The AFRO-American Newspapers has a daunting task ahead: Creating a searchable and publicly-accessible database to house an estimated 3 million photos, thousands of letters, business records, original audio recordings, advertisements and even reporters’ notebooks. And then there are the newspapers themselves — 129 years of them.
“The collection is really remarkable. It’s probably one of the best-preserved Black newspaper collections in the country,” said Savannah Wood, a fifth-generation member of The AFRO-American Newspapers family and executive director of AFRO Charities.
In July 2021, AFRO Charities received a $535,000 grant from #StartSmall, Jack Dorsey’s philanthropic initiative, to support the digitization of The AFRO American Newspapers’ full photo archive, and the creation of an artificial intelligence-informed online research interface. This grant will cover the staffing and equipment needs for the first two years of this project.
The AFRO-American Newspapers was founded by John H. Murphy, Sr., a former enslaved man, with support from his wife, Martha Howard Murphy, in 1892. The newspaper, which at one point had 13 regional editions, has chronicled history from the Black perspective. The publication has included Langston Hughes, William Worthy and J. Saunders Redding among its staff. Today, The AFRO-American is led by fourth- and fifth-generation descendants of the Murphys. The newspaper’s publisher is Dr. Frances “Toni” Draper, a member of the family’s fourth newspaper generation.
“I think what is the real treasure in what we’re doing now is the intentionality about getting everything in one place,” Draper said.
While there are fewer print editions now, The AFRO-American reaches more than 1 million African-American consumers weekly, according to the company. The print edition reaches more than 80,000 readers each week and is distributed throughout the Baltimore-Washington region. The newspaper also boasts more than 650,000 Facebook followers. The newspaper’s website reaches 200,000 unique visitors and tops 1 million page views each month. With an average session length of more than four minutes, the audience is highly engaged and loyal.
The newspaper’s list of supporters and advertisers includes AARP, Ford, General Motors, Johns Hopkins Hospital, Macy’s, United Bank and Walmart.
A searchable, self-sustaining ecosystem
Wood moved to Baltimore from Los Angeles about two years ago to focus on The AFRO-American’s archives. She is leading the efforts to create an infrastructure to increase access to the 129-year-old newspaper’s extensive archives.
“We want to create a searchable system so we can do really robust research into this unique record of Black history,” Wood said, bringing light to “otherwise unknown stories throughout history.”
Fully digitizing the archives and creating a searchable, usable database infrastructure for the materials would also facilitate image licensing and possibly proceeds from non-fungible tokens (NFTs). All revenue would go back into maintaining the collection and public access to it.
“We’re trying to create a self-sustaining ecosystem,” Wood said.
Some of the work was already done by the time Wood arrived, but the amount of work left to do is significant, to put it gently.
Several years of newspaper archives were already digitized and available through ProQuest, a subscription service accessible mainly through universities and libraries. Many years of newspapers have also been digitized by The AFRO-American team, as well, including editions from Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Richmond.
About 10 years ago, a collaboration between Johns Hopkins University and The AFRO-American, with support by the Mellon Foundation, sought to catalogue what was in the collection. The project created subject headings for a portion of the archives, but Wood needs to fill in the details of what is in each folder. That means AFRO Charities needs money and staff.
“The challenge is the scale for sure, and I think we’re just getting started with major fundraising for this project. But before that it would be having enough staff – and trained staff – to work on it,” Wood said.
In addition, AFRO Charities is working to raise money to rehabilitate a building in West Baltimore that would be the new (and permanent) home for the collection and a research center.
That way, members of the public would be able to find pieces of their own family’s history more easily. Draper said the newspaper gets a fair number of requests from the public — “and some of them are things like, ‘My grandmother turned 100 in 1920 and her picture was in The AFRO. Can I have a copy of it?’”
Draper said she has been both surprised and delighted by things they have uncovered. Second-generation publisher Carl Murphy made a habit of making audio recordings. One of those recordings was of a conversation between Murphy and Thurgood Marshall about the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, for example. The archives are a treasure trove of “the stories behind the stories,” Draper said.
The newspaper’s storage includes millions of photos — fortunately, many of them have notes on the back, making it a bit easier to digitize with searchable information.
“Even from the advertising standpoint, you can see what was being marketed to the Black community,” Draper said. “You can also see things that you don’t see in the mainstream press and are not in the history books. There were tremendous contributions from people who still are not in history books.”
Projects and partnerships
As the nonprofit partner of The AFRO-American, AFRO Charities “builds bridges across generations and socioeconomic divides through artistic and educational projects that are often inspired by the AFRO American Newspapers’ archives.”
One of the most recent projects spearheaded by AFRO Charities was called, “To the Front: Black Women and the Vote.” The special publication focused on Black women suffragists from Washington, D.C. and Maryland. Physical copies of the commemorative book sold out, but interested readers can still download a PDF from afrocharities.org.
“There is quite a bit of history – world history told from a Black perspective, which is often not considered, so [the archives are] really unique in that way,” Wood said.
AFRO Charities also is working on an art commission with artist Xaviera Simmons. The New York City-based artist will be spending time with the archives and producing new work for KADIST, a contemporary arts organization. The work will be part of an exhibition in Paris, where KADIST has a home base and gallery. The project is supported by the Ford Foundation, Etant Donnés (a French organization) and the Andy Warhol Foundation. The collection will open in the spring of 2022.
“Black history is not just for Black people – it needs to be a part of the curriculum,” Draper said. “If not, we’ll never understand each other and we won’t value one another’s contributions.”
The AFRO is a member of two key programs at LMA.
In LMA’s Lab for Journalism Funding, which offers individualized coaching, best practices, and the framework to grow philanthropic support for local news in communities of all sizes, The AFRO raised more than $630,000 including enough for a reporter from Report for America, funding from Facebook for two reporters, and $131,000 for a partnership with the Baltimore City Public School district to highlight the voices of local youth. This is in addition to The AFRO’s $535,000 to digitize its archives.
The AFRO is a founding member of Word In Black, a groundbreaking collaboration of leading Black news publishers that promises to confront inequities, elevate solutions and amplify the Black experience. LMA is currently seeking a Managing Director for Word In Black. Learn more and apply or forward the link to a friend.