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images shows three men working at various woodworking machines
Wood work shop of Claflin University, Orangeburg, S.C..

Locating Digitized Historic Images

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This guest post was authored by 2020 Junior Fellow Sophia Southard, University of Kansas Graduate, B.A. in History. This is another in a series looking at African Americans in business and the sciences.

Image of an African American woman with a large feathered hat and feathered stole
Young African American woman.
Seated portrait of Harriet Tubman wearing a light checked skirt and dark blouse
Harriet Tubman, Powelson, photographer (1868 or 1869).

From the most well-known and recognized African Americans, such as Harriet Tubman, to everyday people, the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog has a rich digital collection of images. Because the Library’s 2020 Junior Fellows Summer Internship program moved to a virtual setting, I found myself in the same boat that scholars, students, and independent researchers around the United States and across the world find themselves in: now more than ever, digital collections are vital to conducting research.

Lonnie Bunch, the 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian, said in a conversation with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, “Photos immediately make history accessible to people. You see an image and it’s transformative. Imagery is what helped history come alive for me.”

Image shows many Black women seated at sewing machines working on their sewing
Young women sewing in the sewing class at the Agricultural and Mechanical College, Greensboro, N.C..

As someone who recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in History, the photos I have come across have proved one of the most rewarding experiences of my internship by far. I completely agree with Lonnie Bunch’s assessment of images and the role they play in bringing history alive for viewers in a way that primary source texts simply cannot. So, for the purpose of this blog, I wanted to show readers some techniques I’ve learned for  finding prints and photographs in the Library’s Prints & Photographs Online Catalog, as well as how to locate advertisements in the Chronicling America database.

Two seated African Americans surrounded by the tools of their trade including a chimney sweeping brush on a long pole
Two African American chimney sweeps, Charles D. Fredricks & Co., photographer.
standing portrait of a Black brick layer wearing a hat with his hand on one hip and holding to tools of his trade
African American brick layer, Platt, A. C. (Alvord C.), photographer.

Here are a few keyword searches to get you started on research related to African Americans. Note that these are general, broad searches that will return dozens, if not hundreds of photos. However, they provide a good starting point, and you can look at the “Subjects” and “Collections” headings provided in the photo details to begin narrowing your search. This is by no means a comprehensive list, so I encourage researchers to play around with their keywords.

If you intend to use images or photographs found in the online catalog in a publication, such as a blog or an article, I recommend searching for images that have “no known restrictions” rights statements. Just add the phrase to your regular search.

For example, “African American businesses no known restrictions.”

Normally, you will see something like, “Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication.”

For more information on copyright status, go to the library’s Copyright and Other Restrictions That Apply to Publication/Distribution of Images page.

Graphical presentation of African Americans in various businesses in 1900 illustrated by various colored boxes sized to represent the number or percent
Diagram shows relative number of African Americans in various businesses, ca 1900.. From the African American Photographs Assembled for 1900 Paris Exposition.

A few notable collections and resources:

Here are just a few of the library’s many research guides and photo collections for you to begin your search:

Locating Advertisements in Chronicling America

ad for Overton-Hygienic Manufacturing Co in Chicago that featured two African American woman focusing on Youth and Freshness for a shade blend for every completion; every type
Sunday Chicago Bee, 05 Dec. 1943.

Although the online catalog has a few advertisements for African American companies and entrepreneurs, I highly encourage researchers to search Chronicling America for advertisements as well. Chronically America is  “an Internet-based, searchable database of U.S. newspapers with descriptive information and select digitization of historic pages.”

To search Chronicling America, researchers will need a little bit more information about the person and the company they owned, as using general keyword searches will simply return too many results. It might be helpful to look at the research guide “Doing Company Research” before searching through the Chronicling America database.

For the following advertisements, I searched for the company name belonging to each African American entrepreneur.

For example, I searched for “Overton-Hygienic Manufacturing” and found the following advertisement. It can be trickier searching Chronicling America for specific companies, so I recommend trying several different keywords before calling it quits.

ad for the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company in Richmond located at 500 North Third Street, JR Deans was district manager
Richmond Planet, 04 June 1927.
ad for the grand opening for the Rose Meta House of Beauty with a open house on Sunday May 30 and Monday May 31 that was at the corner of John R. and Mack for "everything to make you beautiful all under one roof" that had a picture of the business
The Detroit Tribune, 29 May 1948.

Locating Portraits in Chronicling America

Researchers can also locate portraits in Chronicling America that they may not find in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. Simply type in the person’s name and start scrolling through the results.

Please note that terminology in historical materials and in Library descriptions does not always match the language preferred by members of the communities depicted and may include negative stereotypes or words some may consider offensive. The Library presents the historic captions because they can be important for understanding the context in which the images were created.

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