Date: Wed, 10 Feb 1999 17:44:44 -0800 (PST)
Delving into the printed past: African-American newspapers and periodicals
By John Nichols, Capital Times (Madison WI), 8 February 1999
In the basement of a Baptist church in Savannah, Ga., Jim Danky recovered a missing piece of the great puzzle of African-American history.
He found more pieces in a bookstore in Miami's Little Haiti.
He found still another in the remnants of a faded coal mining town in Iowa. And in the archives of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, <http://www.shsw.wisc.edu/> he found perhaps the greatest piece of all -- a 172-year-old echo from a distant moment when two brave African-American men declared: "We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us."
Tuesday night, in the James Madison Building of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., Danky will be feted by the National Endowment for the Humanities <http://www.neh.fed.us/> for reasserting that voice from 1827 -- and all the proud and strong, cloaked and quiet, scholarly and inspired voices that came after it -- with a remarkable new book that will reshape the way historians and American librarians approach the documentary record of the African-American experience.
Danky's "African-American Newspapers and Periodicals: A National Bibliography" <http://www.hup.harvard.edu/Fall98/catalog/african_news.html> (Harvard University Press) is the first comprehensive guide to all known newspapers and magazines produced by and written about African-Americans. Its completion marks the end of a quarter-century journey of discovery for Danky, a State Historical Society of Wisconsin librarian whose commitment to seeking out new vistas for African-American historical research has earned some of the highest praise ever accorded a researcher of what might otherwise have been lost documents.
"It is as if we have rediscovered a hermetically sealed library of the African-American tradition after a century of neglect," Harvard University's Henry Louis Gates Jr. says of Danky's work.
"This bibliography, then, is a conduit into an almost self-contained universe of thought and feeling of the African-American people, their aspirations and dreams, but also their everyday concerns and occurrences. Once scholars have begun to utilize this bibliography as the enabling tool that it is, a remarkable amount of information about the world's impact every day upon African-Americans, and their impact upon the world, can be scrutinized by scholars, thus filling in lacunas that even the most subtle intellectual history cannot otherwise address. Few reference tools have a greater potential impact upon the development of African-American studies than this one."
Danky is a modest man of immodest passions regarding the need to preserve the legacy of African-American newspapering -- and the potential such preservation might have to provide new avenues for scholarly research, to open the doors of America's libraries and schools to a broader range of printed voices, and ultimately to energize the broad movement to end the segregation of American history that has devalued and denied the African-American experience.
For Danky, the arduous struggle to produce "African-American Newspapers and Periodicals: A National Bibliography" was about nothing less than filling the gaping holes that centuries of slavery, segregation, racism and neglect have left in the American story.
"You cannot get the answers to fundamental questions about who we are and where we have been as a nation unless you have materials to look at," he says in his crowded office at the Historical Society. "That's what this project is all about -- finding the record of those materials, proving that they still exist and making it possible for new generations of scholars and citizens to use them to answer the questions that until now have been denied."
To illustrate the extent of that denial, Danky recalls the story of Benjamin Quarles, the first African-American to earn a doctorate in history from the University of Wisconsin.
When Quarles came to Madison in the 1930s, he wanted to do research on African-American history but he was told, "There are no sources." "That was a typical answer that people got in those days. All this energy, all this desire to pursue the story of African-Americans was dismissed with the claim that there were no materials on which to do serious research," explains Danky.
"Those sorts of dismissive comments are still made today to deflect and defeat most people -- whether they are students or citizens -- and, tragically, there are still people who accept that there are no materials, that it really is impossible to follow the thread of African-American history. This book says, `Yes, the sources are there. You can follow the story.' "
Those sources will "change the way in which American history is written," says Gates, making the bibliography one of the single most valuable weapons in the arsenal of scholars, writers and researchers who seek to present a true picture of the nation.
The book is also the latest evidence of a 150-year-old commitment on the part of the State Historical Society to treat the history of African-Americans with a seriousness that remains all too rare. Though Wisconsin's African-American population is small, there is no mystery as to why a librarian from the State Historical Society of Wisconsin would be the editor of this project.
Several years before the start of the Civil War, Lyman Draper, the first director of the Historical Society, began collecting the stories of slaves and/or free blacks -- creating a record that no historical society in the nation can rival.
"The principle that illuminated many people here -- including me -- is the sense that you need to talk to a wide variety of people to get the how and why of history," says Danky. "You don't just read the mainstream newspaper, go to the City Hall, listen to the public officials and think you have the whole story. You have to go to the people."
One way of "going to the people" for the Historical Society has involved the collection of African-American publications. This is not a new mission that grows from the contemporary black studies movement, but rather an extension of the commitment Draper made 150 years ago.
In 1911, the Historical Society secured several copies from the 1820s of Freedom's Journal, the New York publication that was the first newspaper published by African-Americans in the United States.
"Somebody said, way back then, `This is important. We have to do this,' " says Danky. "Someone realized that -- even though black history was not being taught at the UW -- these were vital documents that would eventually be needed if history was to be taught accurately and fully. It was about anticipating needs. It's about what you pack for the journey."
Today, of roughly 6,500 African-American newspapers and magazines for which at least one edition is still known to exist, a third are found in the stacks of the Historical Society <http://www.shsw.wisc.edu/library/newspaper/aabib.html> -- more than at any other location in the world.
As he paged through a carefully preserved stack of newspapers last week -- including those early copies of Freedom's Journal -- Danky still was excited by the history in his hands: a copy of the Exodus, an 1880s newspaper that urged African-Americans to migrate from the segregated South; a copy of the Negro World newspaper featuring a front-page editorial signed by Marcus Garvey; the Aug. 10, 1957, edition of the Milwaukee Defender announcing that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would be appearing in the city; and another edition with a huge portrait of Milwaukee Braves baseball star Hank Aaron on the front.
Danky's expertise led to a role as the consultant for the PBS program, "The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords," which will air tonight (Feb. 8th) at 9 on Channel 21.
Danky is quick to point out that the documentary work -- as well as his travels to London for Fulbright-sponsored projects at the British Museum and his regular meetings with the nation's top scholars -- are all extensions of the commitment the Historical Society made long ago to an area of study that most institutions had neglected. "I'm a public employee. I am brought to you by the state of Wisconsin," he says, noting that the royalties from the bibliography -- for which Harvard University Press plans to make a major push in print and later electronically -- will go to support continued preservation of historic African-American publications.
For more than a quarter century, Danky has worked to maintain and extend that commitment.
In the 1970s, as a young graduate of Ripon College newly hired by the Historical Society, he began to piece together guides to African-American publications for use by UW students and others.
Danky eventually drew international recognition for his work in the preservation of newspapers, magazines and other publications. He hatched the idea for the bibliography decades ago, but it was not until 1989 that he found the support that would ultimately make it a reality.
That year, the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University sponsored a conference that drew together top scholars, librarians and archivists to discuss what needed to be done to expand the vistas of African-American studies. The group agreed that among the most necessary resources would be a comprehensive bibliography of African-American newspapers and periodicals.
With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ford Foundation, the UW System, the Norman Bassett Foundation, the Madison Community Foundation and The Evjue Foundation (the charitable arm of The Capital Times), Danky and Maureen Hady, the project's associate editor, began a mission that would involve the direct examination of each issue of each newspaper or magazine in order to confirm its existence and location for future researchers.
This was no easy task, as Danky soon discovered.
"Early on, I talked to the Hartford (Conn.) Public Library about this project and the librarian said, `We don't collect those side papers,' " he recalled. "It is in that reference to `side papers' that you see the road to denial and dismissal. That is how the publications are marginalized, and with them the lives and the values of the people whose lives were wrapped up with those publications."
Sometimes the denial extended to claims that the publications had never existed in the first place.
In Iowa, for instance, official records did not give any indication that any African-American newspapers had ever been published in Waterloo -- a city of 70,000 where the meat packing industry had since the early years of the 20th century attracted African-Americans fleeing the segregated South. One of Danky's "informants" suggested that a contact be made with a Waterloo woman named Ada Tredwell. It turned out that she had carefully preserved copies of the Waterloo Defender, the Waterloo Post and the Waterloo Star, three pioneering African-American publications that form an important record of black life in the rural Midwest.
"Iowa is a state with a minuscule black population, but the pattern of ignoring the publications of African-Americans is national," explains Danky.
"The effects of slavery, of Jim Crow, of segregation, of racism, have permeated all aspects of American life, black and white. As official institutions of the dominant society, libraries could not possibly be exempt - -- and they are not."
Similar fieldwork in hundreds of libraries and archives in more than 30 states produced records of rare newspapers, and revealed a history that might otherwise have been lost.
Some of the publications documented in the bibliography feature previously unknown or obscure writing by the great names of African-American life over the past 170 years -- Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, A. Phillip Randolph, Garvey and King, to name just a few.
But others record the lives and work of men and women who might otherwise have been lost to history -- people like Rev. H.H. Williamson, who edited the Buxton Eagle in a south-central Iowa town where the sons of slaves mined the coal that powered the Chicago & North Western Railroad.
In the introduction to "African-American Newspapers and Periodicals: A National Bibliography," Harvard's Gates recalls a passage from a publication edited in 1853 by Frederick Douglass. In it, a pseudonymous columnist who called himself "Dion" expressed concern that the record of the great accomplishments of African-Americans "were mainly contained within the narrow limits of pamphlets, or the volumes of newspapers, ephemeral caskets, whose destruction entails the destruction of the gems which they contain."
Those gems would be lost, Dion suggested, unless "some capable person may take measures to effect a speedy collection of those valuable evidences of the genius and integrity of our gifted brethren. Such a work is due to them, is due to ourselves, is due to posterity."
As Gates noted: Jim Danky heeded the call.
Along with Hady and dozens of students, academics, librarians, and "informants" around the country, Danky has produced a powerful challenge to the institutional racism that still infects America.
"When you realize that the omissions in libraries and collections and research can be characterized in categories of race and class and gender, you know that the omissions are not entirely by chance. You know that something has gone wrong," Danky says. "The point of this project has been to begin to set things right."
John Nichols is editorial page editor for The Capital Times. <mailto:email@example.com>
(c) 1999 Capital Times
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