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!

The #DHattheCC Project: Digital Humanities Needs Community Colleges

PALS Note: We are excited to have a guest post from Tawyna Ravy. Ravy is a PhD Candidate at George Washington University and an instructor at Northern Virginia Community College.  Ravy’s post is written in response to a question posed at the end of our recap of MLA panels on teaching with archives and the digital humanities. We asked if anyone who was an adjunct or non-tenure track professor had experience creating digital humanities projects with students. Ravy responded with some insights she gained in the community college classroom and through working with the Digital Humanities at the Community College (#DHattheCC) group. 


After attending the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on Implementing the Digital Humanities in Community Colleges last summer, I was determined to try my hand at teaching with digital humanities (DH) at my main campus, Northern Virginia Community College, where I teach primarily composition classes.

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Participants at the NEH Institute via Russell Shitabata

Up until that point, DH had been only a scholarly pursuit for me, since I had convinced myself that a community college environment was not conducive to implementing DH and that an unfunded, underpaid adjunct graduate student was unlikely to be in a position to do anything meaningful about it. I had good reason to feel this way—the large majority of DH scholarship, research, and projects which currently exist are produced for and by large institutions with significant budgets, well-staffed and resourced libraries, and for academically high achieving students in small groups, definitely not reflective of my community college environment.

However, my experience at the institute changed my thinking dramatically. Having the time, and financial support thanks to NEH, to develop potential lessons and activities was key to changing my attitude about bringing DH into my classroom. Additionally, the enthusiastic support of my fellow institute participants was enough to bolster me even after I returned home to face a new academic year.

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Wordle from NEH Institute

Locally, Tom Rushford, a colleague at NOVA and fellow institute participant, and I created a DH interest group for community college faculty and staff. I was immediately encouraged by the response from our library staff and fellow humanities faculty. We decided to host a Community College THATCamp in June 2016 in order to create a venue for the kinds of conversations we had at the institute and to share what we learned. Though most of our efforts have been solely about getting the THATCamp up and running, we have also had sessions wherein we explore how we might use existing campus resources for our DH instruction, and every week I pull together resource lists for anyone interested in implementing DH in community colleges.

We still struggle with the aforementioned lack of resources and templates designed specifically for community college environments. Part of our mission as institute participants is to address this gap in every way that we know how—to publish, to develop programs, to channel funds, and to experiment with DH in community college settings. When I read about a potentially invigorating idea for implementing DH in the classroom, I have to make more than a few calculations before trying it out.

  • I always have to consider scale. Each of my sections, and as an adjunct I can teach up to four in a semester, is comprised of 25 students.
  • I have to consider resources. By no means can I assume that all, or any, of my students have mobile devices, laptops, or even reliable access to the internet or a computer on a regular basis; though I am lucky to be on a campus where students can rent laptops and ipads from the library like movies from a redbox machine.
  • I have to consider diverse preparation. My students come from everywhere, from every type of educational background, and with widely varying levels of academic (as well as technical) preparation.
  • Finally, I have to consider efficacy. Teaching at my community college often feels like a contact sport played on a chess board with a deck of cards. Each class is so vastly different from the last, I’m constantly having to speed up, slow down, reshuffle. Taking precious class time to introduce a new technology has to be part strategy and part gamble – and I have to be pretty certain there will be a payoff to go ahead with it.

Given all that, I still consider implementing DH as one of the most valuable things I can do for my students and for the field of DH, which can benefit greatly from the inclusion of students like mine. Implementing DH is not just about utilizing technology in the classroom. It is not learning how to use Blackboard better or teaching students how a blog platform works. It is both using technology to discover new ideas within the humanities and enabling the humanistic inquiry of technology itself and how that technology shapes our understanding. One of our institute presenters, Matthew Gold, tweeted, “If DH cannot succeed at community colleges, it cannot succeed. Period.” My students’ diverse backgrounds and varied educational experiences are, in fact, assets to the digital humanities. As Roopika Risam, another institute presenter, said in her talk about decolonizing DH, my students, by and large, reflect the absent voices in DH, which is largely rooted in the practices of white, middle-class men. I want to enable my students to participate confidently in this arena and to productively challenge the existing parameters of DH. Jesse Stommel, also urged us at the institute to not see teaching as uploading information and skills into our students, but rather see it as downloading information and skills into the world. I can think of no better way to prepare my students for the world and the world for my students, than implementing DH in my classroom. Most importantly, I want students to see themselves in the practice of DH and how it connects to their communities. I do not have it all figured out yet, but I have begun playing, as Jesse would say.

So far, I have experimented with DH in both College Composition I and II. At my institution, Comp I focuses on basic college-level writing skills and Comp II focuses on rhetoric and argument. We have relative freedom to teach with whatever readings we want, though we do have a standard textbook for each class. I am still navigating my options when it comes to integrating DH, but I found out that I have basically two main avenues: 1) Utilize existing DH projects for analysis and 2) Utilize existing DH tools to model and create writing/rhetoric projects.

The easiest option is incorporating existing projects to teach content or to practice analysis. Take a look around the net, and I’ll bet you find at least one fascinating DH project in your discipline; for excellent examples, check out PALS’ Digital Resources. In my own class, for example, I use the Mapping Police Violence Project as part of a series of readings on the rhetoric surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement. We use the language of this project, notably the biographies of all the unarmed victims, to study written rhetoric and the infographics to study visual rhetoric.

The second option takes more time and resources, but it can enable students to produce original content. Many tools exist to study text (such as Wordle, Voyant, and Juxta), to map events or locations (Google Maps, Storymap, Myhistro), and present collections or content (Omeka and WordPress). So far, my students and I have played with blogging platforms and meme/infographic creators, but I plan on using a text analysis tool to study patterns of rhetoric (perhaps for a series of well-known politicians?), so the students can draw conclusions and make comparisons.

The most important element that I’ve found in this process is to build in a reflection component. Whether it is written, presented, or just discussed, asking students to reflect on the tools, the results, the data—this is where the value percolates. There is really no use in teaching them how to create a meme if you don’t also ask them what they discovered about presenting an argument in that format or how they see memes functioning as argument platforms in society.

What I love most about DH in the classroom is the way it helps students become active producers of knowledge instead of, solely, passive recipients. It challenges what they know about the learning process and their established roles as either technically inept or so-called digital natives. And while DH is not without its pitfalls, I have confidence that the inclusion of my students in that discourse will only make it better.


ravyTawnya Ravy is an ABD PhD. candidate at The George Washington University. She is the project lead for the Salman Rushdie Archive and her research concerns include South Asia Literature, diaspora, and the digital humanities. Ravy has been an instructor of composition and literature in higher education since 2009. She currently teaches as an adjunct instructor at Northern Virginia Community College. Follow her on Twitter @LitAmbitions and on her website.