On the Provenance of the Commission’s Meeting Minutes: From the Garage to the Hall to the Archives

Sometimes a collection’s provenance, the history of ownership and/or physical custody, is very straight-forward: creator -> repository or creator -> donor -> repository.

Occasionally, it’s more of a mess. Things leave the creator’s custody without permission, end up somewhere else, things get lost… That’s what happened to the New York State Athletic Commission’s meeting minutes.

Some background info: I fell down the research rabbit hole on a field trip to the Hank Kaplan Boxing Archive (which has an obvious provenance and is an awesome collection) at Brooklyn College.

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Archivist in action: A self-portrait

That got me thinking about the licensing of women wrestlers by the State Athletic Commission, which led to an interest on the ban on women’s wrestling. Asking the Athletic Commission about it literally went no where. Google and newspaper archive searches left me unsatisfied, so I did what all good researchers should do: I asked an archivist at the New York State Archives (a GREAT place to research!!).

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Three boxes of processed, arranged, described, and properly foldered Athletic Commission meeting minutes in the New York State Archives. So sexy.

There is a good-sized gap of over 2 straight years noted in the Athletic Commission meeting minutes finding aid, but there are also chunks of minutes missing throughout the latter years of the collection.

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The big gap in the finding aid. Information on Muhammad Ali’s reinstatement and the legalization of women’s wrestling would be in there.

Sometimes it was an entire meeting. Or a whole month’s worth of meetings. Or half a year.

Half a year’s worth of records was missing. What happened to them?

Shortly after I returned from my Albany field trip, I filed two Freedom of Information Law requests, both specifically asking about the gaps: one with the Department of State regarding the Athletic Commission’s records; the other with the Department of Education, which oversees the State Archives. The records were forwarded to me a few months after my requests were filed.

The minutes were kept by the Commission’s secretaries at its weekly meetings to “[…] keep a full and true record of all its proceedings, preserve at its general office all its books, documents and papers […]” (1).

At the Commission’s December 13, 1977, meeting, commissioners were told that the Department of State (then headed by Mario Cuomo, future governor of New York) recommended that they dispose of records stored in its office to free up space for a new agency. The commissioners obviously disagreed with this directive, and one even vowed to talk to Cuomo’s wife. I shit you not.

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Athletic Commission meeting minutes, 12/13/1977. New York State Archives via FOIL request.

(In 1952, a woman received a license to promote a charity wrestling show only because her husband was a Commission judge; in 1977, a commissioner tried to save Commission files through his acquaintance with the Secretary of State’s wife! What a change.)

No mention of the disposal or the new agency could be found in successive minutes.

Fast forward to the late 1990s, when the Athletic Commission was moving offices and tapped the State Archives and Records Administration (SARA) to conduct a routine records assessment. At that point, the Archives in Albany held a scant 3 cubic feet of Commission records, mostly fiscal documents from the 1920s and 1930s. The Commission, in New York City, retained license application and renewal files, medical files, boxing and wrestling event files, record cards, and some executive files that included meeting minutes. By “some” I mean minutes from the mid-1980s to the year the assessment was conducted.

Regarding the lapse in record keeping before 1985: “Staff had no immediate explanation…” (2).

The Commission’s license files for champions, contenders, and well-known figures in boxing and wrestling were supposed to be preserved; they were not. The appraisal report included an anecdote pointing to the illicit destruction of these records by the Commission itself:

It is unclear why files for these significant individuals have not been retained. Staff report that it was past Commission practice to retain files for major figures in boxing and wrestling history when it destroyed obsolete license files. However, office rumor has it that a previous Commission chairman subsequently ordered staff to destroy all such retained files for unknown reasons. (3)

If only the minutes could be consulted. But they were missing, too.

Where did they go? The International Boxing Hall of Fame!

The Hall reports that it received these records from the Commission sometime in the past decade. However, Commission staff I reported this information to, including, the Executive Assistant to the Chairman, indicated that they had been unaware that these records were at the Hall. (4)

The State reclaimed its legal ownership of the papers in 1998, but allowed the Hall of Fame to retain physical custody as a long-term loan with the following provisions noted in an unpublished November 1998 letter from SARA to Edward Brophy, the Hall’s executive director (5):

  • “Effective November 20, 1998, pursuant to Records Disposition Authorization #20133, SARA assumes their legal custody.”
  • “The records shall not be transferred […] or removed from the premises without prior approval of SARA.”
  • “The Hall of Fame agrees to maintain these records according to professional standards for preservation of, and access to, the archival records of a State government agency.”

The Hall of Fame failed to uphold the latter.

Just over nine years later, in early 2008, Christine W. Ward, Assistant Commissioner for Archives and Records, wrote to Brophy notifying him that the State would be transferring the minutes to the State Archives in Albany. Ward noted that the Hall of Fame was “[…] not currently providing the security, environmental controls, fire protections, or access tools necessary to ensure the long-term preservation and public access required for New York State government’s archival records.” (6)

SARA officials toured the Hall of Fame the previous fall (7) and noted there was:

  • No evidence of a pest management system
  • No UV light filtering in place and the use of fluorescent lighting
  • No evidence of a fire suppression nor were they able to locate a fire extinguisher in the basement where the records were kept
  • No temperature or humidity controls

That alone is enough to make an archivist’s (or a librarian’s or a museum curator’s) skin crawl. The SARA report also mentioned the Hall of Fame’s research procedures:

IBHF has no reference room in which researchers may consult its holdings. Instead, researchers are set up on an ad hoc basis with a table in one of the display wings/office areas of the museum where they had some supervision, but not constant. Researcher forms were not utilized. (8)

The 2007 site visit also provided a clearer description of the minutes’ provenance, albeit one that differed slightly from what was given in the 1998 appraisal report:

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Unpublished report November 2007 report, New York State Archives. FOIL request.

With such “excellent knowledge” of his holdings and awareness of the exact page to turn to during a discussion of the minutes’ “accessioning,” wouldn’t Brophy have known that the Athletic Commission was an official New York State agency and that the minutes were New York State property? Surely he would have.

That was not covered in the non-redacted parts of the 2007 site visit report.

There was no finding aid, pathfinder, or guide. No catalog was made available on the Hall of Fame’s website. I am not sure if many outside the State Archives or boxing fandom communities that knew these records were there.

The minutes of the New York State Athletic Commission — official legislative documents detailing the rich history of professional boxing and professional wrestling in New York, the center of the ring world — was, for many years, nothing more than a collectible for fanboys to gawk at.

But what of the gaps in the collection and all those “missing pages” inserts?

The 1998 assessment identified the dates of the collection as being in the 1920-1975 range. The 2007 site visit gave the same dates. The 2009 memorandum of transfer (9), which identifies the materials transferred from the Hall of Fame to the State Archives, provides a range of dates from 1923 to 1977 (with gaps). 1975 wasn’t even included.

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Unpublished archives transmittal form, July 2, 2009. New York State Archives. FOIL request.

The State Archives finding aid, created in 2012, gives a range of “1911-1917, 1920-1979 (with gaps).” There is a major discrepancy between the initial assessments and the final processing. The Hall of Fame showed SARA officials minutes from 1977 — a copy was even forwarded to me as part of my FOIL request and is pictured above — but that date was not included in early assessments? Why?

Minutes from 1975 cannot be found in the boxes stored inside State Archives, yet the year was included in the assessments. Why?

Why would separate teams of SARA staff over a fourteen-year period (give or take a few months) overlook this?

 Who knows? I don’t.

I contacted an archives official regarding this discrepancy, to see if anyone could explain — as an archivist and former New York tax payer, I would be totally fine with “Looks like an administrative whoopsie!” — but was told to appeal to the State Education Department for more information. I was given everything they could find, but there might be things that they legally couldn’t send under FOIL laws.

Considering that my question was basically “Did anyone over there notice that these dates were off?” I don’t know what could have been withheld.

Another suggestion I received was to contact the International Boxing Hall of Fame. I did. Twice. Jeff Brophy, who is identified as the Hall’s historian, said he’d get back to me on that.

He didn’t.

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Sources

(1) New York (State). (1955). State Athletic Commission rules and regulations.
(2)
McDonnell, B. Appraisal report #98-08. August 1998. Received 5 April, 2016, by FOIL request from New York State Education Department.
(3) Ibid
(4) Ibid
(5)
  Ward, C. Unsigned letter of agreement to Edward Brophy.November 1998. Received 5 April, 2016, by FOIL request from New York State Education Department.
(6) 
Ward, C.W. Letter to Edward Brophy. 15 January, 2008. Received 5 April, 2016, by FOIL request from New York State Education Department.
(7)
 Backman, P., Culver, M., Lorello, D. Site visit to the International Boxing Hall of Fame. 18 November, 2007. Received 7 March, 2016, by FOIL request from the New York Department of State.
(8)Ibid
(9) 
Brophy, Edward. Memorandum of transfer between the International Boxing Hall of Fame and the New York State Archives. 2 July, 2009. Received 5 April, 2016, by FOIL request from New York State Education Department.

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