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Brown University Acquires the Papers of Mumia Abu-Jamal

Johanna Fernandez, a historian at Baruch College, had been storing Abu-Jamal’s archive since he left death row in 2012. The watercolor of her at right is by Abu-Jamal.Credit…Philip Keith for The New York Times

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — For years, Mumia Abu-Jamal was the face of the anti-death penalty movement in the United States. A former Black Panther sentenced to death in the 1981 murder of a police officer, he became a best-selling author and commentator in the early 1990s, as “Free Mumia” became a staple of protests and T-shirts. 

His prominence has faded since 2011, when after a series of appeals, the Philadelphia district attorney agreed to drop the death penalty. Abu-Jamal is currently serving a life sentence in a Pennsylvania prison. But now, the trove of paper he accumulated as one of America’s most famous prisoners has found a permanent home in a different kind of institution. 

Brown University has acquired Abu-Jamal’s personal archive, more than 60 boxes of letters, notebooks, manuscripts, pamphlets, personal artifacts, books and other material. It had filled his cell on death row, before it was shipped a decade ago to the home of a scholar and friend, where it sat all but unseen. 

Abu-Jamal’s archive will be held by the university’s John Hay Library, as part of its new Voices of Mass Incarceration collecting initiative, which is aimed at chronicling one of the most pervasive, hotly debated — and under-documented — aspects of American life.

“The carceral system touches millions of lives,” the library’s director, Amanda E. Strauss, said earlier this month, before offering a first glimpse at the archive. “And yet the historical archive has a scarcity of stories of incarcerated people.”

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