The following was authored by Julia Nguyen, Senior Program Officer in the Division of Education Programs at the National Endowment for the Humanities, and published in the National History Day theme book entitled "Breaking Barriers in History."
Chronicling America is an excellent source for newspapers published by marginalized communities and newspapers published in languages other than English. These papers can help students break through difficult research barriers in order to access the experiences and perspectives of communities not frequently included in the study of U.S. history. Use the “All Digitized Newspapers” tab in the search engine box to sort newspapers by state, language, and ethnicity.
African American Newspapers
The African American press served as a mouthpiece and resource for black communities across the nation during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Reading publications like the Richmond Planet or The Appeal published in St. Paul, Minnesota, can help students understand how African Americans fought against marginalization and racial oppression in communities around the country. Similarly, The Denver Star published editorials condemning Jim Crow segregation and urged its readers to boycott The Birth of a Nation when the film was released in 1915.
Students can also learn about African American history and culture directly from black writers and editors rather than filtered through the perceptions and potential biases of white observers. Publications like the Washington, D.C. based The Colored American and The Bee adopted the practice of using their own reporters rather than relying on republished articles from other newspapers. That meant that events would be covered from a perspective that spoke to the concerns and experiences of readers in African American communities.
Chronicling America partners have digitized a number of African American newspapers, including Charleston’s South Carolina Leader which began publication in 1865 and provides valuable insights into the transition from slavery to freedom at the end of the Civil War. Chronicling America also features several digitized newspapers published in the District of Columbia, most notably Frederick Douglass’s New National Era from the 1870s. EDSITEment provides a Reconstruction Era Teacher's Guide that includes access to a curated collection of newspapers from across the U.S. in which competing perspectives on what should be done about Reconstruction are presented.
Many titles originated outside the South. The Seattle Republican, for example, was an African American newspaper founded in the 1890s by Horace Cayton, a former slave. The paper, which ceased publication in 1913, supported the Republican Party and advocated for fair treatment of African Americans in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Cayton was also an anti-corruption crusader, which sometimes made him powerful enemies.
In the Midwest, the early twentieth century Tulsa Star represented the views and concerns of that city’s vibrant black community, urging economic reliance among the flourishing businesses of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” and campaigning against lynching. The newspaper ceased publication when its office was destroyed in the 1921 Tulsa race riot and its publisher was forced to leave the city.
This dramatic history of activism and repression is echoed in the experiences of other black publishers and editors, and their newspapers can help students better understand events and political developments that have shaped the African American experience. They also, however, serve as vital conduits to a social and economic world that often seems lost in the past. Advertisements can help uncover the development of black-owned businesses. Poetry, fiction, and music highlight prolific cultural production, and editorials and letters to the editor show students the concerns, both big and small, of a city’s black residents.
The Immigrant Presses
Immigrant communities, too, had newspapers focused on their members’ needs and concerns. The range offered on Chronicling America defies shallow categorization. As one might expect based on settlement patterns, the site includes a number of German immigrant newspapers published in the upper Midwest in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It also features, however Allentown, Pennsylvania’s Der Lecha Caunty Patriot, published in various incarnations from the 1830s to the 1870s, and the Nashville Tennessee Staatszeiting from the 1860s.
These publications served as resources for immigrants, helping them find work, homes, and community organizations and guiding their adjustment to life in a new country. They carried advertisements for businesses owned by and tailored to the needs of fellow immigrants and offered advice about their new lives in the United States. The Patriot, a bilingual Italian American paper published in Indiana, Pennsylvania, encouraged its readers to seek U.S. citizenship and included the “Questions that a Good Citizen Should Know” column to help them in the process. Many other immigrant newspapers ran similar features.
Students can use the immigrant press to better understand some of the reasons that people left their homes for the United States. Articles about European wars, political crises, or economic troubles, for example, fulfilled immigrant desires to keep up with the news in the countries they had left, but they also point to some of the causes of later waves of immigration. Advertisements for land or jobs in American communities illustrate the attractions of the United States for people struggling to survive or get ahead in their home countries.
These newspapers can also illuminate the roots of distinctive immigrant-American cultures as they developed. La Sentinella del West Virginia served as the periodical for a growing community of immigrant workers in early twentieth-century West Virginia and included articles about both Italian events and American political news. It reported on events taking places at local Italian American social clubs and churches as immigrants created new institutions and traditions. In its pages and those of similar periodicals, students can trace the development of immigrant-owned businesses; analyze community transitions through announcements of marriages, births, and deaths; investigate the rise of community political leaders; research concerns about language and cultural preservation; and much more.
As immigrant communities grew and matured, the nature of the newspapers serving them changed. In some cases, papers that had been published exclusively in the home language began to incorporate more English content. When Zajedničar, a newspaper serving Croatian immigrants, began publication in 1904, it was published only in Serbo-Croatian. By the 1930s, however, as a generation of children raised in the United States came of age, editors moved to a bilingual format. Toward the end of its five-decade run in the 1920s, editors of Minnesota’s German-language Der Nordstern also added an English-language section in an effort to reach out to younger readers.
Other newspapers changed with the changing political affiliations of their editors and readership. In the nineteenth century, periodicals of all kinds frequently embraced explicit political affiliations, and the immigrant press was no different. Over the course of a fifty-year publishing history, Finnish-language Uusi Kotimaa, published in Minnesota, went from a conservative religious publication to a mainstream Republican newspaper and then from a radical journal with a farmer-laborer perspective to one that chronicled the interests of industrial workers, as editors responded to changing ownership and the rise of industrialization on Minnesota’s Iron Range.
World War I, too, had an impact on many immigrant newspapers. As the United States went to war with Germany, a number of German-language titles ceased publication amid fierce anti-German sentiment. Some, like the Tägliches Cincinnatier Volksblatt, found themselves under investigation by the federal government for suspected sympathies with Germany. Others faced less official but equally serious problems. Advertising revenue fell, newsstands stopped carrying many German language titles, and German Americans feared being seen reading them. Even long-running and well-established journals like Baltimore’s Der Deutsche Correspondent, published since 1841, could not weather these difficulties. The newsaper folded in 1918. By 1920, the German American press had been decimated, and the number of publications available in German would never again reach pre-World War I numbers.
In addition to newspapers published to serve very large immigrant groups, including German, Italian, and Polish, Chronicling America also has digitized newspapers in less-common languages like Finnish, Icelandic, and Romanian. Vinland, published in Minneota, Minnesota, is thought to be the only Icelandic-language newspaper in the United States, and Detroit’s Ad-daleel, published in Arabic, served southern Michigan’s early twentieth-century Lebanese immigrants.
Students who wish to consult newspapers from immigrant communities will face one big barrier. Many of the immigrant papers were published entirely in the immigrants’ home language, which can be impossible for students to access without the necessary language skills. They can be excellent resources, however, for the foreign language classroom. Creative partnerships between history and language classrooms can also help break through this language barrier, as can collaboration with community members and organizations, such as historical societies or cultural groups.
A number of newspapers, however, included a mix of items in English and items in another language. For example, San Antonio’s Freie Presse Für Texas was published primarily in German but included some advertising in English. The Millheim Journal, like several others, followed a bilingual format with two pages in German and two in English. Because most Irish immigrants spoke English as a first or second language, Irish American newspapers were published in English, though some offered columns or scattered content in Irish. Publishers and editors made linguistic decisions based on their understanding of the community’s needs, as wells as their own assessments of how best to serve their readers and help them settle into life in a new country.
Francophone, Spanish, and Indigenous Language Newspapers
Immigrants were not the only groups who confronted the issue of language when publishing newspapers. The Francophone residents of Louisiana and the Spanish-speaking residents of the Southwest were not immigrants, but nineteenth-century geopolitics thrust them into a new nation in the aftermath of the Louisiana Purchase, the Mexican-American War, and the Spanish-American War. Newspapers in these communities helped readers maintain their native languages and cultures as they adapted to new political realities. In Louisiana, for example, the Baton-Rouge Gazette was founded in 1819 as a bilingual newspaper, publishing two pages in French and two in English. Anglophone settlers arrived in Louisiana rapidly after the 1804 purchase, however, and by the 1840s French content had disappeared from the Gazette. Smaller, more isolated communities like Napoleonville and Lucy, on the other hand, were able to maintain French language newspapers much longer, in some cases into the early twentieth century.
Publications serving Spanish-speaking communities in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Puerto Rico can also be found on Chronicling America. In Tucson, Arizona, for example, El Fronterizo, published for more than three decades in the late nineteenth century, advocated for Hispanic pride and against assimilation into mainstream Anglophone culture. El Nuevo Mexicano, by contrast, was the sister publication to the English-language Santa Fe New Mexican and took a more mainstream editorial stance, arguing in favor of statehood for New Mexico.
Students using Chronicling America can also find a few issues of a newspaper published by a Native community. The Cherokee Phoenix, published in Georgia in the 1820s and 1830s, for example, printed the Cherokee Constitution and other documents related to tribal government and provided in-depth coverage of the Cherokee nation’s efforts to maintain control of their lands as the United States government pushed for removal.
Beyond the simple fact that the experiences—and therefore the publications—of African Americans were necessarily different from those of immigrants from Europe and that immigrants from different countries and time periods also had different experiences, study of Chronicling America’s newspapers can foster a deeper and more nuanced understanding of our nation’s history and diversity.
Students should keep in mind that these newspapers, like the communities they served, were not monolithic entities. In Washington, DC, The Bee was fiercely critical of noted black educator and author Booker T. Washington, while The Colored American supported Washington’s views. Immigrant newspapers, too, reflected the diversity of those who came to the United States. Within the Czech American community, one could find newspapers catering to socialists, freethinkers, and Catholics. Among Polish-language newspapers, readers could choose from titles supported by the Catholic Church as well as titles critical of the church’s influence in Polish American communities.