Leona Lavong was looking for part-time work, preferably on her university’s campus, when she found something more: a window into Black American life across the decades.
Lavong had “stumbled” into a job at Howard University’s Black Press Archives, she said, digitizing Black newspapers from across the country, including her hometown.
“I know there’s a lot of history in Philadelphia,” said Lavong. She certainly knew how some vibrant Black neighborhoods had fallen on hard times before gentrification had pushed out many of the residents, like her own family. But seeing in the old front pages of the Black-owned Philadelphia Tribune just how the city had changed made that history feel more real.
“Going into the microfilm and seeing all these Black businesses that were started that don’t exist anymore, and, like, looking into all of that and seeing some pictures of neighborhoods that I recognized… actually seeing where it happened in history was really, really fascinating for me,” she said.
Experiences like Lavong’s are one reason Howard’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center (MSRC) started the Black Press Archives last year. In many communities across the United States, the “first rough draft of history,” as the saying goes, has been told by the mainstream press. Often that has meant white reporters who were writing for white audiences. The stories told by Black newspapers about their own communities are less well known.
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The Black Press Archives seeks to change that by digitizing decades of Black publications and making them available to the public. The collection covers over 2,000 publications and 100,000 issues of both U.S. and foreign newspapers.
The project’s origins began in 1973, when MSRC became a research center and home to the collection of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a trade association of Black-owned community publications, said Brian Nightingale, digitization project manager of the Black Press Archives.
There was some back and forth over how the collection would be managed – most of it was in the form of newspapers and microfiche that had been sitting in storage for almost 50 years. But in 2021, Howard received a $2 million grant to digitize the entire collection as part of a five-year project.
“Ultimately, the purpose is to make this collection sustainable for the next 100, 200 years and I think we’re on the right track to do that,” Nightingale said.
Yet with any project, “you’re going to get bumps and bruises along the way,” he said. Over the decades, some of the newspapers and microfilm had been organized and reorganized by staff. Keys for cabinets were lost; one cabinet’s lock broke and had to be forced open. In one case, an entire room of newspapers were damaged by mold and will require special cleaning before Black Press Archives staff can sort through the materials safely.
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One student staff member waiting to go through more materials is Joseph Sturgeon. Originally from Omaha, Nebraska, Sturgeon had volunteered to digitize the Omaha Star, which was founded in 1938 and is still publishing.
Some of the microfilm that was locked away in cabinets included the Omaha Star, and it is still being inventoried. Sturgeon said he can’t wait to get his hands on the material.
He has already begun researching his own family through the Omaha Star with the help of a Nebraska cultural history website, learning about one of his grandmothers who passed away before he was born. He said the local white newspaper at the time did not publish obituaries for Black people, but he found hers in the Omaha Star. Before that, he did not know her birthdate or the day she died, nor any of the family members from her side of the family.
“The Omaha Star allowed me to know what the actual date was,” Sturgeon said. “I didn’t know the names of any of the family that was before her, like the generations that came before her… through the Omaha Star, [I] was able to learn their names and death dates.”
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He also found her name listed as a chair for a local Women’s Day event – a glimpse at who his grandmother was and her interests.
“She isn’t quoted in the paper. It’s still cool to see things like she was a committee chair for this Women’s Day event, she must have been civically active in the community at the time. That lets me know a little more about who she was as a person,” Sturgeon said.
Sturgeon’s interest goes beyond genealogical revelations. Omaha was once the site of Black activism that’s lesser known than other historic protests – Black students conducted sit-ins to advocate for civil rights, while Black workers took part in labor actions at a local Coca-Cola plant.
“There is, like, some oral history you can go back and look at, but there are just certain things where, if it wasn’t reported in the newspaper in the United States, that it never really happened,” Sturgeon said.
“I think that function of the Black press is really important. Just making sure that important developments were actually reported on instead of completely, wholesale ignored.”
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Nightingale believes that the Black Lives Matter movement and George Floyd protests in recent years have made students more interested in history – and also been a reminder that the history they have been taught sometimes omits the stories of Black people.
Recent events and the project itself have cemented for Brandon Brown, Black Press Archives’ communications director, the importance of giving more people access to the past.
“It’s been exciting to see in the larger society where [Black perspectives have] kind of historically been relegated to be a niche… Not just the fact that these media forms exist, but just the true value of them,” Brown said.
“I think that what’s really great about this work is that it does allow for an era where anyone can tell a story. I think it allows for us to tell stories or to share stories and bring stories to the public consciousness that were erased, that weren’t told or not told accurately in previous times.”
Nightingale believes that the project will not only encourage people to learn about the Black press of the past, but also connect to Black newspapers still publishing today.
“Right now there is a divide. You talk about newspapers in general. Most young people don’t actually go get a physical newspaper for one, or look at digital [publications] for that matter,” Nightingale said.
“I know that these institutions historically don’t get a lot of love and sometimes it can be from the Black community also, and that could be because folks just don’t know,” he said.
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Nightingale said he himself was among those who didn’t know there was still a Black-owned newspaper where he grew up in Jacksonville, Florida.
“That’s something that as soon as I went home, I shared with my parents and they started giving me that copy [of the paper],” he said. “So it’s those kind of moments for me that is like, ‘Wow!’”
For Lavong, knowing more about Philadelphia’s Black history has been bittersweet.
“I think actually seeing papers from the time period when a lot of Black people were living there, it made me really happy and it gave me a sense of pride. But at the same time, like knowing how it looks now, it was really sad,” she said.
Lavong said her great-grandmother still lives in one of these neighborhoods and receives frequent knocks on the door from people asking if she’s willing to sell her home. Learning about the past has made Lavong want the family to hold on to the house and their connection to the past.
“That is a piece of history and … it belongs to my family,” she said.