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Front Page of Richmond Planet from 2/21/1885
Richmond Planet (Richmond, VA), February 21, 1885

Searching African American Newspapers in Chronicling America

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We thank Robin Pike and the staff from the Headlines and Heroes blog for allowing us to republish this post.

Robin Pike, Head, Digital Collection Services Section in the Serial and Government Publications Division, conducted the following interviews with Errol Somay (Library of Virginia) in Richmond, VA, and Brian Irby (Arkansas State Archives), in Little Rock, AR.

Chronicling America* has grown its collection of newspapers by and for African Americans under the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP) through the contributions of state partners. It currently holds African American titles spanning over 100 years from 1829 to 1963, with the bulk of available issues from the 1880s to the 1940s. Freemen (African Americans who were never enslaved) and recently emancipated people wrote the earliest newspapers, and prominent religious, political, community members, and career journalists wrote later newspapers. When reading about relevant topics and time periods, it is important to compare versions of the stories in the mainstream press with articles from the African American press.

The following interviews with NDNP partners from Arkansas and Virginia highlight three titles that provide details about the early civil rights movement, the end of school segregation, and post-Civil War Reconstruction in Richmond, VA, the former Confederate capital. We conclude with search strategies for users. More information can be found in this new guide, African American Newspapers.

Arkansas

Can you tell me about the significance of the newspaper titles by African Americans that Arkansas has included in Chronicling America?

Many of the African American newspaper titles at the Arkansas State Archives are short runs of scattered issues. In our current project phase, we digitized 11 titles, including a miscellaneous reel that contains 10 titles. Though these titles are incomplete, these newspapers are significant in that they provide a snapshot of communities that were largely invisible in the white press. Black Arkansans needed a way to record the daily lives and events that were important to their communities. They reported on church events, births, deaths, community concerts, sales of Black-owned businesses, honor roll at the local elementary school, etc. The goal of including all of these newspapers was simple: representation.

The most significant paper we have digitized is the Arkansas State Press (1941-1959). L.C. and Daisy Bates moved to Little Rock to establish a newspaper. Using printing equipment in the basement of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, located in the heart of Little Rock’s thriving 9th Street African American business district, the newspaper covered state and national events. While the State Press was not the first paper published by Black Arkansans, it is the most significant given its longevity and its pointed coverage of the civil rights movement. Previous Black-owned-and-operated papers rarely expressed views that would upset the racial order that prevailed in Arkansas’s segregated society. L.C. Bates, along with his wife, co-editor Daisy Bates, changed how civil rights news was covered by focusing on the perspectives of those most affected. While other Black newspapers of the time shied away from reporting on injustices in Little Rock and Arkansas, the State Press covered it head on, which ultimately led to its demise in 1959.

The paper became nationally known during the Central High Crisis. Complying with the U.S. Supreme Court’s mandate that all public schools desegregate, Little Rock’s Central High began the process of admitting African American students in 1957, beginning with nine students. As the students met on a street corner on September 4 for the first day of school, they found screaming protestors demanding that Black students not be allowed into the school. Governor Orval Faubus mobilized the Arkansas National Guard to surround the school to prevent Black students from entering the building. In response, President Dwight Eisenhower took away control of the Arkansas National Guard from the governor and ordered the Guard to allow the students to enter the building. Throughout the crisis, Daisy Bates took an active role coordinating the students’ activities and reporting about their experiences as the first African American students to desegregate the city’s schools in the Arkansas State Press.

Front page of a newspaper with text, a photograph of a woman, and a large headline along the top which reads U.S. Troops Invade Little Rock; Take Over Central High School.
Front page, Arkansas State Press (Little Rock, AR), September 27, 1957.

What have you have learned about these newspapers through the process of digitization?

Many African American newspapers do not survive in Arkansas prior to the 1950s. Since the newspapers were often small operations running in small towns, they left very little trace about the people that ran the paper and the dates they were published. With an obvious gap in our coverage of African American communities, we also have a gap in Arkansas’s history, inhibiting our ability to understand how these newspapers functioned within the communities and about the communities themselves.

Despite these challenges, we recognize the value of the newspapers and their ability to record stories that were overlooked by the dominant, white press. For instance, the Forrest City Herald (1896-18??) with only a few surviving issues from 1896, gives us insight into what the local African American community in Forrest City deemed valuable. On March 14, 1896, the paper reported the following news items: The Bible Church of the CME church in Forrest City was well attended and many attendees had good thoughts about the scripture reading. Miss Annie B. Fitzpatrick made many warm friends while visiting at Forrest City’s schools. Lugenia Bell, a new teacher, was expected to teach in one of the schools soon. Her father, Levi Bell, the paper reports “made great sacrifices to send her to school.” Though these events seem small, perhaps not even news worthy by today’s standards, they provide insights to Forrest City as a community that emphasized church, education, family, and friends.

Clipping of newspaper article text.
“Miss Lugenia Bell…” Forrest City Herald (Forrest City, AR), March 14, 1896.

How have these newspapers been used for research?

Though our African American newspapers are a recent addition to Chronicling America, the newspapers have been available in our collection at the Arkansas State Archives. In our experience working with the public, genealogical research has been a primary focus. So often, researchers have only a name to begin their research. They may not have birth and death dates and they may only have a vague idea of where their ancestor lived and when. The ability to keyword search in Chronicling America enables researchers to have a better ability to narrow their focus and to find out key details of their ancestor’s lives.

We have promoted Arkansas’s newspapers in Chronicling America to teachers and librarians. We have also been actively encouraging middle and high school students to use newspapers in Chronicling America. The use of primary source materials is important to understanding the subjects they are learning about in class. Using Chronicling America, these topics are no longer dry accounts in their textbooks, but are active, living stories that can bring about a greater appreciation for these topics. Through collaborative partnerships, word-of-mouth, and targeted marketing efforts, we hope that our African American newspapers will become a vital resource in learning about the past.

Is there anything else you would like to share about these newspapers or the Arkansas newspaper project? Where can readers find you online?

Our team has been encouraged by the public interest in the project and the pride that people take in sharing content from their local newspapers. Until recently, researchers have been limited in their ability to travel to our facility and the amount of time it takes to sift through newspaper microfilm. Now, with free access from any internet-connected device, more people have the ability to become researchers.

Through the process of digitizing Arkansas’s historic newspapers, we often ask ourselves–how do we know what we know about the past? We learn that to know anything about the past, we are tied to the primary sources. When an entire community is excluded, large gaps in that story distort our perspective of the past. Our goal, as a state participant in the NDNP project, is to find those papers and to fill in those gaps.

You can read more about Arkansas’s involvement in the National Digital Newspaper Program on our project website. Every Thursday our team takes over the Arkansas State Archives’s Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts to post new and interesting content from the historic newspaper headlines.

Virginia

Can you tell me about the significance of the newspaper titles by African Americans that Virginia has included in Chronicling America?

One of the key facts of the extant record of African American newspapers available to researchers is that many were not collected by local repositories. White-dominated organizations either did not receive copies or did not think it important enough to archive. However, the Richmond Planet survives as a nearly complete collection at the Library of Virginia (LVA). I have theorized that the savvy publisher of the Planet might have given the Governor a gift subscription that was moved over to the LVA for processing.

There are few newspaper titles in the 287-year history of Virginia newspaper publishing more historically significant than the Richmond Planet, which began in 1883. John Mitchell, Jr., one of the most important Virginians most people don’t know about, served as its publisher and “Fighting Editor” for almost 45 years, from 1885 to his death in 1929.

Photograph of an African American man sitting with legs crossed, in a dark suit and white shirt, looking at the camera with a newspaper in front of him.
“JOHN MITCHELL, JR., Editor & Publisher,” Richmond Planet (Richmond, VA), December 21, 1895.

Given the scattered holdings of other African American papers, the LVA was excited to preserve, microfilm, and digitize the Richmond Planet and make the weekly publication fully text-searchable on Chronicling America. Mitchell’s life is the stuff of movies, standing tall in the face of crushing Jim Crow laws while doing what he could to protect his fellow African Americans from societal abuse and even lynching. Yet alongside Mitchell’s coverage of serious issues, he also included space, often on the front page, celebrating Richmond’s Black community and highlighting the accomplishments of individuals within that community.

What have you have learned about these newspapers through the process of digitization?

For decades, the Planet had a singular voice, that of John Mitchell, Jr. who was a dogged believer in societal uplift but also did not hesitate to show in graphic detail the horrors of white supremacy. For example, he posted a list of all reported lynchings throughout the South, complete with a haunting faded half-tone image.

The papers should teach us the power of what I will call the alternative press. Read a story in the “paper of record,” and then read all about it in the Richmond Planet and you might read an entirely different story.

How have these newspapers been used for research?

LVA has sponsored both regional and national African American genealogical society conferences, during which we educate people about the Planet. Many come to the conference already knowing about the importance of the title.

Is there anything else you would like to share about these newspapers or the Virginia newspaper project? Where can readers find you online?

Patrons may access digitized newspapers published in Virginia through Chronicling America (724,000 pages), as well as the LVA’s Virginia Newspaper Program’s freely accessible database Virginia Chronicle, which houses over 3 million pages of Virginia and West Virginia newspapers.

Search Strategies

The fastest way to find African American newspapers in Chronicling America is to go to the “All Digitized Newspapers 1777-1963” tab and select “African American” in the “Ethnicity” dropdown menu. This list of newspaper titles is populated using the subject headings added by catalogers; at the time of this blog post, it currently contains 246 titles from 35 states and Washington, DC, though we are continuously adding new titles.

A screenshot of a website, a search with dropdown menus is visible with the term African American highlighted in the list next to the term Ethnicity.
Screenshot of the All Digitized Newspapers tab search in Chronicling America.

A researcher can then note the newspaper titles they want to search in, and then go to the Advanced Search tab and select only those titles. Select multiple titles to search at the same time by clicking while pressing the “Ctrl” key (on Windows) or “Cmd” key (on Mac).

Screenshot of another search screen where a number of newspaper titles have been highlighted.
Screenshot of an Advanced Search in Chronicling America.

In the title list, you will notice that some newspapers have a lot of issues while some only have one or a few issues. In 2022, the Library of Congress digitized and began putting online a microfilm collection of scattered African American newspaper issues collected from across the country in 1947. In February 2023, we added over 2,400 pages from Arkansas, California, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Washington, DC to this collection. Titles with a significant number of issues include the Oakland Sunshine and the Western Outlook from California; L’union from Louisiana; the Weekly Anglo-African from New York; the New Age from Oregon; the State Journal from Pennsylvania; and the Leader and the National Leader from Washington, DC. Mr. Somay’s and Mr. Irby’s statements that major institutions typically didn’t collect African American newspapers is reflected in this collection of scattered issues. In the present day, this collection provides a representative sample of Black newspapers from across the country, and provides glimpses into people’s lives and communities, rather than the whole story. To find coverage of a national story, you may need to look in the scattered issues of several newspapers.

Screenshot of a list of newspaper titles with alternating white and yellow background.
Screenshot of the African American newspapers title list in Chronicling America.

By clicking on the name of the newspaper, you are taken to the title record for the newspaper, which includes a title essay. The title essay is written by each state partner and provides additional background information about the newspaper, its editor(s), information about the community it provided news to, and major events or themes the newspaper covered. For the collection of scattered issues, we have provided a short summary of the microfilm collection and will be working to provide additional contextual information about groups of related newspapers in the future.

Screenshot of a web page with text and an image of a newspaper page on the right.
Screenshot of the “About Richmond Planet” page, showcasing the title essay.

As a search strategy, when looking for events or terms, it helps to use historic terms that were used in the era in which the newspaper was printed. These terms may not be in use today because they have fallen out of fashion or because they are considered racist or insensitive. We recommend that a researcher first browse the newspaper title to learn what terms may have been used in both African American newspapers and the prominent white newspapers for the period they are interested in to find terms to help their search.

More information about the Library’s African American newspapers can be found in this newly-published guide. Additional research topics on prominent African Americans and events related to Black history can be found in the Topics in Chronicling America.

*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Follow Chronicling America on Twitter @ChronAmLOC

 

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