The John Hay Library, home to Brown University’s special collections, in partnership with Brown’s Pembroke Center, has acquired a vast set of records, writings, and artwork from political activist Mumia Abu-Jamal. The library has also obtained related personal papers from Johanna Fernández — a Brown Class of 1993 graduate and esteemed historian of social movements and 20th-century American history — who has been a longtime advocate for Abu-Jamal and has for decades maintained his innocence.
As a teenager, Abu-Jamal became involved with the Black Panther Party, and he later became a radio reporter. In 1982, Abu-Jamal was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. His death sentence was later overturned and he was given a life sentence without parole. While in prison, Abu-Jamal has written extensively on the failures of the U.S. criminal justice system.
With more than 60 boxes of papers spanning 1981 to 2020, the collection documents Abu-Jamal’s trial, prison, and death row experiences; his reflections on civil rights and freedom; the challenges he has experienced as an activist in a maximum-security prison; and the public’s reaction to his case, as articulated in newspaper articles, films, cards, and letters.
“The carceral system touches millions of Americans’ lives, yet the historical archive has a scarcity of stories of incarcerated people,” said Amanda E. Strauss, director of the John Hay Library. “This Voices of Mass Incarceration collecting focus aims to provide researchers with unprecedented access to the first-person accounts they need to understand the experiences of people who have spent time in prisons and jails, enriching our collective understanding of how the expanding carceral system has transformed American society.”