Academics Hail Public Online Posting of Historic Black Newspaper’s Archives

The posting online this winter of some 1 million newspaper articles published over the past century in the historic AFRO-American newspaper is being hailed by academics as a major development in expanding the general public’s grasp of Black life in America largely ignored by non-minority focused news organizations for decades.

“This is a big deal,” says Howard University history professor Dr. Daryl Michael Scott. “The Afro-American was a chronicle of Black life in the 20th century. Its writers were very in touch with national issues and the power players coming out of Washington. You can’t get any bigger than this. It’s like The New York Times putting all of its archives on line for free.”

The online archives represent the completion of a 10-year project between the Afro-American and Google. Previously limited by its scarce availability on microfilm, taking the archive online will offer users a gold mine of historical insight.

The Web site, www.afro.com/archives, marks the first time a historically Black newspaper has placed its archives online with free access to the public, said publisher and attorney Jake Oliver, great grandson of the publishing company’s founder, John Murphy.

The archive, drawn from the pages of the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., issues of the newspaper, offers a Black perspective on stories that were either ignored by the mainstream press or were reported with a biased, anti-Black slant. Among the stories are some of the seminal moments in Black history, including accounts of the Scottsboro Boys Trial, the Tuskegee Airmen and coverage of the Little Rock Nine.

The paper frequently published a Klan Watch series, detailing the lynching of Blacks in the South, including who was killed and, often, how. There were stories protesting racial segregation in the military and detailed reports from Italy during World War II about the comings and goings of Black American soldiers stationed there.

Oliver says the online posting of the archive is near completion and, when done, will include nearly all of the AFRO’s back issues, including those of its Richmond and Philadelphia editions.

“The opening of the files of the AFRO-American is welcomed news,” says Dr. William Hine, a history professor at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, S.C. “The AFRO-American and the Pittsburgh Courier were key” to informing and educating the Black community during the era of segregation.

For example, says Hines, the local paper did little to no coverage of the historic Orangeburg segregation protests in the early 1960s. The AFRO-American and the Black weeklies in Norfolk and Savannah covered the events on a regular basis. Hine recalls searching the local paper in vain for the obituary of a SCSU dean who died in 1944. The obituary appeared in the AFRO-American “not in the local Orangeburg paper,” he says.

“Those newspapers covered it all,” says Hine, referring to the AFRO-American, Pittsburg Courier, Savannah Tribune and Norfolk Journal and Guide.

Oliver, publisher of the paper since the mid-1980s, says the idea for putting the archives online came as he pored over volumes of past issues in the paper’s storage area. He says he discovered page after page of Black history he never grasped while growing up, and began to worry about how to preserve the stories. “Some of these (stories) were absolutely incredible,” Oliver says of the accounts, which would sometimes crumble in his hands.

Initially, Oliver hoped to transfer the stories to microfilm, and began coordinating with a Canadian company to preserve the documents. The results did not turn out well, he says. But in 2006, Oliver was contacted by Google representatives telling him they had purchased the Canadian company and wanted to take a crack at the project.

After two years of negotiating “we had unlocked the AFRO-American vault,” says Oliver. Under the agreement, the AFRO-American will retain ownership of the material, and the parties will split any revenue from ads on the site.

“So much of our history has been lost through the years that I’m glad the AFRO had the insight to do this,” says Sylvia Y. Cyrus, executive director of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. “For so long it was the Black newspaper that was the voice for the African-American perspective. The idea that the archives are available provides a great opportunity for individuals to look at our history.”