Historical Newspapers as Activist Resources

As you peruse your copy of the October 29, 1892 edition of The Washington Bee, a newspaper owned and operated by African Americans in the segregated world of the nation’s capital, you will notice an interesting juxtaposition. Next to an ad for “The Comfort Corset,” an oxymoron if there ever was one, the weekly paper features a three-column, half-page announcement for a lecture by Miss Ida B. Wells, who would speak on “Southern Mob Rule.” If you find it inconvenient to go back in time to join her at 8 o’clock on Monday evening October 31st 1892, or do not have the 25 cents to see a life-long activist in action, check out Library of Congress’s Chronicling America: Historical American Newspapers.

For those who want a new take on their activism, art, and history, this resource is bound to become a go-to option. Jointly sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the LoC houses Chronicling America, a free, digital, searchable newspaper collection that continues to grow. The homepage features a “100 Years Ago Today” clickbait-for-nerds each day, with smaller, lesser-known newspapers from the past being its strong suit. There are options for narrowing a search’s timeframe as well as narrowing down by state. Copyright laws mean that many newspapers published since the 1920s are not yet available, especially if they’re still in publication. But Chronicling America includes almost 3,000 large- and small-circulation newspapers from all states, covering a chronology of 1789-1963 (though it is richest into the 1920s).

For instance, check out Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s obituary and tribute in the Lexington, KY Blue-Grass Blade on November 2, 1902. It makes you wonder how often nearly an entire front page was devoted to a woman’s life and work.

You might also be curious about some of the early ads targeted at women, for instance, the “Kabo 105” corset in the June 15, 1895 edition of the Cecil Whig based in Elkton, MD (see cover image above). It promised not to “melt apart” or “cut through the dress,” and it came in “all lengths, all colors.” As a bonus, the pre-FDA, pre-truth-in-advertising ads are bound to help you find a cure for everything, including stomach ailments, “nerves,” complexion problems, and unruly hair…or not!

Or perhaps you’d like to know more about the history of issues associated with today’s hashtags such as #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, #NotOneMoreDeportation, or #NoDAPL. Even cursory searches turn up important references. For instance, press coverage of white women’s-rights advocates is frequent, as are the countless cases of “outrage” (sexual assault) that sound all too similar a century later. Ida B. Wells’ anti-lynching campaign was consistently covered by both the White and Black press, the former tending towards loathing. Regular reports of police brutality and lynching appear in the pages decade after decade and across the U.S. And the anti-immigrant rhetoric employed by newspapers in favor of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) or against Italians, for example, reveals language still in use against immigrants today. Fortunately, Chronicling America also exposes resistance in the face of oppression, hate, and scorn.

Accordingly, brave people show up in the pages as well, fighting against injustice, even if we sometimes have to read between the lines. From small towns to mining villages, large cities to prisons, from African American to American Indian to Spanish-language presses, the newspapers offer up testimonies of other places and times—exposing how much has changed, and how much has not.

Assessing historical coverage of these issues and movements could enhance our art, policy work, education, advocacy, political engagement, and journalism. Furthermore, if we try to solve problems without understanding their depth and duration, true change is unlikely. And if we attempt to solve a problem but discover that, yet again, we have reinvented the wheel because we didn’t understand what had already been tried—perhaps with success—we waste our efficacy.

So check out Chronicling America, even if only for a few minutes between your Facebooking, Instagramming, and Tinder-swiping. Just as the retailer, R. C. Levis, promised with regard to the Kabo 105 corset, “It’s sure to please you!”

Pamela Stewart is an editor for TRR.