Writing About African American History with Primary Sources

Professor Theresa Vara-Dannen
Early College Experience at University High School of Science and Engineering
University of Connecticut

What is a primary source?
Primary sources include (but are not limited to)
What is a secondary source?
What should students look for while researching primary sources?
Basic rules for historians.
How do I begin researching an individual?
Digital collections for writing African American history.


What is a primary source?

Historians use the term "primary source" to describe a piece of historical evidence such as an artifact, photograph, newspaper article, book, or letter originally created during the era researched. Historical participants can also create primary sources after the historical event or period took place in the form of memoirs such as Civil Rights activist Anne Moody's autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi.

Primary sources are valuable to historians because they give insight into the ways in which historical actors understood or internalized what they experienced, their place or significance in history, and give historians an understanding of historical figures' opinions. Primary sources created by institutions, such as census records or surveys, can help historians document general information and basic statistics concerning the time period.

Primary sources can be created by the author with the intention of publication such as the poetry of Langston Hughes, or they can be published as transcriptions or collections of other primary sources, such as the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Alternatively, they can be unpublished works such as a diary or series of letters produced by a black soldier in the Civil War held at a research archive.

Primary sources in different media from the same historical event or person's lifetime can often be used together to show, through analysis, a greater understanding of what took place. For example, if a student were writing about the John F. Kennedy assassination, he or she could compare newspaper articles and coverage from different cities across the country to determine a sequence of events while showing the diversity of opinion on the President and his assassination in 1963. The student could analyze footage filmed during the parade in Dallas to describe in detail what happened, along with Walter Cronkite's television broadcast during the announcement of the President's death to portray how one recognizable American visually experienced the news. This same footage could also be used to discuss the new forms of technology consumed by Americans, which changed the way Americans with television received news about the President's death compared to Americans who relied on newspapers and radio. The student could read the Warren Commission, condolence letters sent to Jacqueline Kennedy, or listen to oral histories from everyday Americans in order to create the fullest account of what took place and the ways in which this person and their death was historically significant.

Primary sources include (but are not limited to):

  • Books
  • Newspapers, Magazines, and Newsletter articles
  • Diaries
  • Courtroom testimonies, verdicts, legal documents
  • Songs, records, sheet music, concerts
  • Interviews
  • Speeches
  • Photographs, posters, cartoons, advertisements, sketches, blueprints
  • Films and television shows
  • Radio recordings
  • Polls, the census, public works surveys
  • Memoirs and autobiographies

What is a secondary source?

A secondary source typically utilizes multiple primary sources to piece together the chronology, events, or experiences of something that took place in history in order to make a scholarly argument. Secondary sources are typically analytical examinations of primary sources produced by people who were not involved with or experience the historical era, event, or person studied.

What should students look for while researching primary sources?

There are six key elements students should consider when searching for primary sources. They do not need to locate all six in every document that they read, but they should be aware of them:

  1. Thesis: Is this document making an argument? What is it?
  2. Evidence: What factual evidence is included such as the year it was created, the place it was created, how it was distributed, etc.?
  3. Author and Audience: Who created this document? Who was the original intended audience? How does the audience shape the way this document was made?
  4. Bias: What is this author's bias due to their race, gender, class, sexual orientation, citizenship, political affiliation, occupation, religion, etc.?
  5. Alternative documents: Now that we understand what is going on in this document, is there another piece of evidence you wish you could also find that might bring further light to this document? If you can think of anything you would like to further investigate, write down your ideas so you can discuss these options with the research assistant, librarian, or curator if you are unable to locate them yourself.
  6. Grouping: Consider all of the primary sources you have come across while working on your project. Are there documents making similar arguments you can group together? Where does this document fit in with the others?
  7. Significance: What is the historical significance of this primary source? How does it help you gain a better understanding of the larger historical significance of the person or event you are researching?

Basic Rules for Historians

  1. Respect your subject. When writing about a person from the past, you are developing a unique bond with them. Like a scientist in a lab, while reading or handling primary sources about a person you are discovering elements of the past currently unknown to others. While researching, keep in mind that you are researching human beings from another historical context, so to use phrases such as "intelligent for their era" or "beyond their time" subtly casts a judgment on the subject, valuing our own lived experiences and historical context above theirs.
  2. Do not generalize. Remember that groups, organizations, and collectivities of people are formed by individuals with a wide range of opinions and experiences, so when you proofread, make sure you are not making wide ranging generalizations without evidence to support your claim.
  3. Avoid anachronisms. An anachronistic statement is one in which an idea, event, or person is referenced or represented in a way that is not consistent with the historical time period you are researching.
  4. Be aware of your own biases. Just as you were aware of the biases of the creators of the primary sources you looked at, try to be conscious of the ways in which your own understanding of the world impacts the way you tell someone else's life story and their historical significance.

How do I begin researching an individual?

Before you go to the library, try a few basic searches from your home:

  1. Does Google Books have any secondary sources about your individual? If so, can you read the entire text online? If not, write down the books so you can look at them in the library. If a secondary source is a reliable one, it should include some primary sources to support its claims. Take a look at both the bibliography and the footnotes for source documents.
  2. Does Google Scholar have any articles that you can access free of charge about the individual?
  3. Does the Google News Archive have newspaper articles about your individual? If so, this can help you narrow down key dates in your individual's life. Once you have identified key dates, newspaper names, and locations, you can go to the library and look at further newspapers on microfilm from that date range given to you by Google News Archive or in the city where the individual story was in order to get further insight into what happened to this individual.
  4. Try looking at the Archival Research Catalog (ARC). This is a collection of 78,000 digitized government resources and documents. To search digitized materials only, check the box marked "Descriptions of Archival Materials linked to digital copies."
  5. You could also begin searching primary sources at the National Education Clearinghouse website directory.

Digital Collections for Writing African American History

African American Online Archives and Databases

Databases and Archives focused on Early African American History

African American Perspectives: African American Pamphlets from the Daniel A. P. Murray Collection ranging from 1818–1907.

Databases and Archives on Slavery, the Abolitionist Movements, and Emancipation

The North American Slave Narratives.

The Abolition of the Slave Trade (The US Slave Trade, African Resistance, Abolitionism, US Constitution and Acts, Celebrations, etc.).

African American Mosaic: The Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Black History & Culture.

The Freedmen's Bureau Online: Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands.

The Digitized Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress.

Lest We Forget: The Triumph Over Slavery.

Born In Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writer's Project (1936–1938). This collection contains 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves collected by the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Slaves and Courts. Contains over a hundred pamphlets and books published between 1772 and 1889.

African American Archives and Databases Dedicated to a State

Afro-American Sources in the State of Virginia: A Guide to Manuscripts.

The African American Experience in Ohio (1850–1920).

The African American Pamplet Collection (1822–1909). These pamphlets are focused on African American authors who wrote on slavery, African colonization, Emancipation, and Reconstruction.

African American Culture and Life from the Library of Congress

African American Sheet Music (1850–1920). A collection of 1,305 pieces of African American sheet music:

Black Baseball and Jackie Robinson (1860s–1960s).

The Church and the Southern Black Community.

Digital Collections from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

African American Women Writers of the 19th Century.

Africana & Black History.

Images of African Americans from the 19th Century.

Databases and Archives on the Civil Rights Movement

Oral Histories of the American South: The Civil Rights Oral History Collection.

Civil Rights Oral History Project and the Southern Mississippi Oral History Project.

Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project.

Civil Rights in Mississippi Digital Archive and Oral Histories.

Civil Rights Oral Histories from Washington State University.

Nashville Public Library Collection of Oral Histories.

The Civil Rights Movement and Oral History Project of Kentucky.

Florida Civil Rights Oral Histories.

Columbia University Oral History Archives on Civil Rights.

Greensboro Voices: Greensboro Public Library and in the University Archives of The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany (in conjunction with Vassar University and the Heidelberg Center for American Studies).

United States History Online Archives and Databases

A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation. U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774–1873.

The Ad* Access Project. A collection of over 7,000 advertisements digitally searchable.

American Memory Motion Pictures Collections from the Library of Congress. a collection of primary source film material with over 7 million digitized items from over 100 historical collections across the country.

Nineteenth Century in Print. digitized copies of books published in the 19th century.

First Person Narratives of the American South (1860–1920) .

Calisphere. Digitized images and documents free to the public from the libraries and museums from the 10 campuses of the University of California.

Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Free newspaper archive ranging from 1860 to 1922 from the following states: Arizona, California, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Washington.

GLBT Historical Society.

Images from the History of Medicine.

Museum of the Moving Image: Presidential Campaign Commercials, 1952–2008.

Making of America. Cornell University Library's digitized collection of 19th century journal articles.

Rosie the Riveter: WWII American Homefront Project: The Regional Oral History Office of the University of California.

Suffragist Oral History Project.

Working Women (1800–1930): Open Collections Program, Harvard University Library.

Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World (hundreds of oral histories and interviews with working-class southerners) .

Rutgers Oral History Archives of World War II.

Women in Journalism: Washington Press Club Foundation Oral History and Interviews.

Archives of American Art Oral History Collections.

Basic Statistics

The Census Archives.

Black Newspapers (Historical and Present, available through Google News Archive or Historic American Newspapers)

African American News and Issues, Houston, Texas

Bay State Banner, Boston, Massachusetts,

Black Chronicle, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Boston Guardian, Boston Massachusetts

California Eagle, Los Angeles, California

Carolina Peacemaker, Greensboro, North Carolina

The Carolina Times, Durham, North Carolina

The Carolinian, Raleigh, North Carolina

The Chattanooga Courier, Chattanooga, Tennessee

The Chicago Defender, Chicago, Illinois

The Dallas Express, Dallas Texas

Freedom's Journal, New York, New York

Jackson Advocate, Jackson, Mississippi

Los Angeles Sentinel, Los Angeles, California

Louisville Defender, Louisville, Kentucky

Memphis Tri-State Defender, Memphis, Tennessee

The New Orleans Tribune, New Orleans, Louisiana

North Star, Syracuse, New York

The Oakland Post, Oakland, California

Omaha Star, Omaha, Nebraska

Philadelphia Tribune, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh Courier (or, The New Pittsburgh Courier), Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The Richmond Voice Newspaper, Richmond, Virginia

Savannah Tribune, Savannah, Georgia

Seattle Medium, Seattle, Washington

St. Louis Sentinel, St. Louis, Missouri

The Facts, Seattle, Washington

The Liberator, Boston, Massachusetts

The Louisiana Weekly, New Orleans, Louisiana

The Washington Informer, Washington, DC

The Washington Afro-American, Washington DC

The New York Amsterdam News, New York, New York

The New York Voice, New York, New York

The Sacramento Observer, Sacramento, California