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


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


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


Lafayette's Return: An Early American Media Event

In summer 2015, a wooden frigate named the Hermione sailed from France to the United States. It was recreating one of the voyages that brought the Marquis de Lafayette to fight in the American War of Independence. The new Hermione was a painstaking replica of Lafayette’s ship, built with authentic eighteenth-century methods. Its voyage, however, became a modern multimedia spectacle—with international television coverage, a website, and a busy Twitter account.

Advanced technology aside, something similar happened nearly two hundred years ago. In the summer of 1824, Lafayette himself, now an elderly man, returned to the United States after many years in France. Enormous crowds of Americans, many of whom were too young to remember the Revolution at all, turned out to see the legendary general in person. His tour of U.S. cities also became a national journalistic event; today, we can trace it through thousands of surviving newspaper articles. Exchanging stories through the federal postal system, newspaper editors helped their readers visualize other communities’ celebrations. By doing so, they helped Americans experience the feeling of membership in one nation.

Lafayette's Return: An Early American Media Event


Reading between the Lines: Exploring Postbellum Plantation Memoirists through Digitized Newspaper Collections

Late nineteenth and early twentieth-century plantation memoirs and reminiscences are an important, though often overlooked, genus of Lost Cause apologia. Printed by some of the nation’s leading publishing houses, these narrative sources tend to foreground a conspicuous nostalgia for the plantation-era South, adopting literary strategies that connect with discourses of paternalism and carefully fashioned vignettes on close affinities, real or imagined, between master and slave.

Despite a recent plethora of books on the southern autobiographical impulse, critical assessment of plantation memoirs and reminiscences has not been forthcoming to date. This is unfortunate, not least because the potential scope of such analysis affords an excellent opportunity to reveal the ways in which white elites used a lifetime’s memories to underpin southern regional identity and history in the years following the Civil War and Reconstruction. This absence of scholarly attention may indicate the unfashionable status of a cluster of authors who, writing many years after the events they describe, privilege fond memories of plantation life and lifestyle. Much ink was spilled in an effort to capture everyday relationships and social interactions between ruling landowners and their dependents that from today’s vantage point can appear overblown, obtuse or outdated.

Reading between the Lines: Exploring Postbellum Plantation Memoirists through Digitized Newspaper Collections


Concerning Sol Hess, Unsung Pioneer of the Continuity Comic Strip: New Findings from America’s Historical Newspapers

The Gumps, a comic strip drawn by Sidney Smith and “watched daily by millions,” is generally credited as being the first continuity strip in which the characters’ situations continued from day to day. There had been continuity in strips before The Gumps began in 1917, particularly in the work of Harry Hershfield (“Desperate Desmond”) and Charles W. Kahles (“Hairbreadth Harry”), but it was The Gumps’ influence that led to the avalanche of soap and adventure comic strips appearing in the 1930s and after. The actual creation of The Gumps is not entirely certain. Sidney Smith, who signed the strips, claimed credit in various newspaper columns, although he gave credit to Captain Joseph Medill Patterson, head of the Chicago Tribune News syndicate, for creating the title. A third name must be added to that creator’s list, a Chicago watch salesman, jeweler and gag-man named Sol Hess.

Concerning Sol Hess, Unsung Pioneer of the Continuity Comic Strip: New Findings from America’s Historical Newspapers


War Hawks, Uncle Sam, and The White House: Tracing the Use of Three Phrases in Early American Newspapers

As a student of the early American republic, I’ve always had a fondness for the period’s newspapers.  Newspapers have been published in America since the seventeenth century, and their number steadily rose in the eighteenth century.  By 1775 there were 42 newspapers, and by 1789 there were 92.  Newspapers continued to proliferate in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, so that by the time of the War of 1812 there were nearly 350.  Most were weeklies, but 49 were published two or three times a week, and another 25 were dailies published in large cities. 

Most newspapers were published by print shops that were typically one- or two-man operations.  Circulation rarely exceeded 1,000 copies (although the readership was much larger), and collecting money from advertisers and subscribers was always a challenge.  Although the papers were usually just a single folded sheet (making four pages in tabloid format), the press of deadlines meant there was a never-ending search for material to fill space.  Publishers routinely borrowed from one another and ran excerpts from the debates in Congress or printed government documents, most of which emanated from the executive branch.  The typical newspaper included numerous ads, some editorial content, reports and commentary on public events (particularly wars), long-winded opinion pieces (often in the form of letters to the editor), literary pieces, poetry, humor, and other ephemera. 

Newspapers and the War of 1812

War Hawks, Uncle Sam, and The White House: Tracing the Use of Three Phrases in Early American Newspapers


W. E. B. Du Bois’s Lectures and Speeches: A Brief History

When you hear the name W. E. B. Du Bois, what comes to mind? Perhaps you think of his book The Souls of Black Folk, or his storied conflict with Booker T. Washington over the best approach to racial justice. Maybe you recall his study Black Reconstruction in America, or his membership in the Communist Party and subsequent move to Ghana. Chances are that the image of Du Bois conjures thoughts about a cerebral intellectual, college professor, ardent activist, and brilliant author. But what if we think about Du Bois as a lecturer and speaker, as a public intellectual whose spoken words contributed as much to the quest for racial and economic justice as his written work did?

This article offers a brief overview of a richly documented yet largely overlooked and understudied aspect of Du Bois’s long and distinguished life: his annual lecture tours. Hundreds of his lectures and speeches survive in his archives at UMass Amherst and other collections around the country, as do his own observations about these public presentations. Enriching our understanding of these aspects of Du Bois’s life and career, black newspapers across the country such as the Los Angeles Tribune, Broadax, and Washington Bee reported on his speeches. This article utilizes numerous streams of primary source evidence; however, it draws significantly on the rich digital holdings of African American Newspapers, 1827-1998, and African American Periodicals, 1825-1995, to document several moments in the fascinating history of Du Bois’s lecture tours. 

W. E. B. Du Bois’s Lectures and Speeches: A Brief History


Former Slaves and Free Blacks in Canada West: Using Early American Newspapers to Trace the Circulation of a Slave Narrative

Between 1830 and the eve of the American Civil War, approximately 40,000 former slaves and free blacks fled the United States for Canada, especially to Canada West (that is, modern-day Ontario).[i] Slavery in Canada West had been in decline since the late eighteenth century, and slavery in the British colonies was officially abolished by an act of British Parliament which took effect in 1834. The number of fugitives travelling into Canada peaked after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 since this law made it far easier for runaways in the Northern United States to be returned to their former masters. It is estimated that 15,000 to 20,000 African Americans entered Canada from 1850 to 1860.[ii]

Until recently critics have ignored the Canadian-dimension of slave narratives, despite the fact that there are more than ten nineteenth-century book-length slave narratives with portions set in Canada West.[iii] Some of these narratives were printed and circulated in the United States, and others in Britain and Canada West. These texts include, for example, Benjamin Drew’s The Refugee or The Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada (1856), Samuel Ringgold Ward's Autobiography of a Fugitive Negro: His Anti-Slavery Labours in the United States, Canada and England (1855), Josiah Henson’s The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as narrated by himself (1849) and Richard Warren’s Narrative of the Life and Sufferings of Rev Richard Warren (A Fugitive Slave) (1856).

Former Slaves and Free Blacks in Canada West: Using Early American Newspapers to Trace the Circulation of a Slave Narrative


Gun-barrel Censorship of a Crusading Editor: Southern Honor, at War with Freedom of the Press

On January 15, 1903, a little before 2 pm, South Carolina Lieutenant Governor James H. Tillman shot N. G. Gonzales, the unarmed editor of The State newspaper. The shooting occurred in Columbia, South Carolina, on the northeast corner of Main and Gervais Streets across from the State House, the bustling intersection of local business and politics. Gonzales had been on his way home to lunch. Tillman had just adjourned the state senate over which he presided, and walked out of the capitol accompanied by two unsuspecting state senators, George W. Brown and Thomas Talbird, who joined him for what they thought would be a pleasant stroll back to their hotel. The corner on which the shooting took place housed a clamorous streetcar transfer station, guaranteeing that there were many witnesses.

Gun-barrel Censorship of a Crusading Editor:  Southern Honor, at War with Freedom of the Press


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