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ISU students delve into everyday African-American history for digital humanities project

April 28, 2016


Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

AMES, Iowa — An Iowa State University class participating in a digital humanities project is helping to share unfamiliar stories from African-American history.

Students in ARCH 321: History of the American City are contributing material to Black Quotidian, a website created by Matthew Delmont, an associate professor of history at Arizona State University, Tempe, "to highlight everyday moments and lives in African-American history."

Kimberly Zarecor, an ISU associate professor of architecture who teaches the ARCH 321 class, found Delmont's project on an educational listserv and incorporated it into her syllabus this spring.

"There's a lot of material we cover in class related to African-American history because, historically, there's been a high percentage of African Americans in cities. It's another window into the history of the American city through this particular group's eyes," Zarecor said. "This project seemed like a good opportunity to connect students to resources—in this case, African-American newspapers—that they wouldn’t normally have access to or have come across in their lives."

Every day, Black Quotidian will post an archival article from a historically African-American newspaper about an event that influenced or impacted African Americans on that day in history. Each contributor will provide a short synopsis to help analyze or contextualize the article. Posting began Jan. 18—Martin Luther King, Jr. Day—and will continue daily through the next Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday, Jan. 16, 2017.

"I want more people to be aware of African-American newspapers and the history you can learn from them," Delmont said. "I'm interested in finding stories that people don’t know about or are less aware of—the kinds of things that may not be iconic or in textbooks, but were meaningful at the time."

Stories of daily life
For their second writing assignment in the class, Zarecor's students read newspaper articles and wrote overviews that highlighted how the stories "reflected daily life as an African American in the 20th century and how we could relate to it today," said Sam Carter, a sophomore in construction engineering from Marshalltown.

Zarecor and her graduate teaching assistants selected 30 submissions to send to Delmont, who is posting them on Black Quotidian on their corresponding days in history, from April 15 to May 14.

"Even though it's an architecture class, it's also part of the university's general education curriculum" with a majority of non-design majors, said Zarecor. "I try to make it exciting for all kinds of students on campus, and a project like this helps reinforce that, since students can come at it from whatever angle they’re interested in."

Black Quotidian guest post by Caroline Arkesteyn.

Anti-profanity movement
"I took this class because I've had a long-time interest in history and community and regional planning," said Caroline Arkesteyn, Wayzata, Minnesota, a junior majoring in environmental science, communication studies and environmental studies. "It really opened my eyes to the similarities of the city between now and the earlier part of the 20th century, as well as the evolution of the city. This [Black Quotidian] project is so important to the class because the lives of African Americans are an intensely important and often-overlooked part of our history."

Arkesteyn wrote a brief summary and analysis of an article originally published on April 16, 1904, in The Appeal, an African-American newspaper based in St. Paul, Minnesota, from the last quarter of the 19th century through the first quarter of the 20th.

"The story was about an anti-profanity movement that was spreading across the US and other parts of the world at the time. It didn't talk specifically about effects on African Americans, which I thought was interesting. I wanted to make the point that African-American newspapers didn’t just cover African-American life, they covered general national and international news as well."

Black Quotidian guest post by Sam Carter.

Campus racism and segregation
Carter "wrote about an investigative trio of articles in the Chicago Daily Defender that looked into how racism and segregation were being dealt with and reversed on northern college campuses," he said. The specific article he chose to focus on, from April 19, 1960, highlighted issues such as "racist tendencies in university offices as well as in fraternities and sororities," unwritten university housing policies that favored segregation and a lack of African-American faculty members.

"The class has been super informative," Carter said. "I've learned so much about how the arrangement of the city and the government policies of certain eras affected race relations and societal relations among classes, and how that affected the architecture. It's changed how I see government policies, how I look at buildings both new and old, and overall how I view and respond to the pressing societal issues of today."

School desegregation
Interior design junior Claire Wolbers, Moline, Illinois, chose a May 14, 1949, story from the Indianapolis Recorder about desegregation plans in the Terre Haute school system. "I was surprised there were places in America that were trying to move forward with desegregation before the 1950s," she said.

In the class in general, "I've learned how much culture and race impacts public housing and the suburbs. I think it's important especially today because there’s still racial tension impacting the way we live, the safety and quality of architecture, and where we choose to buy houses and apartments," Wolbers said. "It had an impact then and still does today, so it's important to be aware of it."

Re-engaging with history
Zarecor is pleased with the student response to the project and hopes to find a similar opportunity for the class next year.

"I'm always looking for new and fun things for my students," said Zarecor. "In this case, I was seeking an opportunity for them to produce content that would go online and would be publicly available, and I wanted something where students could see that, even as undergrads, their perspectives are valuable and there are places for them to exhibit what they're finding."

For Delmont, "it's exciting to have these students diving into these archives and thinking about what was going on and what African-American life was like in those cities. That for me is part of the point of the project, getting people to re-engage with history," he said.

"I hadn't envisioned that professors might ask their students to do it on a classwide basis, and ISU is the first university to contribute material to the website. It's been great to see what [Zarecor's] students have produced."

Matthew Delmont, Arizona State University,
Kimberly Zarecor, Architecture, (515) 294-5026,
Caroline Arkesteyn, Environmental Science/Commuication Studies/Environmental Studies, (952) 475-9348,
Sam Carter, Construction Engineering, (641) 753-1171,
Claire Wolbers, Interior Design, (309) 948-3575,
Brandon Hallmark, Design Communications,
Heather Sauer, Design Communications, (515) 294-9289,