The Archives of Historic Black Newspapers Are Going Digital

The Obsidian Collection is collaborating with Google Arts & Culture to ensure the journalism is preserved for many years to come

Obsidian Harold and Carol image.jpg
Harold Washington, the first black mayor of Chicago chats to Congressional candidate Charles Hayes. The woman on Washington's right, who was cropped out of the photo, is Carol Moseley Braun; she would go on to become the first African-American woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate. The Obsidian Collection

Within a decade of the Chicago Defender’s founding in 1905, Robert Sengstacke Abbott’s weekly had become the most influential black newspaper in the United States. It helped fuel the Great Migration, campaigned for anti-lynching legislation and offered vital coverage of the 1919 Chicago Race Riot. Now, as Adrienne Samuels Gibbs of Chicago magazine reports, digital archivists for the black legacy press are teaming up with Google Arts & Culture to ensure that the Defender’s journalism is preserved for many years to come.

The effort is part of a larger plan to digitize the archives of black newspapers from across the country: the Dallas Post Tribune, the Washington Informer, the Afro American, and many others.

The project got its start when Angela Ford went looking through the archive of the Defender for clippings of her grandmother, a 1950s businesswoman often written about in the paper. Cara Giaimo of Atlas Obscura reports that when Ford found the archives “in bad shape,” it spurred her to found the Obsidian Collection to start digitizing the images for everyone to use.

She began collaborating with Google Arts & Culture last year. Eight free and searchable exhibitions on the digital collection are already live. They explore, among other things, the legacy of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor. There is an exhibition on a housewares show hosted by the Defender in 1959 to raise funds for the paper and entice an emerging black middle class. Another exhibition titled “Hot Fun in the Summertime” features photos of black Chicagoans splashing though gushing fire hydrants and relaxing by the Washington Park Lagoon in an effort to beat the heat.

The Defender’s collection of photographs totals 250,000, capturing an in-depth historical record of Chicago life by black photographers for a black audience. There are images of the boxer Joe Louis handing out milk cartons at a school and shopping at Jones Department Store on Chicago’s south side. There are photos of children on their parents’ shoulders, watching a parade roll past. One photograph captures Washington chatting to Congressional candidate Charles Hayes. Pink lines drawn onto the photo reveal that editors decided to crop out a woman sitting on the mayor’s right side. The woman, as it happens, was Carol Moseley Braun, who would go on to become the first African-American woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate.

“As black people moved about the country, the documentation of their lives was recorded on very few mediums,” the Obsidian website explains. “The African American Newspapers were of the few published tools of the first half of the twentieth century to capture any record of our lives, our goals, our suffering and our strength.”

The Google collection also includes an exhibition on the black aviator Fred Hutcherson Jr., which was sourced from the Shorefront Legacy Archives, a collection of documents, photographs and artifacts that chronicle the lives of African Americans who lived on Chicago's North Shore. Housing these archives on a Google platform will not only preserve precious documents, but also make them easily accessible to a large audience.

“What I love about Google Arts & Culture is you could be standing in line at the grocery store and viewing our archives,” Ford tells Gibbs of Chicago magazine. “ We want everyone to see us.”

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