Reporting the Revolution: Teaching the Black Freedom Struggle through Historic Newspapers

Front page of the Richmond Planet, July 8, 1922

This post was written by Melanie R. Holmes, a doctoral candidate at Howard University and a 2022 Library of Congress Junior Fellow.

Teaching the centuries-long struggle for Black freedom in K-12 schools typically involves a slavery-centered curriculum culminating with African American emancipation after the U.S. Civil War but with equality finally being achieved due to the nonviolent protests of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the passage of key civil rights legislation. Through the historic newspapers available online on the Library’s Chronicling America site, teachers can discover sources that allow students to peel back seldom-explored layers of the Black freedom struggle as it affected not just the U.S., but most of the world.

The primary sources highlighted in this blog post demonstrate how newspapers can portray African descendants as agents of their own freedom. They deepen the narrative of the Black freedom struggle through three themes:

  • Slave resistance;
  • Pan-Africanism; and
  • Contributions of Black women.

Students can continue exploring these themes and others through their own searches and their own projects. This will equip students to make connections between the historic and current fight for racial justice.

From the Omaha Guide, September 10, 1932

Slave Resistance

News articles can illustrate stories of enslaved Black men and women who rebelled against their captivity. Students can:

Pan-Africanism

News articles can emphasize Black unity through the unprecedented Pan-African politics of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Students can:

Contributions of Black Women

News articles can exemplify the heroism of Black women in developing successful strategies against racial discrimination. Students can:

  • Discuss the roles Black women played in the development and growth of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), as in this article on Ella J. Baker, “Finish Fight NAACP Official Urges,” Dayton Daily Bulletin, April 6, 1946;
  • Compare and contrast the roles of Black men and Black women in the Black freedom struggle.

Newspapers can offer multiple points of view that provide a chance to see a more complicated narrative of events. Some articles come from newspapers that are sympathetic to the subject being described, while others are published by newspapers that are openly hostile. Chronicling America will allow students to analyze multiple perspectives, making them better equipped to develop informed perspectives of their own.

Teachers may choose to examine themes of slave resistance, Pan-Africanism, and contributions of Black women independently using the suggested learning outcomes. They may also join these themes into a larger unit to chronologize the events, individuals, and organizations that compose a crucial lineage of Black activism which has paved the way for the present Movement for Black Lives.

How would you use newspapers to teach the Black freedom struggle?

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