A massive effort is underway at Howard University to digitize thousands of black newspapers in an effort to make material more accessible and provide primary sources at a time when some are trying to whitewash the story.
The historically black university recently received a $2 million grant that will allow it to digitize microfilm and newspapers over a five-year period and make much of the collection available to the public.
“If we think about the widespread belief that journalism or newspapers write the first draft of history, if you don’t have the black press, you have a very incomplete understanding of American history and the history world,” said faculty member Nikole Hannah-Jones. , who helped secure the grant.
The effort is one of many by black memory workers in universities, museums, libraries and grassroots organizations to preserve and increase access to material that documents black history – material traditionally overlooked and undervalued by white institutions.
The work comes at a time when state legislatures and school boards are trying to restrict the lessons about history and race that can be taught in schools, and as historically black colleges and universities have come under fire. bomb.
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The collection is “invaluable” because white newspapers have historically failed to document the daily lives of black Americans, Hannah-Jones told USA TODAY. She founded the Center for Journalism & Democracy which will launch at Howard in the fall.
Newspapers also portrayed the African American community in “derogatory and often dangerous ways” and ignored key events in American history, such as the civil rights movement and violence against African Americans, she said. added.
The Black Press Archive housed at Howard includes more than 2,000 newspaper headlines from thousands of articles published in the United States, Africa, South America and the Caribbean. It includes well-known newspapers like the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier as well as records of black editors, publishers and journalists.
The work is “extremely important because it is information about black people around the world that is owned and controlled by black people,” said Benjamin Talton, director of Howard’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.
Many of the recent efforts to make historical records by and about African Americans more easily accessible came after protests following the 2020 killing of George Floyd, when people began seeking information to better understand the struggle. for racial justice, some for the first time. .
It was around this time that Dorothy Berry called for all digital projects at Harvard’s Houghton Library to be suspended and to focus on highlighting materials written by or about African Americans in order to rectify that of the university history of ignoring such work.
“It’s cultural heritage and it needs to be made accessible to the people who are its heirs,” said Berry, digital collections program manager at the library.
Berry spent nine months digitizing primary sources, including documents from the Freedmen’s Bureau, created during Reconstruction to help formerly enslaved blacks in the South, and bills of sale from the slave trade, which she says may useful for genealogical research.
She also hired students and faculty advisors to write interpretive essays and teaching guides for young students to contextualize the material.
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There is a long tradition of amateur and professional archival work in the black community. William Henry Dorsey, who lived in 19th century Philadelphia, filled hundreds of scrapbooks with newspaper articles about African-American history and culture. Marion Stokes recorded 24-hour television news for three decades and amassed a collection of over 70,000 VHS tapes.
Today, a handful of libraries are dedicated solely to this work, including the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York, the Auburn Avenue Research Library in Atlanta, and the African American Museum and Library in Oakland.
Historically, black colleges and universities like Howard have had similar archives often containing information about the school itself and the surrounding community.
But experts said HBCUs have struggled with underfunding and public libraries may not have the resources or infrastructure to launch large digitization projects like this.
Berry said well-funded institutions like Harvard have a responsibility to create free resources like his.
“It’s extremely important for predominantly white institutions to invest time and energy in making their black materials accessible,” Berry said.
At Howard’s in Washington, DC, much of the collection is physically fragile and only accessible to those who can get there. But the university plans to make at least 60% available online.
“Having this archive easily accessible means ordinary people, teachers, school children, families can access this information that is increasingly restricted to their public education,” Hannah-Jones said. “Having access to these archives and other works is going to be an important way to combat these laws of memory.”
Hannah-Jones is the creator of The New York Times’ 1619 Project, a Pulitzer Prize-winning project that reframed the history of slavery in the United States.
Conservatives have lobbied to stop public K-12 schools from using federal funds to teach the project as well as teaching critical race theory — an academic framework that examines if and how systems and policies perpetuate racism. It is usually taught in graduate schools, not to K-12 students.
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According to the latest data from the Society of American Archivists, only about 3% of professional archivists identify as black, and many recent efforts have been local and community-based initiatives.
Content creators used Instagram accounts such as Black Archives, We The Diaspora, Black Beauty Archives and Black Film Archive to highlight different facets of black history through curated visuals.
Meanwhile, people like Miranda Mims filled the industry gap by co-founding the Nomadic Archivists Project in 2017 to connect with communities who want to preserve their histories but are unsure or reluctant to approach an institution.
Mims, who is director of rare books, special collections and preservation at the University of Rochester, said working outside of a university gives her the freedom to help people without having to think about donations or focus on one geographic area.
“We really try to be that kind of ungoverned nexus between content creators and institutions,” Mims said. “It gives us a lot of flexibility to have honest conversations with people about their materials and how they would like their materials preserved.”
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Black memory workers not only elevate historical content that may have been overlooked, but also work to document major moments in black history through which they pass. In 2020, volunteers collected hundreds of Black Lives Matter signs posted on a fence near the White House and now two public libraries are working to make them all available online.
Makiba Foster, director of the African American Research Library and Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, launched a website, Black Web Archiving, to document content produced by and about black people online for future scholars.
Foster said the project was inspired by his work documenting content produced during protests in Ferguson, Missouri following the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. As the Black Lives Matter movement began to take shape and As people were creating educational materials and public programs around the issue, Foster led an effort at the Schomburg Center to document this moment.
Foster said her work is important because the lifespan of digital content is only about 90 days, according to research by the Internet Archive.
“The internet is so vast that we can’t collect everything,” she said. “But if we can create a strategy for those organizations that are committed to documenting Blackness…I think we’d all be better off as memory workers.”
Capturing these moments online is also critical because the internet provides a platform for groups traditionally marginalized by mainstream media, said Foster, also director of the African American Research Library and Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. .
“Traditionally, the archive has been exclusive in many ways,” she said. “If you weren’t wealthy, wealthy, and white, your stories were often left out of what was collected and what was considered important.”
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