Explore black history through Archives Unbound

In this week’s blog post I wanted to highlight a number of primary source databases that you have access to at the University that allow you to discover more about black history.

I’m concentrating on collections available to you through Archives Unbound, which presents topically-focused digital collections of historical documents. There are currently 265 collections in Archives Unbound covering a broad range of topics from the Middle Ages forward-from Witchcraft to World War II to 20th century political history.

You can access Archives Unbound via the Databases A-Z list or Primary Sources database list.

As Archives Unbound covers such a vast range of subjects and collections, searching through the whole database will provide material perhaps from some surprising areas (so it’s very worthwhile doing this), however, I’m going to focus on some of the individual collections. You can access the individual collections by clicking on “Browse Collections”, where you can either browse through an alphabetical list or choose to browse by “Categories” instead.

So here is just a small selection of collections that will allow you to take your research into black history further.

Fannie Lou Hamer: Papers of a Civil Rights Activist, Political Activist, and Woman

Fannie Lou Hamer (née Townsend) was born in Mississippi in 1917. The youngest of 20 children she would go on to become an American voting rights activist and a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. Hamer was instrumental in organising Mississippi Freedom Summer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She was actively involved in starting the Delta Ministry, and she was one of the founders of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party later to become the Vice-Chair.

Screenshot from Fannie Lou Hamer: Papers of a Civil Rights Activist, Political Activist, and Woman

The papers in this collection cover the period 1966-1978 and the collection contains more than three thousand pieces of correspondence plus financial records, programs, photographs, newspaper articles, invitations, and other printed items.

Looking for other personal papers? Why not try the collections:

  • Black Nationalism and the Revolutionary Action Movement: The Papers of Muhammad Ahmad (Max Stanford)
  • Papers of Amiri Baraka, Poet Laureate of the Black Power Movement.

Federal Surveillance of African Americans, 1920-1984

Between the early 1920s and early 1980s, the Justice Department and its Federal Bureau of Investigation engaged in widespread investigation of those deemed politically suspect. Prominent among the targets of this sometimes coordinated, sometimes independent surveillance were members of various protest groups, Socialists, Communists, pacifists, militant labour unionists, ethnic or racial nationalists, and outspoken opponents of the policies of the incumbent presidents. It didn’t matter the individuals political persuasion, black Americans were subject to federal scrutiny, harassment, and prosecution.

The collection includes files on individuals such as Elijah Muhammed, Malcolm X, Paul Robeson and Reverend Jesse Jackson, as well as organisations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and National Negro Congress and famous (or infamous) cases such as MIBURN (Mississippi Burning) and the Ku Klux Klan Murder of Viola Liuzzo.

Screenshot from Federal Surveillance of African Americans, 1920-1984

There are several other collections in Archives Unbound relating to FBI files or surveillance including:

  • FBI File: Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Grassroots Civil Rights & Social Activism: FBI Files on Benjamin J. Davis, Jr.
  • FBI Surveillance of James Forman and SNCC
  • James Meredith, J. Edgar Hoover, and the Integration of the University of Mississippi.

Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Enforcement of Federal Law in the South, 1871-1884

This collection documents the efforts of district attorneys from southern states to uphold federal laws in the states that fought in the Confederacy or were Border States. This publication includes their correspondence with the attorney general as well all other letters received by the attorney general from the states in question during that period, including the correspondence of marshals, judges, convicts, and concerned or aggrieved citizens. This publication comprises the letters and enclosures contained in the source-chronological file for various states in the South.

Screenshot from Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Enforcement of Federal Law in the South, 1871-1884

This collection also goes beyond the race issue and tracks the efforts of the attorney generals to prosecute violators of the nation’s internal revenue laws, trespassers upon public lands, counterfeiters, and corrupt officials. In addition, there is content that documents how well or poorly prisoners were treated in a sometimes overburdened detention system.

Interested in 19th century history? You may want to look at:

  • Liberia and the U.S.: Nation-Building in Africa, 1864-1918
  • Evangelism in Africa: Correspondence of the Board of Foreign Missions, 1835-1910.

European Colonialism in the Early 20th Century

There are four collections within Archives Unbound looking at European colonialism in the early 20th century. These four collections comprise of correspondence, studies and reports, cables, maps and other kinds of documents related to U.S. consular activities. U.S. Consulates were listening posts reporting on the activities of the colonial governments and the activities of the native peoples. The four collections are:

  • Political and Economic Consolidation of Portuguese Colonies in Africa, 1910-1929
    Highlights include the beginning of an anti-colonial movement and the industrialisation and economic exploitation of Portugal’s African colonies.
  • French Colonialism in Africa: From Algeria to Madagascar, 1910-1930
    Highlights include the beginning of an anti-colonial movement and problems along the Moroccan-Algerian border.
  • Italian Colonies in North Africa and Aggression in East Africa, 1930-1939
    Italian colonial policy during the period 1930-1939 was shaped by Fascism. Fascist tenets related to governance and social policy were used in the administration and treatment of the African population in Libya, Eritrea, Somalia, and Italian East Africa.
  • German Colonies to League of Nations Mandates in Africa 1910-1929
    German colonial aspirations in Africa ended with the end of the First World War. British and French Army forces seized German colonies in Africa and British naval forces occupied the German port facilities. The Treaty of Versailles legitimised and officially mandated the former German colonies to British and French colonial authorities.

Screenshot from European Colonialism in the Early 20th Century: French Colonialism in Africa: From Algeria to Madagascar, 1910-1930

These are just a selection of collections available in Archives Unbound. It’s a huge and valuable resource and I would recommend accessing the database yourself and having a look around.

The Library has access to a large number of digitised primary source collections and you can access these and Archives Unbound via the Primary Source database list. Do take a look to find more primary source collections that can help you learn more about black history such as Accessible Archives, Church Missionary Society Periodicals, Empire Online, Olive Schreiner Letters Online, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition, amongst others. Or if you’re looking for something different why not take a look at some of the documentaries, interviews, films, news programmes, etc., available to watch online about the many different facets of black history from Academic Video Online.

Access is only available to staff and students from the University of Edinburgh.

Caroline Stirling – Academic Support Librarian for School of History, Classics and Archaeology

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