Americas and Oceania Collections blog

15 June 2022

Electronic resources for African American History

As we continue our series highlighting the breadth of electronic resources available for researchers at the British Library, this blog will discuss some of the digitally available collections which can support those studying African American History. All resources can be accessed from our Electronic Resources page, and some are available remotely once you get your free Reader Pass.

N.B. This article may contain images with descriptions which are outdated and/or culturally/racially insensitive

1. African American Communities

Let’s start with African American Communities which gives access to hundreds of pieces of primary source material for researchers examining racial oppression across social, political, cultural and religious arenas in America. You can study a range of items, from scrapbooks to official records, oral histories to 360-degree objects, which focus on Atlanta, Chicago, St Louis, Brooklyn and locations in North Carolina. Topics covered by this resource’s collection include racism, desegregation, civil rights movements and expressions of African American culture displayed through artists, musicians and more.

Before delving into a few of the materials the resource provides, the platform itself has a number of very useful features to help navigate its vast offering that are worth mentioning. The ‘Nature and Scope’ link on the main landing page gives a comprehensive overview of the themes and source archives you can view. You can choose to browse items in a number of ways as all documents have been indexed using multiple categories, or you can also do a general full text search. Community case studies and thematic guides and essays are also available which offer handy entry points into the collections and give a steer as to where to start. One of my favourite features is ‘My Archive’ where you can save and revisit your previous searches and any documents you’d like to return to, quickly and easily.

A few examples will demonstrate the breadth of material on offer from this rich resource.

Researchers examining civil rights protests and movements will be interested in the collection of materials generated or collected by the Chicago Urban League. Items held here explore one of the most famous civil rights protests for open housing, which took place near Marquette Park in the summer of 1966, and its aftermath. The protest contributed to the creation of Chicago as a racially open city as many Black residents moved into its vicinities. However, as this 1977 report shows, even some 11 years later, racial tensions and violence were very much still in existence.

Conclusions of the Marquette Park
Conclusions of the Marquette Park: A descriptive history of efforts to peacefully resolve racial conflict report, 1977 © University of Illinois at Chicago Library, Special Collections, access provided by African American Communities e-resource from Adam Matthew

Other materials in the Chicago Urban League collection offer insights into the social services available to African Americans between 1935 and the 1980s, including those regarding reproductive health, youth and welfare services, general health and access to hospitals, and issues related to the aging and those with mental illness.

Researchers interested in the literary and political history of African Americans will be enthused by access to The Messenger, provided by The Newberry Library, Chicago. Founded in New York in 1917, the latter years of the publication from 1925 to its final issue in 1928, can be accessed by this e-resource. Significant in the early stages of the Harlem Renaissance, the magazine helped voice African American intellectual, cultural and political expression through articles, short stories, letters, reviews, songs and art. It featured a number of writers in the early stages of their career, for example, Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘The Eatonville Anthology’ was first published in the September 1926 edition of The Messenger. Her short story instalments in the magazine told of various characters living in an African American community just outside Orlando and used authentic dialect. Her work represented an honest picture of Black culture in the American south in the early 20th century.

The Messenger cover and Eatonville Anthology
The Messenger, World’s Greatest Negro Monthly, September 1926 with excerpt of Zora Xeale Hurston’s The Eatonville Anthology © The Newberry Library, Chicago, access provided by African American Communities e-resource from Adam Matthew

Straying slightly from the more conventional primary source material one might expect from such e-resources, a quick mention goes to the Weeksville Interactive Exhibition also available on African American Communities. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the Historic Hunterfly Road Houses located in Weeksville (now Brooklyn) are New York landmarks preserving the homes belonging to a free and independent African American community. The interactive exhibition allows users to explore the layout and objects within the homes from the 1860s – 1930s, complete with 360-degree photography, opening a door onto how African American life in a bygone era could have looked for some. The packaging and marketing choices on the food and drinks packaging are particularly striking and could be great resources for researchers of culinary history and art.

Ginger Ale bottles and tinned goods
Ginger Ale bottles, n.d. and food tins, 1930s Hunterfly Road House, 1930-1939 © 5th of July Resource Center for Self-Determination & Freedom, Weeksville Heritage Center, access provided by African American Communities e-resource from Adam Matthew

2. Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century: organisation records and papers, parts 1 and 2

Next up is Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century: organisation records and papers, parts 1 and 2 from ProQuest’s History Vault, which is another fantastic resource for researchers to turn to study both well- and lesser-known events and social movements in American history. A gathering of materials from a multitude of perspectives, this e-offering features records of the NAACP, SCLC, SNCC, CORE, and federal records on the Black Freedom Struggle. Key archival material is available to search and view, including digitised letters, newspapers, photographs and official reports.

Researchers examining many aspects of the African American fight for freedom in 20th-century America will find it a very useful research tool indeed, to name one example: those studying the Great Migration and its impact on Black America can access materials from the 1929 National Interracial Conference regarding African American women in industry. Much of the material from which this selection draws is rich in detail on the living and working conditions of American workers. The extracts below are from a study of 15 U.S. States by the U.S. Women’s Bureau showing details of Black women workers, including their industries, numbers of employees, their hours, and facts concerning the conditions under which they worked, and earnings.

Median ages and industries from National Interracial Conference report
Examples of pages from National Interracial Conference, African American Women in Industry: From a Study of 15 States by the U.S. Women's Bureau, records of U.S. Women's Bureau, 1928 © 2022 ProQuest LLC, access provided by Black Freedom Struggle e-resource from ProQuest

Continuing the vein of study regarding the history and impact of Black women in America, users may also be interested to note an abundance of newspaper clippings about activist Angela Davis, from the African American Police League Records, 1961 – 1988, to which the Black Freedom Struggle e-resource offers access. Provided by the Chicago History Museum, the e-folder includes clippings from 1970 to 1972 and covers key moments surrounding Davis’s trial. With cuttings from mass-readership papers such as the Chicago Daily News, to African American newspapers and university student newspapers, the selection to sift through should provide researchers with many angles from which to examine the prolific impact of, and response to, Angela Davis, in Chicago specifically.

Angela Davis cuttings
Selection of items from ‘News clipping: Angela Davis, 1972’ folder from African American Police League provided by Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Illinois © 2022 ProQuest LLC, access provided by Black Freedom Struggle e-resource from ProQuest


3. Race Relations in America

Packed with primary sources you might not find elsewhere, another e-resource rich in ephemeral material offered by the British Library is Race Relations in America. The origins of the collection digitised for this resource are sourced from the records of the Race Relations Department of the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, housed at the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans.

Examining three pivotal decades in the struggle for Civil Rights in America, the items made digitally accessible by this resource give particular voice to the every-person: telling stories through the eyes and work of sociologists, activists, psychologists, teachers, ministers, students and homemakers, those on the ground trying to make change happen. Through correspondence, personal testimonies, maps, and marketing publications, researchers will find unexpected items providing an interesting look at the ways in which Civil Rights and calls for desegregation were advocated from within the home and beyond. This calendar below, entitled ‘Dateline for Freedom’, is an example of such and includes photographs of people of different races interacting in educational and leisure activities.

Calendar, Dateline for Freedom, 1951-1954
Calendar, Dateline for Freedom, 1951-1954 © Physical rights retained and permission granted by the Amistad Research Center, access provided by Race Relations in America e-resource from Adam Matthew

Race Relations in America provides access to a wealth of documents highlighting different responses to the challenges of overcoming prejudice, segregation and racial tensions. Key themes examined by the e-resource include desegregation of schools, industries and public transport; the role of the Church in the Civil Rights Movement and in African American Communities; and the migration of African Americas from the rural South to urban centres, and the industrial and domestic impacts that came with it. As mentioned before, the ‘My Archive’ feature is again available here – meaning one can save every document, search result or individual image to return to at any point.

As well as sharing the experiences of everyday African American people, the resource also contains documents and materials from pioneering names in the Civil Rights Movement. You can listen to the speeches of Thurgood Marshall, along with over 100 hours of further recordings from those seeking to understand and improve racial tensions. You can also view Champions of Democracy, a pamphlet on citizenship activities at Highlander Folk School, authored by Septima Clark. Highlander, Tennessee, was the site of leadership training for southern civil rights activists and it was where Rosa Parks had attended a workshop on schools desegregation in the summer of 1955.

Highlander Folk School: 'Champions of Democracy'
Highlander Folk School: 'Champions of Democracy', n.d., © Physical rights retained and permission granted by the Amistad Research Center, access provided by Race Relations in America e-resource from Adam Matthew

This brief blog only touches the surface when it comes to the fully accessible, digital collections that one can use for researching African American history and American racial oppression. Other e-resources on the subject that that Library provides access to, and that are available for free with your Reader Pass, include History Vault: African American Police League Records, 1961-1988, Slavery, Abolition and Social Justice, 1490-2017, Slavery & Antislavery: a Transnational Archive, and Slavery in America and the World: History, Culture, and Law. Don’t forget that newspaper and periodical-specific e-resources also offer a wealth of material that could be of interest – take a look at African American Newspapers Series 1 1827-1998 and Series 2 1935-1956 (Readers with a valid pass have remote access to this resource), and Baltimore Afro-American, 1893-1988.

Look out for next month’s instalment in this blog series focusing on our e-resources that support researchers examining the Caribbean, past and present.

By Rachael Culley, Curator North American Published Collections Post 1850

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