This Black History Month, I wonder what Malcolm X would think of the Internet. To the man who famously said, “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today,” I would hope that the educational possibilities presented by the Internet would be valued as a way to equalize educational opportunity in the United States.
The Internet certainly helps further equal opportunity in historical research. In the Middle Ages, rare manuscripts and documents were sequestered in monasteries and universities, but in the modern era government agencies, universities, private foundations and libraries hold vast collections of primary sources, including private papers, political documents, rare book collections, and other rich research resources. The archives of these institutions are the repositories of historical artifacts, and anyone engaging in substantive historical research must travel to the archives to access those documents.
While these archives are usually open to the public, it can cost a lot of money to travel to an archive for research, money that students often do not have. For example, when I was writing my doctoral dissertation, one three-day research trip to Wisconsin cost me over $1000 for airfare, hotel, ground transportation, food, and research-related costs such as photocopies. Luckily, I won a scholarship that helped me with all this, but for most students, especially undergraduates, research scholarships are few and far between.
That’s why the availability of extensive online archives benefits all students and scholars. I may be wrong, but when I was in school there always seemed to be a correlation between a student’s individual wealth and the quality of their research. Wealthier students could afford to travel more, while I had to work a series of low-paid retail jobs just to pay my rent. I always felt that their resources were better than mine, leading to more interesting research. Now, online archives bring primary sources right to the student, and make rare documents at far-away archives available at virtually no cost once they have been digitized. Universities and government archives digitize more collections every day, making documents available online to the general public as well as students. This means that any student, rich or poor, can have access to the same resources.
In honor of Black History Month, I’ve listed some of the more interesting and comprehensive online archives in Black History. There are two ways we can categorize websites that contain archives of primary sources:
- Online exhibits are curated by experts who select specific documents, including photographs, scanned primary sources such as letters, diaries, and government documents, and arrange them to create a narrative history on a limited topic. Exhibits usually represent only a fraction of a library or archive’s holdings.
- Online document collections do not tell a story. They providing an index or search tool (often called a “finding aid” on some sites) to a group of digitized documents. Researchers can examine the index and hopefully have an “aha!” moment of discovery when they find a document that helps their research.
Below I have highlighted some of the most compelling online archives of research in black history.
- Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynching in America reveals that Americans didn’t just practice violence against African-Americans, they often gloried in it. Towns often sold postcards of residents, including children, watching or participating in a lynching. This is one of the most famous online exhibits on the Internet; it’s also one of the most difficult and emotionally-wrenching to experience. I show it in my classes every semester, and I have never yet had a student who has not been moved and disturbed by the truths it represents in brutal detail. The exhibit can be experienced by clicking through the screens or by watching it as a flash movie, and one of the benefits of the online aspect is that you can click on a postcard to read what was written on the back by shameless and boastful participants. The exhibit is accompanied by essays by historian Leon Litwack, Congressman John Lewis, and others.
- The Library of Congress (LOC) is not only a resource for the United States Congress, it is also holds one of the major research collections in the world, containing millions of documents on all aspects of American history and culture. Of particular value to students are the online exhibits LOC offers through their American Memory website. For example, the African American Odyssey exhibit is broken down into several sections, where students can read scanned versions of original maps, pamphlets, legal documents, and personal documents, including diaries and letters, that date from the era of slavery and Reconstruction, the Great Depression, and the civil rights movement. Check out the LOC research guide to learn more.
- The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library provides several interesting online exhibits through its Digital Schomberg initiative. In The Abolition of the Slave Trade researchers can explore images, manuscripts from the era, and historical essays to learn about such subjects as African resistance to slavery, abolitionism, and the illegal slave trade.
Online Document Collections:
- National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) calls itself “the nation’s record keeper.” While some documents are classified, about 95% have been declassified and available for public access. On the Black History page of the website, researchers can link to the text of the Congressional Record.
- The Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City is a good example of a more limited regional collection that specializes in providing digitized versions of photographs, documents, artifacts, and other primary sources. The site’s collection is divided into different topics, including Education, Arts and Culture, Politics, Religion, Sports, and one called Eighteenth and Vine, about the city’s historic jazz district. Many rare sources on Kansas City black history, including documents relating to jazz, the Nation of Islam, and prominent leaders in the Kansas City black community, such as educator Ada Crogman Franklin, are included in this collection.
- Afro-American Newspaper Collection is a digital archive of over 100 years of the Afro-American, a newspaper that has served the black community of the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area since its founding by a former slave in 1892. On this site, researchers can enter a search term and generate a list of all the articles printed by the newspaper that contain that term, and then link directly to a scan of that article. To test the site, I searched for “Benjamin Banneker,” to find out if the newspaper had ever mentioned this African-American astronomer, mathematician, and inventor who was a sometime colleague of Thomas Jefferson. I found ten results, going as far back as 1940.
- The Virginia Commonwealth University Black History Archives contains, among other sources, streaming videos of eleven oral histories of leaders of the Civil Rights movement in Virginia (along with transcripts of those interviews.) This collection does not focus on the familiar figures of civil rights icons like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks, but instead does what smaller archives are excellent at: collecting and presenting local history resources.
Remember, you don’t need to be a scholar writing a history paper to learn from these sites, and thanks to the Internet, you don’t need to travel to enjoy them. Click on any one of them to discover the rich and inspiring story of those black Americans who struggled for freedom while building communities, families, and a vibrant culture that has contributed to the development of the United States to this day!