It became part of the Columbia Association in 1992.
The archive is open to the public for research on the history of Columbia. Hours of operation are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Appointments are encouraged. For more information, call 410-715-3103 or go to ColumbiaArchives.org.