Using Digital Archives to Teach Nineteenth-Century African American Writers

This fall, I’m teaching an upper-level English course on nineteenth-century African American writers. When I was planning the course, I knew I wanted to give students, most of whom are seniors majoring in English, History, or Ethnic Studies, practice working with the growing body of digital archives on nineteenth-century black writers. Particularly, I was interested in helping them learn to take advantage of the digitized African American periodicals that are available in three of our college library’s databases: America’s Historical Newspapers, African American Newspapers, and Accessible Archives.

In other nineteenth-century American literature classes I’ve taught, I’ve spent one day on digital archival research, introducing it and having students try it out. Students like it as an in-class exercise, but very few end up continuing to delve into the archive for their end-of-term papers. So this term, I’m committing to devoting a bit of time to the archive for each author we read. I intend this strand of the course as a practical help for potential use in their research papers, but primarily I want us to dig into the digital newspaper archive on a regular basis to help students get into a nineteenth century mindset—old fonts, tiny print, narrow newspapers columns, business ads, letters to the editor, and all. The treasure trove of black periodicals available is a window into nineteenth-century African American life that most undergraduate students I’ve taught haven’t even considered exploring.

Our term only started a couple of weeks ago, so I may have more to report in a future blog post. For now, I’ll outline two classroom exercises we’ve done, then share an archive-centered writing assignment for a short paper.

Find the author, Part 1: On paper

We began our term reading David Walker’s 1829 pamphlet Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. For this exercise, I refrained from telling students anything at all about Walker’s biography. Instead, I found mentions of David Walker in three different 1827 issues of the first African American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, edited by Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm and published from 1827 to 1829. I printed out the relevant pages of each newspaper and passed them out to students. Without cluing them in to where and why Walker was mentioned in each paper, I asked them to take out pens or pencils and look for places Walker was mentioned, then to circle them. I also asked them to read the newspaper pages and take notes right on the page if they saw other things they found interesting, particularly as those things might help them understand David Walker’s contexts or work a little better. They seemed charmed by being asked to get this old school with pencils and photocopied newspaper sheets, and they had fun with it.

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Students found the three things I set them up to find, but it took them awhile because they typically thought what they were looking for would be an article or a book review. Instead, they found a notice of a community fundraiser meeting for Freedom’s Journal held at David Walker’s house in Boston, Walker’s name on a long list of agents for the newspaper, and a tiny ad advertising Walker’s used clothing store in Boston. We first talked about how they had just done archival research to find out things about Walker that they didn’t know. Students seemed excited by the idea that they didn’t always have to depend on scholarly editions (or Wikipedia) to learn about these writers—that in the archive, there’s a lot of information that they can find themselves.

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Students noticed several ads for schools for African American children in Boston and in New York, and they made the connection to Walker’s anger at the lack of educational resources keeping black children and adults in a state of ignorance. One student even noticed that the schools advertised the teaching of English grammar—something Walker goes to great lengths to advocate for in Article II of his Appeal. Other students were interested in Walker’s clear position as a leader in the black abolitionist movement in the North. Walker is sometimes cast as a fringe figure, but the issues of Freedom’s Journal made it clear to us that he was at the center of the free black community and the black abolitionist movement.

Find the author, Part 2: Digital

Next up on the syllabus was Maria W. Stewart; we read several of her speeches and her 1831 pamphlet Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality. This time, I asked students to bring in laptops (but you could easily do this exercise in a computer lab). I told them to go into our library’s databases and go to either America’s Historical Newspapers, African American Newspapers, or another, non-periodical digital archive called Women Writers Online. I asked them to search for Maria W. Stewart, realizing that they would probably have to try different searches: “James Stewart,” her husband; “Maria Miller,” her maiden name; “Mrs. Steward,” the name under which she published her pamphlet; “Maria Stewart Boston,” “Maria Steward Boston,” “Pure Principles of Morality,” etc. Stewart is better known than she used to be, but she’s still not a household name, nor does she appear in every African American writers course. I wondered how much of a presence she had in the newspapers of her day.

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I had not done this search beforehand and so was genuinely curious going into the exercise about what students would find. Several found Stewart’s obituary in a newspaper called the People’s Advocate, where they discovered that she republished an expanded edition of her 1832 work Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart that included biographical information about her time as an educator and lecturer in New York, as well as her work in the Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War. Others saw how frequently she was mentioned during 1831 and 1832 in William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper The Liberator (Garrison knew Stewart and published the first edition of Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality as a pamphlet in 1831; he also published her pieces in the newspaper). Another student looked up the first edition of Meditations, saw that it was presented to the African Baptist Church of Boston, then went off on an Internet hunt for more information about this church. She found photos that she shared with us of the restored church, which is now part of the Museum of African American History in Boston. (You should go to this museum if you’re in Boston! It’s small but excellent, and you can even walk up to the podium where Maria Stewart once spoke—along with Frederick Douglass and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, among many others.)

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Mostly, students wanted more. And somewhere out there in a physical archive, there probably is more, waiting for someone to find it. At least, that’s my optimistic hope. There’s not that much on Stewart, though, in these databases. We had a great discussion about what it meant to them to look for black women in the archives, and how it felt both exciting and frustrating to find and not to find Maria Stewart.

Assignment idea: Adopt-a-periodical paper

I assign my literature students a variety of short papers over the course of the term. I ask them to choose an author from the syllabus and select one of several paper approaches that I provide. One of the approaches I’m trying out in this course is what I’m calling “Adopt-a-Periodical.” Here’s the text of this paper assignment (if you like it, feel free to steal or adapt):

There’s probably no better way to contextualize the works we’re reading this term than to explore the rich history of African American newspapers. Nineteenth-century African American newspapers shine a light on the daily political and social concerns of black folk of the period, and they also provide a framework to understand the world referred to in the poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and drama we’ll be studying.

For example, reading Frederick Douglass’s Narrative and then reading a few issues of one of his newspapers can provide additional insight into Douglass as a writer and activist working in more than one literary genre. Looking at the layout of the issues of the Christian Recorder in which Julia Collins’s The Curse of Caste was serialized can give you a sense of how 19th century readers might’ve approached the novel, surrounded as it was by ads, editorials, and news stories.

For your papers, choose one work from the syllabus, and choose one African American newspaper that was being published the year that the work you chose was published. (These newspapers are available through these library databases: America’s Historical Newspapers, African American Newspapers, or Accessible Archives.) Then read at least 3 or 4 issues of that year’s newspaper to get a sense of what is going on in African American life during the year the work you chose was published. Pay attention to everything in the paper: the layout, the masthead, the ads, the poetry, the letters to the editor, the subscription lists, the notices, the editorials, etc.

Things you might address in your short paper include (but don’t feel limited to these):

  • What would you say are the main social and political aims of this periodical, based on what you have read?
  • How do the editors convey their social/political stances?
  • What do you learn about 19th century African American life from this periodical? (Reference specific articles, advertisements, letters to the editor, etc., in your response.)
  • How does reading this periodical help you to understand the particular context of a literary work or works on our syllabus?

Troubleshooting: finding the resources

There are practical limitations to the digital archives approach, of course. Not all libraries at all institutions will subscribe to archival databases like the ones I’ve been using. However, there are some great digital archives that are available to all: the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America is excellent, and C19, the Society of Nineteenth Century Americanists has a list of accessible online archives here. If you want to expand past periodicals, the University of Delaware’s Colored Conventions project is an excellent resource. There’s always the Internet Archive—gigantic to search, but you never know what you might find. I’m sure many of you could recommend more, which I hope you’ll do in the comments section!

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5 thoughts on “Using Digital Archives to Teach Nineteenth-Century African American Writers

  1. This is an ingenious pedagogical tool I’m planning to adopt sometime in the near future. When I started my semester with Walker this year, I began, essentially, in the same place that you did. However, instead of having students look for his name in Freedom’s Journal, I highlighted it for them. When I get to Garrison and Russwurm, I think I will have them examine the papers and take a little time with them. Unfortunately, we do not have access to the African American Newspaper database here. It’s a great resource that I wish we had.

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