Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

Research Exploration

When I was doing my dissertation research, which lead to The Nicest Kids in Town, I was fascinated by the tremendous variety of news published in The Philadelphia Tribune. As I searched for articles related to civil rights, music, television, education, I also came across stories about high school sports, police brutality, and beauty pageants; advertisements for Pepsi and living room furniture; and sensationalized crime stories.  By the time I was doing research for my second book, Why Busing Failed, the Philadelphia Tribune and several other blacks newspapers were digitized and made available at institutions that subscribed to ProQuest’s Historical Black Newspaper Collection.  While this allowed me to find and analyze over ten thousand newspaper articles on school desegregation, I missed the experience of working with microfilm reels and unexpectedly stumbling across interesting stories.  I appreciate that digitization makes it possible to search millions of articles with high levels of precision, but with Black Quotidian I wanted to reintroduce the elements of exploration, randomness, and surprise that I associate with my first encounters with black newspapers.

I was browsing the February 20, 1969 issue of the Los Angeles Sentinel, for example, when I stumbled across a column called “Bowling Around L.A.” by Juanita Blocker. After searching through the Sentinel digital archive, I learned that Blocker was the first black member of the Professional Women’s Bowling Association and that she wrote a bowling column in the Sentinel for over two decades. Who knew that the Sentinel had a regular bowling column written by a trailblazing athlete?  Similarly, I was surprised to learn about dancer Blanche Thompson when flipping through the digitized issue of the Norfolk Journal and Guide from February 25, 1939. Thompson performed with the “Brown Skin Models,” a Ziegfeld Follies-style music and dance revue that featured African-American dancers. Thompson was a star in the 1930s, but her name and the history of this black burlesque troupe were new to me.

The March 27 post is a New York Amsterdam News article about South Carolina civil rights activist Victoria DeLee’s campaign for Congress.  DeLee had been fighting for civil rights for nearly three decades when she launched her campaign.  DeLee ran as a member of the United Citizens Party, a group she helped found because black people were excluded from the Democratic party in Dorchester County, South Carolina.  DeLee's campaign flier described her as “Champion of the Underprivileged.  Undaunted Crusader for Human Rights.”  When DeLee died in 2010, the Washington Post described her as being “little known beyond her state's borders,” but having “historical significance similar to that of Daisy Bates in Arkansas and Fannie Lou Hamer in Mississippi.”

The July 1 post is from a Cleveland Call and Post report that Dollree Mapp, a twenty-nine year old woman, was arrested for possessing obscene literature (or “naughty books” as the Call and Post headline read).  Mapp's arrest became a landmark case regarding police searches and seizures.  One law professor called Mapp “the Rosa Parks of the Fourth Amendment.”

Finally, the December 4 post was an advertisement in the Philadelphia Tribune announcing that the Standard-Theater was hosting a return engagement of the Whitman Sisters Company. The Whitman Sisters were the highest paid act on the Negro Vaudeville circuit and toured extensively from the 1910s through 1930s.  The troupe featured four sisters, Alberta (“Bert”) who performed in male drag, Mabel, Essie, and Alice, who was one of the best tap dancers of the era.

Women like Juanita Blocker, Blanche Thompson, Victoria DeLee, Dollree Mapp, and the Whitman Sisters are not traditionally featured in Black History month celebrations or history textbooks, but each of these stories contributes to our understanding of the complexities of African American history and the everyday pleasures and sorrows of black lives.  These historical figures are not unknown, but they are hidden in the archives if scholars do not know to search for them by name.  Black Quotidian models a research process that prioritizes exploration and curiosity, and offers new angles of inquiry into digital archives.  The search functionality of digital archives is great when you know what you are looking for, but sometimes scholars need to get lost in order to find something new.

The next section considers how the Scalar web-authoring platform compliments this model of research exploration.

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