Written by Leslie King
The slight sulfuric scent of lit matches, the flaring-up of sparklers, and the sudden loud bang of firecrackers are as familiar to the Fourth of July as are the admonishments to use caution when handling fireworks.
Yet the freedoms Americans celebrate in this idealistic scene are not always the same. A public history project at Virginia Tech finds that, historically, African Americans’ sentiments about the holiday have been diverse.
A website, African American Fourth of July, summarizes the findings and analysis of Virginia Tech students who researched seven historical African American newspapers to trace the meanings behind Independence Day.
“These are newspapers for and by African Americans,” said Brett Shadle, the professor in whose introductory history course the students did their work. “These are the conversations African Americans had among themselves about what their politics should be, what their patriotism should be, and what their role is in the United States.”
His students transcribed more than 400 articles written between 1865 and 1988, including those from the Arkansas State Press (1941–1959), the Baltimore Afro-American (1893–1988), the Chicago Defender (1921–1968), the San Francisco Elevator (1865–1874), the Savannah Tribune (1876–1922), the Washington Bee (1883–1922), and the Wichita Negro Star (1920–1952).
Shadle selected the newspapers for their timelines — to ensure representation of viewpoints from the Civil War through the civil rights era — and their diverse locations.
“We can actually see the same arguments, the fight for rights, threading through the different periods,” said Shadle, who is also chair of Virginia Tech’s Department of History. “The Fourth of July during Reconstruction was generally positive because the people are now free, and they seem to have opportunities — they can vote, and many of them hold office in the South. It’s a time of hope and possibility, and the newspapers reflected that hope.”
But then, Shadle’s class discovered, the newspapers reflected an opposite response during the Jim Crow years, between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the beginnings of the civil rights movement in the 1950s.
“The holiday seemed like a mockery,” Shadle said. “The day’s ideals were great, but not a reality for African Americans. People wanted to talk about life and liberty, but at the same time lynchings were taking place. So, they could celebrate the ideals, yet mourn their ongoing political exclusion.”
To create a cohesive project, the students organized into eight groups to uncover themes and to document the changes of attitudes over time. Each group centered their research on one newspaper, except for the longest running paper, the Chicago Defender, which two groups explored. Each student focused on a five- to 10-year period, finding articles that related to Independence Day. They then transcribed the articles and added keyword tags. After summarizing each article, they shared their conclusions with the group to spot overall trends and themes.
Shadle conceived of the project a year ago when a speech by Frederick Douglass began circulating on social media.
“The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me,” Douglass had said in his 1852 talk to a group of New York abolitionists. “This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
At the same time Shadle was reading this, his colleagues in the history department were launching Mapping the Fourth of July, a crowdsourced history website aimed at understanding how Americans celebrated July 4 during the Civil War. This caused Shadle to wonder what African American newspapers might reveal about what the day meant to African Americans throughout history.
He thought it would be a perfect project for his first-year student experience course, a class designed to introduce students to their major. It would provide the students with experiential learning opportunities as they navigated primary-source materials and processed information through group discussions.
And Shadle discovered, at the launch of the website, that his students not only excelled in their research, but took great pride in it.
“The students hope this project doesn’t fade away,” Shadle said. “They want others to look at it and use it. They want people to have discussions about what patriotism means, what the Fourth of July means.”
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