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.



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.


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.


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.)


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!

Anthology Spotlight: The Citizen Poets of Boston: A Collection of Forgotten Poems, 1789-1820

9781611688887.jpgThis week our Anthology Spotlight series returns with a profile of The Citizen Poets of Boston: A Collection of Forgotten Poems, 1789-1820. Citizen Poets, like its straightforward title suggests, is an anthology of poems from Boston periodicals during the early national period. The collection was edited by Paul Lewis, a professor of English at Boston College. Packed with poems and slim as anthologies go, Citizen Poets, published by the University Press of New England, comes in at slightly less than 240 pages and is attractively priced for classroom use at $22.95.

The Origins and Focus of Citizen Poets

Before considering the content of Citizen Poets, especially for a book that could possibly be included in the classroom, it is important to note that the book derives from the work of students at Boston College. While Paul Lewis is listed as the editor of Citizen Poets, the book is a collaborative effort by students at Boston College. Both the “Preface” and “Introduction” to Citizen Poets highlight the role of students in creating this anthology. Citizen Poets derives from increased access to online archives and the opportunities such access provides for the classroom. As the preface to Citizen Poets notes “students, working in small groups over three years, reviewed thousands of poems that were published in Boston magazines between 1789 and 1820” (xiii). The student-involved origin of Citizen Poets would make for an interesting classroom discussion of the role of student work and research. Additionally, Citizen Poets also serves as a model for the incorporation of similar local projects in our own classrooms. Frequently the introductory materials Citizen Poets calls for teachers and students to turn to local projects for the classroom. The origins of Citizen Poets could potential make for fascinating discussion in the classroom as students consider their roles in the creation and dissemination of knowledge. While many colleges and universities tout programs dedicated to undergraduate research, it can remain an abstract concept, especially for students not in the sciences. Considering the origins of a work like Citizen Poets could help make such undergraduate research projects concrete for students. You can read and listen to profiles of Citizen Poets here and here that discus the origin of the project.

The poems included in Citizen Poets were collected from the periodicals that circulated around Boston during the early national period. The anthology focuses on poetry written by “citizen poets.” As the introduction notes, the “citizen” of Citizen Poets “refers not to residents who enjoyed rights and privileges but to residents in general, who, if they were so inclined, could attempt to participate in the give-and-take of Boston’s nascent literary culture” (4). Citizen Poets emphasizes the sights, sounds, and experiences of Boston during the period of 1789 to 1820. The collection focuses on the inclusion of original poetry, much of it anonymous, written for Boston periodicals. While we might not know the identity of many of the poets included in Citizen Poets, the poems provide enough clues for students to speculate about the background of many of the authors.

The Scope and Organization of Citizen Poets

Citizen Poets begins with a brief “Preface” that provides background on the origin of the book, its relationship to both digital and traditional archives, and many of the source periodicals. Citizen Poets also includes a succinct note on the editorial practices employed in the book. The “Introduction” to Citizen Poets includes an overview of Boston, its literary culture, and introduction to the state of print culture during the time period. Additionally, the topic of literary recovery is addressed in an accessible and concise manner. Several poems included in the anthology are mentioned throughout the “Introduction” and provides students with specific examples of poetry that link to the content discussed. The front material of Citizen Poets is characterized by a genuine enthusiasm for the project and the works included. The enthusiasm of the introductory material is marked by a playfulness, like, for example, when it describes the roots of the rivalry between Boston and New York.

Citizen Poets is divided into thematic chapters that focus on particular aspects of life in Boston, and the later chapters represent universal themes, not only ones limited to Boston. In the first chapter, “Coming to Boston,” the poems focus on detailing journeys to Boston. Other chapters focus on gender, the politics of the day, family life, work, and death. There is also an interesting (and fun and challenging) chapter on “Rebuses, Riddles, Anagrams, Acrostics, and Enigmas.” Each chapter includes a brief chapter introduction that situates the chapter’s theme and the poetry in the larger social and print culture context of the era. Unfamiliar people, places, archaic words and spellings, and languages, like Latin, are lightly annotated. Citizen Poets includes a list of periodicals that were used in the creation of the anthology. One appendix includes a sampling of “Representative Editorial Statements” from Boston periodicals, which is great for those of us that might not have access to databases were we can few similar pieces. Citizen Poets ends with a short bibliography highlighting poetry and literary and print culture in Boston and the United States.

Citizen Poets includes some poems by well-known writers, like Judith Sargent Murray, but the majority of poems are anonymous

The Poems of Citizen Poets

The majority of the poems included in Citizen Poets represent the production of anonymous poets contributing to the periodicals of Boston during the early national period. However, there are a few selections from better-known authors such as Judith Sargent Murray and William Cullen Bryant and Susanna Rowson. The lack of canonical writers in Citizen Poets provides an opportunity for students to consider canon formation and to address the tension between high and low art. In short, Citizen Poets marks an excellent occasion to answer that question of “but is it any good?” raised by Jane Tompkins in Sensational Designs. However, as the introductory material points out, and my reading sustains this claim, there is a freshness to the work of these anonymous poems because they aren’t familiar and they aren’t high art. I found that many of the poems were chortle worthy. Some of the poems are indeed “good.” Additionally, many of the poems make great reading because of the simplicity and accessibility of their meter, rhyme scheme, and accessible topics. The poems of Citizen Poets, regardless of their artistry, are pieces that could lead to fruitful discussions and explorations in the classroom. The size of the poems also makes them appropriate for the classroom. The poems of Citizen Poets range in size from a page or two to handful of stanzas or a single short stanza. The format of the poems could lead to a fruitful discussion with students about the form and layout of periodicals.

Citizen Poets reminds us that when we study literature we often forget that authors and readers had lives beyond the page; beyond a world of reading and writing. One poem that I think captures the multifaceted lives of the authors is Susana Rowson’s poem, “God is There,” a work written in response to a performance by The Handel and Haydn Society. Rowson’s poem about one of America’s earliest (and continuing) musical organizations, illustrates for students that people of this time did things like listen to music and attend concerts. Rowson’s short piece, like many of the poems included in Citizen Poets, invites students to engage these poems in the larger contexts of literature, history, art, and music.

Is there Too Much Boston in The Citizen Poets of Boston?

City or regional focused anthologies are a popular genre and often have a specific draw to classrooms. One thing in the back of my mind as I read  Citizen Poets is if it would be, well, too much Boston for students. From my own experience of spending two weeks on a text, or tracing through a theme over the course of a semester, I know that even the most engaged students can grow weary of a course theme or topic. Might students tire of the Boston of Citizen Poets, no matter how evocative the poems and the poets are? Yes, that is a possibility, especially for students that might not engage with the entirety of the text and see the universality of the thematic chapters.

However, the topical scope of the poems included in Citizen Poets makes Boston-fatigue unlikely. Beyond the title of this anthology, beyond the introduction, and beyond the first chapter which features poetry about journeys to Boston, the world of Boston recedes with the later chapters’ thematic focus on universal topics. Yes, these are poets with ties to Boston writing in periodicals circulating around Boston. However, the thematic division of Citizen Poets revolves around the universal: work, family, death, and even word games and having fun. It goes without saying that each of these topics aren’t specific to Boston or any one area, or anyone person, or even any one time period. Citizen Poets takes on universal themes  and would fit well within in many different courses.

From the introductory materials (both to the book and the individual chapters) through the variety of charming and playful poems included, Citizen Poets is an accessible book, even for students in general courses or early career majors. Given the Boston focus coupled with the emphasis on poetry and print culture, Citizen Poets might be best suited for a seminar or topics class consisting of juniors and seniors. Still, I’d be comfortable assigning this text in lower level classes.

Classroom Text Pairings for Citizen Poets

What kinds of texts would pair well with Citizen Poets? Several come to mind for a class on the American city. For example, Citizen Poets would dovetail nicely with texts like The Quaker City, New York by Gas Light, and many others. Another natural pairing would focus on print culture in early American and could include works by Phillis Wheatley, Ben Franklin, and Susana Rowson. The variety and universality of subjects covered in the thematic chapters of Citizen Poets makes for a versatile text.

Additionally, there is an abundance of digital resources that could be paired with Citizen Poets. For example, online resources from the American Antiquarian Society, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the Boston Athenaeum would make a great addition for background material or classroom workshops with archival materials. The Boston and/or Northeastern connections of these archives provides for a wealth of resources. I’ve used many of these websites in my classes and students often respond well to them. In the podcast realm there are several episodes from Liz Covart’s Ben Franklin’s World and The JuntoCast that would pair nicely with the content of the book.

Citizen Poets is a welcome addition to poetry anthologies for the classroom. The variety of poems included, the introductory material, the price, and the pedagogical opportunities makes Citizen Poets an attractive anthology for classroom use.