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Questions to Consider
Why use primary sources?
Primary sources provide compelling, direct evidence of human activity. Students who encounter primary sources gain a unique perspective on the subject they are studying, and an opportunity to learn firsthand how primary sources are used for original research.
Primary sources can also be challenging to use. The formats of primary sources may be unique and unfamiliar. They require critical analysis due to their creators’ intents and biases; the variety of contexts in which they have been created, preserved, and made accessible; and the gaps, absences, and silences that may exist in the materials. - Adapted from Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy
Primary Source Sets & Guides
Primary source sets contain a selection of high quality primary sources you can include, quote and cite in your college papers and projects.
While there are hundreds of source sets, research guides and online exhibits to choose from when you're seeking primary sources, we've listed just a small selection of the best.
Other Free Sources on the Internet
African American Educational Photographs
From UVA Special Collections Library's Jackson Davis Collection. See also letters, speeches and articles by Davis, an educational reformer, from the first half of the 20th century.
African American Mosaic
Colonization, Migration, Abolition and the WPA are major topics covered in this resource-rich guide from the Library of Congress on black history and culture. See also LOC's African-American Odyssey
Literary works by and about African Americans from the UVA Library's collections. Mostly 19th-20th century.
African Americans Seen Through the Eyes of the Newsreel Cameraman
Video/audio clips from 1919-1963 from the University of South Carolina.
Soldiers in World War II, a congressman from the 1920s, a football match between Wilberforce University and Tuskegee Institute and a Joe Louis fight are just some of the materials
African-American Biographies on the Internet
From Columbia University. Biographical and autobiographical writings. See also resources from the University of Washington.
Africana & Black History
Several thousand items ranging from historical documents and rare visual materials to contemporary photo-journalism, relating to the entirety of African American history from the 16th century to the present. From NYPL Schomburg Center for Black Culture.
Amistad Digital Resource
From Columbia University. Image, video and document archives cover the period of 1919-present. Contains a wealth of primary sources and narrative material, arranged in three modules: Plantation to Ghetto; Civil Rights Era; The Future in the Present.
Black Abolitionist Archive
From the University of Detroit Mercy. 1830s-1860s covered. Search by keyword, subject, name, date, organization, newspaper.
Black Loyalists: Our History, Our People
A resource on how Canada became the home of the first settlements of free blacks outside Africa.
Documents by and about the Black Panthers, 1968-1970s. Over a dozen primary sources in pdf from the Michigan State's Digital Collectons.
From Abdul Alkalimat at the University of Toledo. A comprehensive site that includes links to recordings of speeches of Malcom X.
Civil Rights Library (CRDL)
From UGA Libraries. Includes three principal components: 1) a digital video archive of historical news film of key events of the Civil Rights Movement, 2) a civil rights portal providing a seamless virtual library on the Movement by connecting related digital collections on a national scale, and 3) a learning objects component delivering secondary Web-based resources.
Documenting the American South
Primary sources that document the cultural history of the American South from the Southern point of view. Includes diaries, autobiographies, travel accounts, titles about slavery, and regional literature. Mostly 19th century materials.
Explorations in Black Leadership
Video, audio, and text of interviews with leaders in the black community, conducted chiefly by Julian Bond. These oral histories focus on leadership and the transformational role of the civil rights movement in America.
Friend of Man (1836 - 1842, abolitionist newspaper)
A rural newspaper published in central New York State. Documents early anti-slavery and other reform movements. From Cornell University. is
Historical Publications of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
From the Thurgood Marshall Law Library at the University of Maryland. Locate publications by TITLE | DATE | SUBJECT | SUDOC NUMBERS |MAP.
Integration at the University of Mississippi
The images in this collection document the activities on campus as well as troop movement in the town of Oxford
Over a dozen primary source documents in pdf from the Michigan State's Digital Collectons.
Slavery and Diplomacy
From the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. A History Note on the Foreign Office and the suppression of the transatlantic slave trade
Archives from 1965-1968 of Civil Rights newspaper based in Montgomery, Alabama. See more information about this newspaper.
The African-American Migration Experience
From the New York Public Library Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition
Over 200 individual items, including speeches, letters, cartoons and graphics, interviews, and articles, from The Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale.
The Negro Motorist Green Book, 1949
"The Negro Motorist Green Book was a travel guide that listed lodgings, tailors and other businesses that welcomed black patrons during Jim Crow. The guide, which was launched in 1936 and published for nearly 30 years."
Guide to Web and print resources for research on the Tuskegee Airmen from the University of Alabama.
From the University of Richmond. Visualizing Emancipation is a map of slavery’s end during the American Civil War, e.g. mapping the interactions between federal policies, armies in the field, and the actions of enslaved men and women on countless farms and city blocks.
Voyages: Transatlantic Slave Database
Created by an international group of scholars. Principal sponsor is the National Endowment for the Humanities.
William Elwood Civil Rights Lawyers Project
Scores of online interviews tell the story of the Civil Rights struggle. Read more about the tapes here.
This list courtesy of the University of Virginia Library.
Assata: an Autobiography by On May 2, 1973, Black Panther Assata Shakur (aka JoAnne Chesimard) lay in a hospital, close to death, handcuffed to her bed, while local, state, and federal police attempted to question her about the shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike that had claimed the life of a white state trooper. Long a target of J. Edgar Hoover's campaign to defame, infiltrate, and criminalize Black nationalist organizations and their leaders, Shakur was incarcerated for four years prior to her conviction on flimsy evidence in 1977 as an accomplice to murder. This intensely personal and political autobiography belies the fearsome image of JoAnne Chesimard long projected by the media and the state. With wit and candor, Assata Shakur recounts the experiences that led her to a life of activism and portrays the strengths, weaknesses, and eventual demise of Black and White revolutionary groups at the hand of government officials. The result is a signal contribution to the literature about growing up Black in America that has already taken its place alongside The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the works of Maya Angelou. Two years after her conviction, Assata Shakur escaped from prison. She was given political asylum by Cuba, where she now resides.
Publication Date: 1987
Black Boy: a Record of Childhood and Youth by Richard Wright's powerful account of his journey from innocence to experience in the Jim Crow South. It is at once an unashamed confession and a profound indictment--a poignant and disturbing record of social injustice and human suffering. When Black Boy exploded onto the literary scene in 1945, it caused a sensation. Orville Prescott of the New York Times wrote that "if enough such books are written, if enough millions of people read them maybe, someday, in the fullness of time, there will be a greater understanding and a more true democracy." Opposing forces felt compelled to comment: addressing Congress, Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi argued that the purpose of this book "was to plant seeds of hate and devilment in the minds of every American." From 1975 to 1978, Black Boy was banned in schools throughout the United States for "obscenity" and "instigating hatred between the races." The once controversial, now classic American autobiography measures the brutality and rawness of the Jim Crow South against the sheer desperate will it took to survive. Richard Wright grew up in the woods of Mississippi, with poverty, hunger, fear, and hatred. He lied, stole, and raged at those about him; at six he was a "drunkard," hanging about in taverns. Surly, brutal, cold, suspicious, and self-pitying, he was surrounded on one side by whites who were either indifferent to him, pitying, or cruel, and on the other by blacks who resented anyone trying to rise above the common lot. At the end of Black Boy, Wright sits poised with pencil in hand, determined to "hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo."
Publication Date: 1945
Up from Slavery: an Autobiography by Delve into the turbulent roots of race relations in the United States with this inspirational account from Booker T. Washington, a one-time slave who became an important advocate for African-American education and founded several well-known institutions of higher learning, including the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Up From Slavery details Washington's life and outlines his sometimes-controversial views on education, social justice, and racial equality.
Publication Date: 1928
Examples of Primary Sources
Examples of primary sources:
- Autobiographies and memoirs
- Diaries, personal letters, and correspondence
- Interviews, surveys, and fieldwork
- Internet communications on email, blogs, listservs, and newsgroups
- Photographs, drawings, and posters
- Works of art and literature
- Books, magazine and newspaper articles and ads published at the time
- Public opinion polls
- Speeches and oral histories
- Original documents (birth certificates, property deeds, trial transcripts)
- Research data, such as census statistics
- Official and unofficial records of organizations and government agencies
- Artifacts of all kinds, such as tools, coins, clothing, furniture, etc.
- Audio recordings, DVDs, and video recordings
- Government documents (reports, bills, proclamations, hearings, etc.)
- Technical reports
- Scientific journal articles reporting experimental research results