Men in suits sitting outside a drugstore
Unknown photographer

The Game Is Changing for Historians of Black America

For centuries, stories of Black communities from the past have been limited by racism in the historical record. Now we can finally follow the trails they left behind.

I first saw the photo at a street fair in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in October 2011. I was at the Historic Mobile Street Renaissance Festival, an annual celebration of Hattiesburg’s Black downtown. That afternoon, Mobile Street filled with thousands of people spending their Saturday in the sun, drinking sweet tea and eating soul food with their friends and neighbors. I was new in town, and I was excited to join them.

Sitting in the window of an abandoned shop was a black-and-white picture of 12 Black men. They appear in two rows, five seated and seven standing. Each man is wearing a suit and politely holding his hat off to the side. There are at least two generations present, as evidenced by their hairlines and facial features. Their faces carry mixed expressions. Most of them look serious, but some are smiling. One man even appears to be smirking, like he knows a secret. In their regal suits and poses, their faces are frozen in time. As the crowd meandered by, these men from the past sat perched in their window, hardly noticed by a soul. I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were watching us. The men in the photograph haunted me.

Just two months before, I had arrived in Hattiesburg to teach at a local university and finish my doctoral dissertation. I was writing about the local Black community and its role in the civil-rights movement, but I had a problem: I was struggling to find sources that detailed the lives of local African Americans before the 1960s. So when the historic Black community held a festival in honor of itself, I went. I wanted to meet those who had come of age in that neighborhood during the Jim Crow era and borne witness to the birth of the local movement. But then I was struck by the picture in the window, and everything changed. The encounter altered the trajectory of my project, which years later culminated in the publication of my book Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White. But more than that, the search led me to tools that could revolutionize the telling of Black history.

Name any famous figure from the civil-rights movement and it’s likely that they spent time in Hattiesburg: John Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, and many others organized in the city. I was particularly drawn to the story of Hattiesburg’s Freedom Schools, which opened just days after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964. The following Monday, local Black churches welcomed hundreds of students into makeshift summertime Freedom Schools designed to fold Black youths into the movement. The Black students arrived by the dozens, singing and clapping, determined to claim freedom and their rightful place in American society. One 11-year-old girl later explained that she came because “I want to become a part of history … And I want to be a first-class citizen.” That hope is what drew me to Hattiesburg. I wanted to study the community that birthed such a powerful movement. But the path before me, as it has been for many historians of Black America, was daunting.

To research and write the stories of Black and white southerners is to undertake almost two entirely different tasks. Black artifacts and records have long been systematically destroyed and marginalized. Like water fountains and public schools, the creation of historical archives was once racially segregated. Archives are usually supported by state governments or private institutions and include a wide range of personal, organizational, and government documents. Extant collections typically reflect the prejudice of past white southern archivists who didn’t believe that the Black people who shared their society lived lives worth studying. When white archivists set out to collect documents they thought future historians would find most important, they often gathered only the photographs, ledgers, diaries, and letters produced by wealthy, white citizens. Most of these archivists didn’t think someone might someday want to study the lives of African Americans. Their racism prevented them from imagining that someone like me could ever exist.

Black people were also erased by the newspapers of the past. Many mainstream papers in the Jim Crow South didn’t mention African Americans unless they were arrested or killed. Sure, there were occasional features on church functions or sporting events, but in general Black communities received far less coverage than their white counterparts. Black southerners in Hattiesburg and elsewhere responded by starting their own newspapers. But many of those papers have been lost to time. While Hattiesburg’s Black community published several newspapers before World War II, only a single issue of one paper remains available today. When it comes to traditional sources, the historical record of Hattiesburg and many other Black communities is meager.

Environmental factors also conspire against researchers of Black history. Like many Black neighborhoods of the Jim Crow South, Hattiesburg’s Mobile Street District was built over a tenuous landscape. The neighborhood sits in a floodplain near the confluence of two rivers. Even if Black people had managed to save their own historical records, their neighborhood—and the materials housed within it—remained susceptible to destructive weather events. If a Black business created a ledger in, say, 1910, any number of minor or major floods over the ensuing decades could have destroyed it. The same is true of family Bibles, wedding photographs, community newspapers, and an endless number of other heirlooms that might have provided rich clues into the history of Black life.

Active racism, exclusion, and environmental injustice have systematically destroyed or buried whole sections of Black history. Many of those who gripe about “erasing history” of Confederate monuments and other symbols in the South have no idea how much history has already been erased. This erasure is part of the reason why the picture of the distinguished Black men in the window stopped me in my tracks. You don’t see many old pictures of Black people from that neighborhood.

A collage of a map, an image of a lumber mill, and green grass
M246 Hattiesburg Historical Photographs, The University of Southern Mississippi / Giana De Dier

When I started studying Black Mississippi history, I chased sources in archives in Mississippi, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, and New York, and looked at thousands of pages of government documents and microfilm. For past historians, this is how things were often done. Finding records for an important figure from a Black neighborhood could be like searching for a needle in a haystack. To make the smallest additions to the historical record and scholarship, historians have had to do painstakingly slow and expensive detective work.

But modern technology presented me with an advantage: the ability to search millions of digital records in an instant. Today, with the use of online databases and sophisticated search tools, we can find useful information not just about famous Black leaders, but about everyday Black men and women whose lives and loves constituted the true core of the African American experience. The ability to capture those regular lives more easily has created a world of opportunity for today’s historians of Black America.

The abandoned building that held the photograph of those distinguished Black men stands at 606 Mobile Street. A quick look into an old city directory—one of the few mainstream historical sources that reliably included Black people—reveals that the building once belonged to a pair of brothers, Hammond and Charles Smith. I know it’s them, because the city directory was also segregated. Black-owned businesses were denoted by a small c, meaning “colored,” next to their name. My search started with the Smith Drug Store.

The Smith Drug Store opened in 1925 and operated for 55 years. It was a beacon in the community for generations. Black people bought gum and sanitary napkins there. They cashed checks and picked up prescriptions. Located around the corner from the Black high school, it was a popular hangout for teens. One Black woman once compared it to Arnold’s from the show Happy Days.

My break in cracking the case of the photograph came when I found an interview at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage. I was lucky that Hattiesburg has one of the oldest oral-history collections in the South, dating back to the 1970s, and that the collection took care to capture the voices of Black people. In April 1982, a white historian named Orley B. Caudill conducted two interviews with 87-year-old E. Hammond Smith. Those interviews—both conducted before I was born—allowed me to begin stitching together the family and community story that ran through the heart of my book.

Caudill’s interview with Smith is filled with important details about his family. I couldn’t verify everything he said, but the clues he left gave me a path to follow. Perhaps most important were the names. Two of Smith’s brothers—Wendell Phillips Smith and William Lloyd Garrison Smith—were named after abolitionists. In the interview, Hammond also revealed that his father, Turner, had once been enslaved. Wendell and William were the first generation of their father’s lineage to have been born free in North America, and they carried names that commemorated the activists who had fought to liberate their people.

The Smith family left their mark on the physical landscape they once occupied. The names of Black people are carved into the cornerstones of churches, etched into stained-glass windows, and chiseled into headstones in the old Black cemeteries. The people excluded from the archives used their gravestones to tell details about their lives. I could not have known, for example, that a Black Hattiesburg banker named Ed Howell—one of the city’s earliest Black leaders—belonged to the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in America, the branch of the fraternal order known for accepting Black members, had the organization’s logo not been marked on the obelisk that sits on top of his grave.

Once equipped with names and other clues, I turned to digital sources, including Ancestry, to track down the story of the men in the photograph. While Ancestry is marketed to individual consumers for personal family genealogical research, the real power of the platform is unleashed when you turn the gaze away from your own family and toward that of others.

I searched for Hammond Smith’s parents, Turner and Mamie, in the Ancestry database. The first five records are census entries from every decade between 1900 and 1940. In the past, examining old census records required loading microfilm of enumerated population schedules and looking for entries in the places you thought your subjects might have lived. If the people moved around a lot—like my own ancestors did—it could be impossible to track them down. But Ancestry allowed me to search for names across millions of census records. The digitized search tool scans documents and links together sources that might have been created in different decades and states. In the pursuit of finding needles in the haystack of Black history, Ancestry revealed itself to me to be perhaps the most powerful tool ever created.

Census entries are not without flaws. Historically, they were recorded by hand and were subject to human error and conflicting information. But telling Black family history can be like trying to complete a puzzle without all the pieces. Despite any errors, the searchable government documents allowed me to begin constructing the puzzle’s border. None of the entries list the correct birth year for Turner, but information on his job, family, and neighborhood allowed me to make a basic genealogical outline.

From there, another revolutionary source of information was a trove of Black newspapers that folks in Mississippi subscribed to during Jim Crow times. Black southerners knew they were excluded from the local white newspapers but wanted to share stories from their lives, see their names in print, and read about contemporary events affecting African Americans. And so, they read northern Black newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier, the New York Amsterdam News, and The Chicago Defender. These publications came south on trains and were distributed by Black railroad porters. One National Urban League official wrote that the Defender was so popular in Hattiesburg that “it is passed around until it is worn out.” Another observer noted that Black Hattiesburgers “grab the Defender like a hungry mule grabs fodder.” Not only were they reading it to learn about Chicago, they also read it to learn about their neighbors. As in many other southern Black communities, Mobile Street District residents sent their own neighborhood updates to northern Black newspapers, and these stories were included in the national editions. Black people in Hattiesburg often submitted stories to The Freeman in Indianapolis, for example. According to the paper, it was available for purchase in Hattiesburg “every Saturday,” at Noah Shackelford’s barbecue restaurant or from the local cobbler G. T. Spence.

Today, databases like ProQuest, (which is owned by Ancestry), and NewsBank provide unprecedented access to these newspapers. One of the first entries for the Hattiesburg Smiths appears in The Freeman in 1908, eight years after the family moved into town. Turner Smith is listed as a member of the Howell Literary Club, an organization named for the Black banker Ed Howell. The group met on Sundays after church to listen to gospel music, lectures, and debates. Turner’s name was just one of many members, and the Howell Literary Club was only a single organization among more than a dozen, almost none of which are mentioned in any document in a traditional archive.

Other updates from the Mobile Street District relate community events such as concerts, baseball games, birthday parties, neighborhood parties, and the meetings of dozens of local Black organizations. They often state the number of people in attendance, the meals they ate, and the names of the bands that performed. Black women, in particular, jump off the page unlike in any other source, becoming much more than their marital status or the jobs that are recorded in traditional sources. A 1931 article in The Chicago Defender, for example, reported that Black Hattiesburg women wore “lovely pink frocks” and held parties in Black spaces that were “beautifully decorated with pink roses.” I can’t imagine a longing to live in the early-20th-century South, but the party thrown in 1908 by Mrs. Birdie Mason, featuring Hattiesburg’s “Big Four String Band” and “oysters in every style, chicken and white wine,” sounds like a heck of a good time.

The Smith family is woven into many of the stories. They’re at the bridge parties and the cake walks, a proud Black family at the center of Black Hattiesburg society. The newspaper updates provide names of the people with whom they shared their lives. I worked backwards from every name I found, going through each database, punching in the names of everyday Black people to link these once-scattered sources together. As I added more details, a rich, textured Black history began to come together. I had started by searching for 12 men in a photograph, but in doing so I discovered a community.

A collage of a family sitting on the steps of a house, a magnolia, and green grass
Unknown photographer / Giana De Dier

I never did learn the names of all the men. Some older folks have offered guesses for a few faces, but most people alive today are too young to recognize them. As with most history, there will always be things we can’t know. But the picture served as a gateway to a process of broader discovery. I understand why people come out every October to celebrate the history of the Mobile Street District; they have a lot to be proud of.

We stand at the verge of a golden age of Black-history telling. Digital tools like Ancestry and newspaper databases offer new access to sources that allow us to recover the names of Black people who were neglected in traditional archives. Digitized oral-history collections give us access to the stories of people from the past in their own words, and also give us the power to add our own mark by interviewing the people we know.

Until recently, Black history has often been bogged down by a bilateral vision of extreme tragedies and a handful of triumphs, starring many victims and few heroes. Its narrow chronology has de-emphasized regular Black life in the long Jim Crow period—the social events and endeavors of groups like the Hattiesburg Negro Business League, the Colored Citizens Welfare League, and the Negro Boys and Girls Improvement Association—in favor of stories of extreme oppression and exception. But Black life during that time was too rich and complex to be reduced to stories about lynchings and Martin Luther King Jr. Technological revolutions offer a path to deliver vibrant, textured histories of places like Hattiesburg.

As I wandered through the Mobile Street fair, I couldn’t help but wonder what the men in the photograph would have thought about us. But as I sat with it longer, I came to believe that the more pertinent question was what they thought of themselves. New approaches to the uncovering of Black history allow us to move beyond the stark victimization narratives to consider the perspectives of Black men and women in their own time. They were optimistic and proud people who performed powerful gestures like naming their kids after abolitionists. And they left behind records that we can now access in full. Even in Jim Crow Mississippi, these Black folks had great hopes and dreams.

My book came out in the spring of 2019, as America was beginning to wrestle with questions about the Confederate monuments that are scattered across our country. After the book was released, I received hundreds of emails from Hattiesburg and elsewhere, commenting on the book and asking questions. The reactions to the book were heart-warming. And when I returned to town, I was able to share hugs and tears with members of the Smith family. Soon after the book came out, my uncle Bob called me. “This book is our monument,” he said. “Black people didn’t get monuments … This does for us what the Confederate monuments do for white people.”

Some of us come from people whose history wasn’t meant to be recorded. But now we can pay homage to Black lives from the past. As the 11-year-old Freedom School student once wrote, we all deserve a chance to become part of history.