Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


The Robinson Interregnum: The Black Press Responds to the Signing of Jackie Robinson, October 23, 1945-March 1, 1946

 

 

There is little about the life of Jackie Robinson that historians do not know. Each part of his saga has been analyzed time and again. Among the periods sometimes given short shrift, however, is the time between the seminal event of his signing with the Montreal Royals, AAA farm team of Branch Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers, in October 1945 and his arrival in Sanford, Florida, for his first spring training in an unapologetically racist South.

Such is not to say that the period has not also received its chronicle. Jules Tygiel’s Baseball’s Great Experiment is the most substantial account of the sport’s integration, and Tygiel does recount Robinson’s time during the interregnum. So too does David Falkner in his Robinson biography Great Time Coming and Chris Lamb in his account of Robinson’s first spring training. [1] Each of those accounts uses major black weeklies to create a picture of Robinson’s actions and the black response, but looking at smaller black weeklies, less trumpeted than the Pittsburgh Courier and Chicago Defender, a more nuanced picture of that response helps color the solid scholarship that already exists.

The Robinson Interregnum: The Black Press Responds to the Signing of Jackie Robinson, October 23, 1945-March 1, 1946


Medicine on the Rand: The Biko Doctors and South Africa’s Sharp Dissection

The Johannesburg-based Rand Daily Mail’s September 15, 1977, edition contains a striking amalgamation of headlines on page 2: “Kruger Lays Down His Own Condition,” outlining South African Minister of Justice Jimmy Kruger’s attempt to convince anti-apartheid activists that white South Africans deserved most credit for the country’s economic and political development; “SA Faces UN Fury” and “Why UK Is Reluctant on Sanctions,” juxtaposing two divergent international opinions toward redressing the country’s infamous racial policies; “World Shocked at Biko Death;” and “Ex-Policeman Gets Twin Heart,” sharing the story of the world’s seventeenth heart-transplant recipient.  While these may, at first glance, seem a tad disjointed, they reveal the beginnings of a larger thematic story—that of a national medical profession grappling with a new spotlight and its own responsibilities within an oppressive state system.

On December 3, 1967, Louis Washansky received a new heart.  The world’s first successful transplant took place at Groote Schuur Hospital, adjacent to the University of Cape Town’s medical campus.  After a heated, multi-country race to perform such a procedure, news of the operation catapulted its chief of surgery, Christiaan Barnard, into international celebrity.  Media such as the Rand Daily Mail would report on Washansky’s progress (he died just eighteen days after receiving Denise Darvall’s heart) and future transplants, both in South Africa and abroad.

Medicine on the Rand: The Biko Doctors and South Africa’s Sharp Dissection


The Lost Prince of American Bohemians: The Strange Life and Mysterious Death of Ralph Keeler, Literary Vagabond

Ralph Keeler is the most extraordinary American that you’ve never heard of—a performer, traveler and writer who blazed a trail through the heart of literary scene on both sides of the continent in the decade after the Civil War. His astonishing adventures—and, particularly, his equally enigmatic end—can be traced through the pages of America’s Historical Newspapers.

 

A potted biography can hardly do justice to the vicissitudes of Keeler’s short life: as a runaway child, Keeler became part of a minstrel troupe that travelled around the country, including a stint along the Mississippi River in a showboat. Leaving that life behind to pursue an education, he made his way to Europe where he enrolled as a student at Heidelberg University. Returning to America after the Civil War, he gravitated to San Francisco—at that moment, the capital of Bohemian life in the newly reunited nation. It was an apt choice: Keeler’s flamboyant personal style soon captured the attention of the city’s literati, and he became friends with writers like Mark Twain, Bret Harte and Charles Warren Stoddard. At first he worked as a teacher: notice of his address to the “The State Teachers’ Institute,” in his role as “Principal of the Foreign Evening School,” appeared in the Weekly Alta-California, the city’s leading newspaper, in May 1867.

The Lost Prince of American Bohemians: The Strange Life and Mysterious Death of Ralph Keeler, Literary Vagabond


Every Shade and Shadow: Seeing John Singer Sargent, Master Portrait Painter, under the Spotlight of American Newspapers

Born on January 12, 1856, in Florence, Italy, to American parents, John Singer Sargent—one of the most important portrait painters of his time—lived all his life in Europe, including Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Great Britain. He did not touch U.S. soil until 1876 when he was 20. However, his U.S. citizenship and his ancestral roots in New England were sufficient enough for historians to classify him as a prominent American artist. More importantly, Sargent himself considered it an honor to be American; he remained an American citizen all his life, although he chose to live in Great Britain from 1884 until his death in 1925. In 1912 American newspapers reported that he would have received the British Order of Merit had he become a British subject. [1]

Largely due to his American identity, in particular after he attained distinction as a portrait painter of upper-class Europeans, United States newspapers continuously carried news about Sargent during his lifetime. They were, for the most part, generous with their praise of his achievements and success, regarding him as “a master of technique, and as one of the most brilliant artists of his day, with no equal among the men of his generation.”[2] When Sargent was elected a full member of the British Royal Academy in 1897, the Cleveland Plain Dealer went so far as telling its readers that “Sargent has beaten his master, Carolus Duran, on his own ground. He has surpassed Romney in a painter’s skill, while his vivacity is only equaled by Millais. He is almost worthy of the jealousy of Velasquez.”[3]

Every Shade and Shadow: Seeing John Singer Sargent, Master Portrait Painter, under the Spotlight of American Newspapers


Benjamin Franklin: Empire Man or Radical Political Theorist?

As an older man writing his life’s story, Benjamin Franklin bemoaned that, in his youth, when he’d “had such a Thirst for Knowledge, more proper Books had not fallen in my Way.”[1] The books on his family’s shelves were mostly in “polemic Divinity,” he said, and as we know from how his life played out, Franklin’s inclinations tended more toward physics than metaphysics. To make up for the absence of useful reading in his own home, Franklin borrowed books, read widely, and famously practiced writing based on articles in the news journal, The Spectator. At merely thirteen years old, Franklin entered the printing world himself in his brother’s printshop.

Eager to bring Britain’s (especially London’s) cosmopolitan culture to Boston, the Franklin brothers set out to use James Franklin’s printing house and especially his New-England Courant to set a higher standard for learning and culture in Boston. James Franklin also used the Courant to test the limits of press freedom in Boston. (He discovered there wasn’t much, and he was jailed for a month for contempt of court.[2] Benjamin became the publisher while James was in jail, and he published in the newspaper—in case people might like to borrow or buy them—a list of books available in the Courant’s printshop. The books in Franklin’s list suggest the worldliness of the Franklin press, and they indicate the brothers’ interest in views of political freedom being articulated and published in Britain. Indeed, the list provides invaluable insight into the worldly design behind the newspaper and its publishers and friends.

Benjamin Franklin: Empire Man or Radical Political Theorist?


Excavating Antebellum Black Politics via America’s Historical Newspapers

I am finishing a history of antebellum black politics, a little-studied topic for which many of the usual sources are unavailable: white politicians did not record their correspondence with black men, and the latter rarely donated personal papers to libraries, for obvious reasons. However, America’s Historical Newspapers (AHN), used with precision, can produce extraordinary insights into the quotidian fabric of American politics and culture, evidence otherwise unavailable. 

Three examples illustrate its unique capacities.  First, AHN can be extremely productive in combination with another archival base—the decennial manuscript census of the U.S. The latter can be searched online to locate name, state, county, and municipality going back to 1790 (I use archives.com, but there are other genealogical databases).  Prior to 1850, the information is very limited, in that only heads of households were named, with numbers of household members distributed by sex and age range; race is indicated in various ways. Starting in 1850, however, much more information is available: full names of all family members, house numbers, exact ages, employment, real property, literacy, place of birth, and more. The census, combined with hundreds of individual name searches in AHN, has allowed me to construct a prosopography of the black political class in Portland, Maine; New Bedford, Massachusetts; Bucks County, Pennsylvania; and Providence, Rhode Island.

Excavating Antebellum Black Politics via America’s Historical Newspapers


The Mysterious Mr. Carter: Transatlantic Adventures in Early American Finance

In August 1799, as partisan antagonism heated up in advance of the forthcoming U.S. presidential election, the Republican press worked hard to paint the Federalist establishment in the colors of an imperial court. Drawing comparisons with Caesar’s Rome, these newspapers pointed out that leading figures in the political and business elites of the new nation were tied to each other by more than just their shared social position.

“General Hamilton,” wrote a correspondent to the New London Bee, “is married to the daughter of Gen. Schuyler, of New York sister of Mrs. Church. Mr. Church then called Carter, was co-contractor in the army with col. Wadsworth, both of whom made great fortunes by the war. And the son of Mr. C.,” the writer went on, “is about to marry the daughter of Mr. Bingham of Philadelphia, the federal Senator. Thus are our advocates for war cemented together.”

The article was soon reprinted in the Philadelphia Aurora. Its message was clear: if the Quasi-War with France were to escalate, as men like Hamilton seemed to wish, it would be ordinary folk doing the fighting and the dying, while the Federalist aristocracy would be the ones to benefit.

The Mysterious Mr. Carter: Transatlantic Adventures in Early American Finance


Runaway! Recapturing Information about Working Women's Dress through Runaway Advertisement Analysis, 1750-90

Indentured and enslaved women in the American colonies provided domestic, agricultural, and commercial labor, but left behind little documentary evidence of their lives. Some women chose to abscond from service. In Figure 1 below, a runaway woman’s master has recorded details of her appearance in a newspaper advertisement which seeks her return. Written from the master’s perspective, such runaway ads often state the name of the woman, describe her visual appearance, record the clothing she wore when she eloped, and occasionally mention personality quirks and aptitudes. These ads offer intriguing glimpses of women whose story is otherwise difficult to tell through other documentary sources.

Runaway! Recapturing Information about Working Women's Dress through Runaway Advertisement Analysis, 1750-90


The "New People" in China: Using Historical Newspapers to Analyze America’s First Contacts with Asia

The Chinese themselves were very indulgent towards us, and happy in the contemplation of a new people, opening to view a fresh source of commerce to their extensive empire.
—From the journal of Major Samuel Shaw, as reported in Fowle’s New-Hampshire Gazette, 27 May 1785, and other historical newspapers

To the calls and “huzzahs” of astonished merchants, sailors, and dockworkers, the American ship The Empress of China slipped into her berth along the wharves of New York’s East River on 11 May 1785. The Empress was the republic’s first Indiaman—the first American vessel to sail “eastward of Good Hope” into the waters of the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Fifteen months earlier, she had departed New York with a cargo of Appalachian ginseng and Spanish dollars. Now onlookers gaped to see the wares she had brought back from the East.

As soon as customs documents had been signed, ledgers and daybooks filled out, and cargo assigned to auction, the Empress’s business agent, Major Samuel Shaw, sent a hurried message to the corner of Great Dock and Broad Streets.  It was here at Samuel Fraunces’s tavern that the U.S. Secretary of Foreign Affairs, John Jay, maintained his department office. Shaw believed it a matter of urgent business to frame the Empress’s journey to China as a historic achievement that catapulted the new republic into the community of civilized nations.  Shaw himself captured the country’s sense of the significance of the voyage when he prefaced his letter to Jay with the words, “It becomes my duty to communicate to you . . . an account of the reception its citizens have met with, and the respect with which its flag has been treated in that distant region.”

The


Locating Black Canada in the U.S. Periodical Press: A 19th-Century Network of Affiliations

In her time Charlotte Elizabeth Linden would have been called a “race woman.” From the 1890s to the mid-1910s, the Cleveland Gazette reported on her involvement in a wide array of African American causes. At various junctures she served as president of one of the many U.S. literary societies named after Phillis Wheatley; chair of committees for her church; state organizer of the “colored work” of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union; president of the City Federation of Women’s Clubs; representative for the Colored Knights of Pythias; and more. As Dr. Thomas William Burton wrote:

I admire a woman who delights in working with the hand as well as the head; who, when she works, has something to show for her labor; and wherever she may chance to be, can adapt herself to the surroundings, and there remain without assumption. These qualities we can find in the person of Mrs. Henry Linden, of Springfield, Ohio.

By all accounts, Linden would seem to fit firmly within the narrative of late nineteenth-century African American racial uplift, oriented to improving African American life in a way we also recognize as firmly national. Yet, in a self-published book of poetry, Linden included a poem titled “To the Queen of the British Government” in which she described herself as “a Canadian complete.”

Locating Black Canada in the U.S. Periodical Press: A 19th-Century Network of Affiliations


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