Corresponding with the library’s extensive holdings in American history and culture, the Newberry has a strong collection of African American materials.
The Newberry’s main strength in the field of African American Studies falls in the anti-slavery movement. With more than 2,000 books and pamphlets relating to anti-slavery, the Newberry has over 66 percent of the materials listed in Dumond’s A Bibliography of Antislavery in America and 70 percent of the titles cited in Turner’s Anti-Slavery Sentiment in American Literature.
Some types of primary sources one might find at the Newberry relating to African American history and culture include:
Historical and genealogical society papers
Newspapers and periodicals
County, town, and state histories
Music materials (sheet music, songsters, and hymnody)
As an example, the Newberry’s J. Francis Driscoll Collection of American Sheet Music is a major source for the study of African American music and culture between 1818 and 1915. Samuel A. Floyd’s article, “Black Music in the Driscoll Collection,” The Black Perspective in Music 2, no. 2 (1974): 158-171, lists some of the black composers represented in the collection.
Importantly, these original sources are complemented by later published editions of primary sources, such as transcriptions of slave narratives prepared by the Federal Writers’ Project (1936-38) and published as The American Slave, portions of Stampp’s microfilm set Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations, and selected Freedmen’s Bureau Records on microfilm (search the catalog for the subject “United States. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands”).
You can use this research guide for information on Reference Sources, Highlights from the Newberry Library Collections, Manuscript Collections, Digital Resources, and Physical Collections at Other Local Institutions.
Andrews, William L., Frances Smith Foster, Trudier Harris, eds. The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Location: 3rd floor Reference. Call number: Ref PS153.N5 O96 1997.
Black Women in America. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Location: 3rd floor Reference. Call number: Ref E 185.86 .B542 2005.
Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Routledge, 2004. Location: 3rd floor Reference. Call number: Ref NX 512.3 .A35 E53 2004.
The Harvard Guide to African-American History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001. Location: 3rd floor Reference. Call number: Ref E 185 .H326 2001
Simpson, Jack. A Bibliography of African American Family History at The Newberry Library. Chicago: The Newberry Library, 2005. Location: 3rd floor Reference. Call number: Ref E 185.96 .T44 2005.
Location: 2nd floor Local & Family History Reference. Call number: Local History Ref E 185.96 .T44 2005b.
Location: 2nd floor Local & Family History Reference. Call number: Local History Ref E 185.96 .T44 2005c.
These items are on the open shelves on the 2nd and 3rd floors. You can find books on similar topics as those listed above by browsing the shelves in that call-number range.
For more on doing African American genealogical research, please consult our African-American Genealogy pathfinder.
Slave narratives recount the personal experiences of antebellum slaves or former slaves, and comprise one of the most extensive and influential traditions in African American literature and culture. Slave narratives were hugely popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with many going through multiple re-printings and selling tens of thousands of copies. In fact, until the 1930’s, slave narratives outnumbered novels written by African Americans.
Searching the Online Catalog
When searching for materials in the Newberry’s collections, check the online catalog. If you know the author or title of the item you want, simply search using the Author or Title search options within the online catalog. If you do not know the author or title, you may try searching under the following subject headings:
Slaves’ writings, American
You may also want to consult one of the bibliographies listed below to find specific authors or titles.
Arksey, Laura, Nancy Pries, and Marcia Reed. American Diaries. Volume 1: Diaries written from 1492 to 1844; Volume 2: Diaries written from 1845-1980. Location: 3rd floor Reference. Call number: Ref Z5305.U5 A74 1983.
These two volumes are guides to more than 5000 published diaries and journals; there is a focus on books that are day-to-day records as opposed to narratives or memoirs. The entries are arranged chronologically. In Volume 1, many of the entries concerning the subject of slavery will not be by slaves but by slave owners and traders, visitors to the South, and abolitionists; check the index under the subject headings of “slave,” “slavery,” and “slaves.” In Volume 2, check under the same headings in the index, as well as “civil war,” “contrabands,” and “freedmen.”
Bibliography of American Imprints to 1901. New York: K.G. Saur, 1993. Location: 3rd floor Reference. Call number: Ref Z1215 .B47 1993.
An extremely handy resource for finding printed materials. In the Subject Index, check under a variety of headings, including:
Slaves. Country. Biography (e.g. Slaves. United States. Biography)
Slaves. State. Biography (Slaves. Illinois. Biography)
Slaves. Personal Narratives
You can also check for titles in the Main Index: for example, “Narrative of …” yields some possibilities. You can also check the Date and Place Indexes if you are interested in narratives from particular years or places.
Work, Monroe N. A Bibliography of the Negro in Africa and America. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1928. Location: 3rd floor Reference. Call number: Ref Z1361.N39 W8.
Despite the early publication date, this book remains a standard used by researchers. Work devotes an entire section to slave narratives, as well as publications concerning other facets of slavery including: economic aspects, social aspects, the abolition movement, fugitive slaves and the Underground Railroad, and African Americans as soldiers. Entries are arranged alphabetically by author within each section.
Yellin, Jean Fagan. The Pen is Ours: A Listing of Writings by and about African-American Women before 1910 with Secondary Bibliography to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Location: 3rd floor Reference. Call number: Ref Z1229. N39 Y44 1991.
Part II of this bibliography contains a list of writings by and about women who had been held in slavery and whose dictated narratives or biographies were published before the end of 1910. Entries are arranged alphabetically by author.
Fictionalized Slave Narratives
The antislavery movement in the nineteenth century generated a number of narratives about slavery, some widely read, which were subsequently revealed to be fictitious or heavily fictionalized though sometimes based on an actual case or person.
If you know the author or title (check the North American Slave Narratives online bibliography), search using those commands from the main catalog search page. You may also search using the following subject headings:
Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin
The Newberry owns several interesting items related to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, including sheet music, plays, ballets, and translations. To find these items in the online catalog, you can search in the Author field for “Stowe, Harriet Beecher, 1811-1896,” or in the Title field for “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Most of our manuscript collections are available for viewing in the 4th floor Special Collections Reading Room. Here is a sampling of collections relevant to African American topics:
Announcements, flyers, artwork, buttons, newsletters, photographs, posters, t-shirts, and other materials collected by various individuals at Chicago protests, 2015-2016, responding to recurring police violence and civil rights violations against black citizens.
Papers of family historian Ernest A. Griffin, proprietor of the Griffin Funeral Home on Chicago’s south side, including family documents, photographs, audio/visual material, genealogical notes, and materials relating to the history of Camp Douglas (on which the funeral home stood) and Charles H. Griffin who served in a colored regiment during the Civil War. Also includes documentation of the funerals of prominent African Americans.
Prints and negatives by Helen Balfour Morrison from her multiple trips to African American communities in Kentucky during the 1930s and 1940s. Many of the images can be viewed online.
Throughout the twentieth century, Pullman was one of the largest employers of African Americans in the country, hiring them as porters and maids. Many seek the Pullman employee records, which are part of the company records, housed at the Newberry to do genealogical research. For more information on researching the employee records, see our Pullman Employee Records pathfinder.
For more manuscript collections, please consult our Modern Manuscripts page. From here, you can search using a variety of keywords, including “African American.”
Digital Collections and Exhibits at the Newberry
Digital portion of the Helen Morrison Photographs collection mentioned in this guide’s Manuscript Collections section. Featured here is the complete set of digitized images from this series, documenting African American life in Depression-era Kentucky, including the original prints developed by Morrison and additional undeveloped negatives.
Through photographs, illustrations, published texts, and manuscript sources, this website broadly tells the story of Pullman, exploring how the neighborhood illuminates the centrality of labor, race, and urban development in the history of industrial America. Throughout the twentieth century, Pullman was one of the largest employers of African Americans in the country, hiring them as porters and maids. Many seek the physical Pullman employee records housed at the Newberry to do genealogical research.
Most of the databases at the Newberry are subscription databases; therefore access is available to registered readers only within the library building. Those listed below are subscription databases.
Black Thought and Culture: A full-text database containing the text (and some images) of over 1,300 non-fiction published works of African Americans, ca. 1700-2006.
Chicago Defender: Searchable full-text archive for the years 1909-1975 of a newspaper primarily targeted at an African American readership.
JSTOR: Provides full-text access to an archive of major scholarly journals. Contains complete runs from their first volumes up through approximately five years ago.
For a comprehensive list of all our databases, visit our Databases webpage.
BlackPast.org: Includes an online encyclopedia, transcripts of speeches, full-text primary documents, bibliographies, timelines, links to useful digital collections and website, bibliographies, and more.
North American Slave Narratives: Put together by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the North American Slave Narratives collection includes all the existing autobiographical narratives of fugitive and former slaves published as broadsides, pamphlets, or books in English up to 1920, as well as many of the biographies of fugitive and former slaves and some significant fictionalized slave narratives published in English before 1920.
A Vision for Black Lives: Platform for policy priorities and resources related to Black Lives Matter movement, supported by a collective of over 50 organizations representing black people.
Black Metropolis Research Consortium: Chicago-based consortium of libraries, universities, and archives with holdings of materials on African American and African diasporic culture, history, and politics in Chicago. Their database is particularly useful for finding relevant archival collections in the area.
Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection: Largest African American history and literature collection in the Midwest with a strong focus on Chicago. Within the Chicago Public Library system.