About this site: Why digitize primary sources?

Why primary sources?

According to the Massachusetts History and Social Studies Frameworks, “the reading of primary source documents is a key feature of the two-year set of U.S. History standards” (p. 72). Using original documents from Du Bois’s life helps students hear the voices of the past without intervening interpretations. This allows the reader to ask his or her own questions of the text, and to catch nuances of tone that are often discarded during the production of school textbooks and other secondary materials. Primary sources invite the reader to walk in the shoes of those who lived in the past, and encourage her or him to relate to the lives of others. By engaging, rather than telling, original documents capture students’ imaginations and encourage them to regard the past as part of their present.

For example, the Du Bois Archives contain a letter dated 

August 16, 1909
, written to Du Bois by J. R. Clifford, Attorney-at-Law, of Martinsburg, West Virginia. In the letter, Clifford sends his regrets that he cannot attend the next meeting of the Niagara Movement. He says:

"My heart is in the Niagara Movement, and I had never looked forward to any thing with as much joy, as meeting that body of manly men – men who will say and do things….my ambition was to meet and mingle with the whipped cream of Negro manhood – men who have risen from injury to arms, and from arms to liberty."

As today’s students read these words, how are they to interpret the phrase “manly men”? What did Clifford mean, in his time and place, by that expression? Did it carry a different nuance of meaning then than it would today? Clifford himself explains that he means, “men who will say and do things.” What kind of things does he mean? And what are we to make of the phrase, “whipped cream of Negro manhood – men who have risen”? Today, we are accustomed to saying, “the cream of the crop” to mean the best, the topmost. Does this phrase “whipped cream” carry a similar meaning, or are there other ways of thinking about it; for example, cream naturally rises to the top of a container of milk, so why does Clifford say that this cream is whipped? Was this just the way the phrase was said in his era, or does the whipping refer to the literal lashes of the whip felt by generations of slaves, as well as the figurative lashes of post-slavery oppression, including the horror of lynching? Indeed, the use of the term “Negro” can be interrogated. How was this word used in 1909? What does it say about how racial labels in the U.S. justified and promoted the deprivation of the rights of many citizens?

One small letter yields so much material for investigation and discussion. This is the value of using primary source documents.

Why digital?

The University of Massachusetts Amherst’s physical Du Bois archives are located in western Massachusetts. Digitizing the sources allows free and open access from any location where there is a computer and an Internet connection.

 Many of these letters were written by hand, some in pencil. Occasionally, a letter is typewritten but marginalia or quick responses were handwritten. Over time, lead and ink may fade; additionally, the writer’s penmanship may make reading difficult. Scanning the letters allows users of image editing software, such as Photoshop, to enhance the image, resulting in better legibility. This helps to ensure that fewer interpretive errors occur.

Contextualization using multimedia resources
 Websites such as 
Discovering Du Bois: The Niagara Movement can contain “embedded” material from other sources; that is, whole files that are inserted into the site (with the permission of the originators of the content). Another way to access other sources is by the use of hypertext: texts linked to other resources on the Internet. These resources can give students a broader sense of the background against which the Niagara Movement took place.

This linkage to a wide variety of sources creates a multimedia learning experience, inviting the student to become engaged with the content on many levels. Students can explore the cultural context in which the Niagara Movement grew, so that one who is interested in clothing design can investigate 
what women wore in 1905 1910; another can listen to music of the era, such as Scott Joplin’s "Maple Leaf Rag"; another, investigating questions like one of those posed above, such as what “manly” meant in 1905, can click a link to contemporary literature such as Rudyard Kipling’s "If." Exploding misconceptions of a time, place, and people is an important part of primary source research. One way of doing this is to consult fine art and photographic evidence, such as that provided by the Paris 1900 website.

Self-directed learning
Websites containing hypertext allow the reader to choose what they want to explore, and in what order. It creates a web of connections such that a reader can pursue his or her own interests related to a particular topic, promoting better comprehension and retention of the materials. At the same time, the availability of links that connect to other links introduces the viewer to new material s/he might not have encountered previously. This expands the user’s breadth and depth of understanding, and has the potential to create a more engaged, more skilled learner.

Above: 1909 letter to Du Bois from J.R. Clifford.

Above: Photograph of Mrs. Ida D. Bailey. Published in the Dunbar Circle Annual Report, 1907.