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A glimpse into underexplored lives

Afro-American

Boxes sit stacked in a compact room on the second floor of the Afro-American newspaper's Baltimore headquarters, just down the street from the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus. The publication is one of the oldest, family-owned, continuously publishing newspapers in the country—it was founded in 1892 by a former slave who fought in the Civil War.

For nearly a century, the Afro's staff has saved the documents used to produce each issue—papers, photos and other materials—accumulating an overwhelming archive in the process. Today, the newspaper's archive occupies its own seven-room expanse in the rear of the building.

In 2007, the Afro-American partnered with Johns Hopkins University in an effort to sort through the nearly 400 boxes and record their contents into a publicly accessible database. The Sheridan Libraries and the Center for Africana Studies lead the project, called the Diaspora Pathways Archival Access Project (DPAAP).

Sifting through the documents, viewing the photos and reading the stories of African-Americans during a transformative century in the United States illuminates a rich culture and provides a window into underexplored lives.

"The people became real to me. When I read a textbook it can seem very far away and detached—that was a very long time ago," says Mary Banks, one of several undergraduates hired to write descriptions of the archive's holdings. "But when you start seeing the articles, it gives you a chance to have the people come to life as real people and real stories, and these were the adversities that they had to overcome."

Moira Hinderer, who manages the project, has worked side by side with the students as they opened each box, emptied every envelope and entered information into the database. The painstaking process is at times tedious, but Hinderer says the work is very much worth the effort.

"Sometimes you see stuff that is just so cool and you run around and you show everybody else—'Look at what I found!'" she says.

The Johns Hopkins University and Afro-American Newspapers Archives and Research Center will host a reception launching a new website to access archival content of The AFRO-American Newspapers on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 5-6:30 p.m. in Gilman Atrium on the Homewood Campus


Adapted from "Unboxing History," Johns Hopkins Magazine