News & Politics

Inside the Urgent Effort to Preserve Black Newspapers

Howard University is scanning these vital records.

Scanning pages at Howard University. Photograph by Andrew Beaujon.

In a basement office at Howard University, a small team of researchers is racing to digitize a priceless piece of Black history: an ambitious archive, started in 1973, of thousands of Black newspapers going back to the 19th century. Three years ago, a $2 million donation from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation established the Black Press Archives Digitization Project at the university’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. The goal is to create a public, text-searchable database of these publications, some of which existed only a few years and many of which contain history that’s hard to find elsewhere. Earlier this year, the Google News Initiative made an additional donation to keep the project going.

Brandon Nightingale, a Howard graduate student in history who’s program manager for the archive project, was surprised to learn at the start of the undertaking that Howard’s collection of Black newspapers was much bigger than anyone at the university knew when the grant was issued—at least 10,000 reels of microfilm rather than the 2,847 the university originally thought it had. Much of it had been stored outside Moorland-Spingarn, and there was also a roomful of physical newspapers in perilous shape. “I get a chance to revisit that dream from 50 years ago,” Nightingale says, “and make sure it gets done correctly.”

His assignment is to impose order on the collection by cataloging it, then getting as much as possible digitized. Five full-time staffers and a rotating cast of students are assigned to the project, which now owns two overhead scanners for paper copies as well as state-of-the-art microfilm machines. Each scan is checked for legibility by a human before it becomes available on Howard’s intranet.

Nightingale expects that the archive will go fully online in the next few years. So far, the team has scanned and digitized more than 300 micro-film reels from 96 publishers, along with more than 1,000 print newspapers published from 1827 to the present. But that’s just a tiny percentage of the material, and Howard is searching for donations to keep this effort going once current funds run out. “We understand that we’re not going to finish everything,” Nightingale says. “But if somebody wants to come in and finish the work we’ve done, we’ve already provided the road map.”

This article appears in the May 2024 issue of Washingtonian.

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Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute,, and Washington City Paper. He lives in Del Ray.