Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


Archives of Freedom: Fugitive Science in Antebellum Black Newspapers

Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture (NYU Press, 2017) traces a forgotten history of black resistance to the ascendency of racial science in the nineteenth century. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, naturalists, medical doctors, comparative anatomists, and a variety of gentleman scientists became increasingly interested in the construction of human taxonomies that justified regimes of settler colonialism and enslavement in the Americas. Enslaved and indigenous people were easy targets for human experiments because of their capture and confinement within spaces like the plantation, the slave ship, and later, the reservation. Their bodies were also required as embodied “proofs” of the racial hierarchies being imagined and constructed in the minds of white settlers. While the history of scientific and medical exploitation is a dark and unsettling story, one that poignantly illustrates the nature of racial subjection in the Americas more broadly, it was not without its opponents. Indeed, at every turn in the history of racialized experimentation, we are able to locate subjects who were resisting, challenging, and refusing the conditions of the their exploitation.

 

Archives of Freedom:  Fugitive Science in Antebellum Black Newspapers


Reverend Peter Thomas Stanford Pushes Back: The Politics of Antislavery in the Early Twentieth-Century Press

In the late 1890s, Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee Institute’s principal and a former slave, was one of the most recognized black men on the planet.  His agenda for enabling jobs and education for post-Reconstruction black southerners also assuaged many white Americans’ anxieties about black economic competition and political empowerment. Another former slave turned educator shared Washington’s politics and vied with him for fame.  The Rev. Peter Thomas Stanford, M.A., M.D., D.D., L.L.D., and PhD, was hailed by the Sept. 12, 1903, Richmond Planet as “the next best known man in the work of educating his people to Booker T. Washington.”

Born in slavery in Virginia and raised briefly among Native Americans, Stanford became a writer and educator, an activist against lynching and racial violence, an institution-builder, and the first African American pastor of a church in Birmingham, England. His writings—autobiographies, a pamphlet, a textbook (three editions), speeches, sermons, and newspaper articles—demonstrate the evolution of African American print productions after the Reconstruction. Our forthcoming book on Stanford (UGA Press, 2020) revives the story of his transatlantic activism and cultural politics in Canada, England, and the United States.

 

Reverend Peter Thomas Stanford Pushes Back: The Politics of Antislavery in the Early Twentieth-Century Press


Finding Women in the Flash Press: From Entrepreneurs and Entertainers to Criminals and Consumers

 

American Underworld: The Flash Press offers rare glimpses of women's place and presence in nineteenth-century northeastern American cities. The digital collection is particularly rich in evidence of women as entrepreneurs, entertainers, and consumers of goods and cultural products. Cultural historians and literary scholars will also find fictional women across the database, with women appearing in serialized stories as sweethearts and wives, mothers, victims of crime, and working women.

It is well worth noting that the women represented in the pages of these newspapers are, overwhelmingly, white. Black women appear infrequently in news of criminal activities or as contemptible stereotypes of black womanhood. One brief but notable reference to a non-white woman is a small item in an 1835 edition of the Albany Microscope: Afong Moy, a Chinese woman who made a career out of speaking and performing before American audiences, was planning to write a book about the American people.

 

Finding Women in the Flash Press: From Entrepreneurs and Entertainers to Criminals and Consumers


Rascalities and Notorieties: Salacious and Satirical Illustrations in the Flash Press of the Nineteenth Century

The early 1840s saw the rise of new underground newspapers, known collectively as the “flash press,” dedicated to the licentious appetites of the American urban male. Their readers saw these publications as satirical, irreverent and ribald; but to their opponents, they were obscene, vulgar and immoral. At first glance, they looked no different from the dozens of daily and weekly newspapers available in New York and Boston at the time, but the illustrations on the front page of nearly every copy were a tipoff that their content would not be ordinary. The pictures were often double entendre—sometimes less than double—and even when not blatantly sexual, they were always lively and eye-catching.

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To one who chronicles American vice and crime, these rare nineteenth-century papers provide a missing link—a sympathetic view of the demimonde to balance the moralistic tone taken by mainstream publications of the time. These bawdy newspapers also offer a unique perspective for researchers in other scholarly areas such as urban life, political history and gender and women’s studies. Readex’s American Underworld: The Flash Press—the new digital collection created from the holdings of the American Antiquarian Society—contains a wide variety of titles with a surprising number of surviving issues. To find so many of these seamy urban newspapers available in one place, carefully digitized and easily searchable, is invaluable. The illustrations in these publications were often as important as the text and are as provocative to contemporary readers as they were to rakes and sporting men.

Rascalities and Notorieties: Salacious and Satirical Illustrations in the Flash Press of the Nineteenth Century


The Value of Digitized Newspaper Collections in Researching Neglected Women’s Writing: Two Newly Recovered Works by Ella Rhoads Higginson, First Poet Laureate of Washington State

In recent years, my scholarly efforts have been devoted to the recovery of Ella Rhoads Higginson (1862?-1940), the first prominent literary author from the U.S. Pacific Northwest and the first Poet Laureate of Washington State. Internationally celebrated for her writing, Higginson put the Pacific Northwest on the literary map. People across the nation and around the world were first introduced to the Pacific Northwest and the people who lived there when they read Higginson’s award-winning poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Higginson’s descriptions of the majestic mountains, vast forests, and scenic waters of the Puget Sound presented the then-remote, unfamiliar Pacific Northwest to eager readers. However, by the time she died in 1940, both she and her captivating work were almost completely forgotten.

 

The Value of Digitized Newspaper Collections in Researching Neglected Women’s Writing: Two Newly Recovered Works by Ella Rhoads Higginson, First Poet Laureate of Washington State


Fields of Fire and Frost: The Battle of Chickamauga and Weather in Early American Newspapers

On September 17, 1863, two armies shifted into position along northwest Georgia’s Chickamauga Creek.  Since late June, Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans’ Union Army of the Cumberland had shoved Gen. Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee to the southeast.  Weather conditions for men in the field had been hot and dry enough to stir up stifling clouds of dust.  But that night, as soldiers steeled themselves for impending combat, the weather suddenly turned cold.  A howling north wind blew through the dark creek bottoms and over rolling wooded hills like a bloodthirsty banshee.  Having thrown away their blankets in the summer heat, many soldiers on both sides shivered and huddled for warmth.  Temperatures collapsed over thirty degrees into the forties, not counting wind chill. The next day was gray and cold.  At the closest outpost of the Smithsonian Institution’s national weather observation program, afternoon highs had plummeted 24 degrees, from 80 degrees on September 17 to only 54 degrees the next day.  That night, the mercury again fell into the forties.[1] The vicious two-day battle that followed took place on frosty morning ground under a cold, clear sky. At night, stars twinkled and water froze in canteens.  In defiance of orders, many soldiers built fires to keep wounded comrades from freezing to death.

 

Fields of Fire and Frost: The Battle of Chickamauga and Weather in Early American Newspapers


Speaking Out in Thunder Tones: Black Chosenness and “Our Government” in the Earliest African American Newspapers

In the fall of 1836, a fastidiously well-dressed New Yorker was elected President of the United States. One year later, the country was in the midst of a devastating economic depression, the forced removal of Native Americans from the southeastern states was in full swing, and the regime of slavery seemed more secure than ever.

On November 4, 1837, the Colored American, a black newspaper based in New York City, weighed in on the political state of the country. In a letter titled “Our Government,” the paper’s white printer Robert Sears took a dim view of the present and future state of the nation. “It requires but a very superficial acquaintance with the state of ‘men and parties’ in this country,” lamented Sears, “to convince the most unbelieving, that PATRIOTISM among us at the present day, is but an empty name, and that the days of our Republic are numbered.” Lambasting the moral character of the men ostensibly governing the country, Sears wrote that “Swindlers and drunkards are appointed to office” and “Licentiousness exists to a most alarming extent among our men in power.” “Extravagance and speculation seem to be the order of the day,” he continued, “and MONEY—not intellectual and moral worth—is the true standard of character and respectability among us!” Acting as a “sentinel on the walls seeing the enemy approaching,” the Colored American used Sears’s letter to “sound the alarm” and warn its readers, “Our Nation is corrupt to the very core.”

Speaking Out in Thunder Tones: Black Chosenness and “Our Government” in the Earliest African American Newspapers


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


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