Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

African-American Newspapers & Everyday Black History

In February 1950, the Norfolk Journal and Guide’s librarian Vivian Fontanilla wrote an article describing the important role black newspapers played in celebrating Negro History Week.  “Many of us have long thought of Negro history as a matter dealing with the earliest contributions of the race toward the building of civilization,” she wrote.  “While we are not losing cognizance of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, Benjamin Banneker, Booker T. Washington and several other race leaders, we want to be aware of the contemporaries who are exerting influence on life today as well as on our posterity.  The press through its newspapers and periodicals records much information before it is compiled for textbooks…All such data goes to make up the historical record.”  As the Journal and Guide’s librarian, Fontanilla maintained the newspaper’s clippings file.  She organized tens of thousands of articles spanning over four decades and saw firsthand the crucial role black newspapers played in collecting and preserving contemporary events as history.  “We have come to rely on the press for historical reference and biographical material,” she wrote.  “Daily, weekly, or monthly reading affords an excellent opportunity to develop race pride and an appreciation of what the Negro is doing today…We can readily see why we should study Negro history and why we should rate the press as a dynamic force in the enrichment of the study.”

Fontanilla’s praise for black newspapers echoed the sentiments of Carter G. Woodson, who founded of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) in 1915 and initiated Negro History Week in 1926 (Negro History Week expanded to Black History Month in 1976).  “The support of the press throughout the country cannot be overstated,” Woodson wrote in 1927.  “Popular weeklies like the Norfolk Journal and Guide, the Philadelphia Tribune, the Chicago Defender, the St. Louis Argus, the Louisville News, and the Pittsburgh Courier wrote elaborate editorials inviting attention to Negro History Week and to the work of the Association.  Without the assistance given by these agencies the cause could not have been so well served, and the celebration would not today be pointed to as one of the most significant movements ever started in the interest of the Negro race.”

This path examines how African-American newspapers popularized black history and encouraged readers to see black history as something that is made, and should be studied, everyday.  The first section considers how these newspapers supported Woodson and the ASNLH in collecting and communicating materials related to Negro History Week.  Through editorials and articles, newspapers presented African-American history as a communal endeavor that required popular participation.  The second section highlights how newspapers continually discussed the origins of Negro History Week, questioned its contemporary relevance, and communicated the importance of historical thinking.  Newspapers viewed Negro History Week as countering distorted images of black history and culture, conveyed both in academic textbooks and popular media.  The final section explores illustrated biographical profiles of black figures that appeared regularly in black newspapers from the 1930s through the 1970s.  The goal of this path is to trace some of the myriad ways black newspapers supported the study of black history, both during Negro History Week celebrations each February and throughout the year.  As the Journal and Guide’s Vivian Fontanilla described the intertwined relationship of black newspapers and black history over six decades ago: “History is made everyday.  The press records it.  We grow by it.”

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