Emory remembers James V. Hatch, collector of African American arts and activism

By Maureen McGavin | Emory Report | Feb. 20, 2020

Story image

James V. Hatch, a longtime supporter of Emory Libraries, died Feb. 14. He and his wife, Camille Billops, created a vast collection at Emory documenting the history of African American art, activism and culture. They are shown here at a dinner reception in their honor in 2012.

Emory Libraries and the Emory community are mourning the passing on Feb. 14 of James V. Hatch, who with his wife and creative partner, Camille Billops, created a vast collection at Emory that documents the history of African American art, activism, and culture.

Hatch, an author, playwright and theater historian, and Billops, an artist and filmmaker who died last June, began collecting in 1968 and donated much of their materials on African American visual and performing arts to Emory’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library in 2002. 

“The passing of Camille Billops in June of last year, and now Jim Hatch, saddens me,” says Yolanda Cooper, Emory Libraries dean and university librarian. “I had the wonderful opportunity to know these two unique and special individuals and to hear how very passionate they were about each other, their work and the archive, so their passing is very personal.” 

“I am also incredibly grateful that Emory houses the treasures they collected, and that we can continue to bring that work to life here in our galleries and spaces, in the broader community, and beyond,” Cooper adds. “The Billops-Hatch Archives should be shared in the present and for future generations, and I am so pleased that Emory Libraries have the expertise and infrastructure to do that.” 

The Camille Billops and James V. Hatch Archives contains thousands of African American-authored playscripts, posters, theater programs, rare books, periodicals, photographs, audio interviews and other material documenting African American arts history and culture.

The archive is one of the premier collections of its kind, attracting scholars and researchers across the country. Emory professors and instructors in African American studies, theater, film and media studies, and English and creative writing continue to use the Billops-Hatch collection in their teaching. 

Sharing the archive with the community

Emory Libraries staged a major exhibition in the Woodruff Library four years ago to celebrate the collection. “Still Raising Hell: The Art, Activism, and Archives of Camille Billops and James V. Hatch,” which opened in September 2016, showcased the breadth and depth of the collection and the artist-activists interviewed and befriended by the couple (documented in a selection from some 10,000 slides in the archive). The couple attended the opening and were quite humorous in their remarks.

A traveling exhibit called “Speak What Must Be Spoken,” an offshoot of “Still Raising Hell,” is in its second year of visiting an Atlanta-area school (this year at Drew Charter School and last year at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School).

The materials from the archive and the exhibition inspire students with lessons on the history of black art and activism, pursuing your goals, and standing up for social justice issues. The students apply what they’ve learned creatively through original plays, dance, music and artwork. 

Pellom McDaniels III, curator of the Rose Library’s African American collections and of “Still Raising Hell” and “Speak What Must Be Spoken,” wrote a blog paying tribute to Hatch.

“Jim Hatch is not as well known for his work as he should be,” McDaniels says. “I want to call attention to his contributions, because he had such dedication and commitment to African American theater.”

A resource unlike any others 

Researchers have relied on the Billops-Hatch Archive for their book projects, class work and digitization projects. Theater historian Craig Prentiss, a religious studies professor at Rockhurst University and the author of “Staging Faith: Religion and African American Theater from the Harlem Renaissance to World War II,” visited Emory in 2014 to discuss his book, for which he used the archive during his research.

“I don't think there's a collection that compares to the Billops-Hatch collection with respect to African American theater as a whole,” Prentiss said at the time, adding he spent a week at Emory researching in the archive. “This collection is the best there is.”

Billops and Hatch also collaborated on six films that explore race, class, gender and history. The Rose Library hosted a film symposium in 2014 with screenings and scholarly discussions. 

One of those films, Billops’ 1982 documentary “Suzanne, Suzanne,” was placed on the National Film Registry in 2016. McDaniels said Matthew Bernstein, Emory film and media studies professor and department chair who serves on the National Film Preservation Board, saw the film at a campus screening a few years prior and recommended it be placed on the registry. 

Hatch and Billops conducted hundreds of audio interviews with black artists — many of which after 1981 were published in their periodical, “Artist and Influence” — that are part of the Rose archive.

“The voices and artistic accomplishments of the generations of artists and activists who were part of Jim and Camille’s community have enriched and expanded the worlds of all of us who have access to the Billops-Hatch archive,” says Rose Library director Jennifer Gunter King. 

“We are profoundly grateful to them for being visionaries and for entrusting the Emory Libraries with their legacy. We mourn Jim’s passing deeply and reflect on his contributions with gratitude.”