Digging up the Past

What an internship taught Kaila Rain Thomas ’18 about her family history

By Sayantika Mandal MFA ’19 Posted Tue, 02/19/2019 - 12:17

Growing up, history major Kaila Rain Thomas '18 often heard stories about her grandfather, a founding member of the Alabama Black Liberation Front — a group affiliated with the Black Panthers.

Little did she know that she’d unearth more from her family history while interning at a nonprofit in San Francisco.

Last April, The Freedom Archives, a local nonprofit that preserves documents related to progressive movements in the U.S., came to USF to screen a documentary about the Chicano movement of the 1970s. Intrigued by the film, and having a few friends who have interned at the archives, Thomas decided to apply for an internship herself.

A few weeks after landing the position, while working with some documents about the Alabama prison system in the 1970s, she came across a letter written by her grandmother. 

"I immediately recognized her handwriting," Thomas says. "I turned the page and found myself looking at a picture of my grandfather."

The letter included poems her grandfather had written, including one about Thomas’ mother as a little girl, and his obituary written by her grandmother.


After finding the letter, Thomas felt The Freedom Archives was the place she was meant to be.

"I chose to focus on African American history and minor in African studies so I could one day better understand my own family history," she says. “My adviser, Professor Kathy Nasstrom, was excited about my internship, seeing me find my place in the history world."

During her internship, Thomas also researched a personal project that explored the connections between the American civil rights movement and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

"There isn’t much conversation about how the two movements intersect, and I want to try and start that conversation," says Thomas.

When the internship ended in December 2018, The Freedom Archives offered Thomas a part-time position as an archivist-in-training.

"It’s a great opportunity to start a career in history, a field I love," she says.

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