UM-Flint archive collaborates to digitize Flint's historical Black newspapers

Share or print this article
A tattered newspaper on a desk
UM-Flint has partnered with the Gloria Coles Flint Public Library and UM-Ann Arbor’s Digital Collections Services team to preserve an integral part of Flint’s history.

Newspapers are notoriously difficult documents to preserve. Newsprint is, by definition, a low-cost and non-archival paper. That means it's all too easy for the history contained in those newspapers – particularly smaller publications without the resources to house a dedicated archive – to be lost. 

Callum Carr

"Unless they were microfilmed or someone digitized them, chances are historical papers no longer exist," said Callum Carr, associate archivist at the Genesee Historical Collections Center located in the University of Michigan-Flint's Frances Willson Thompson Library. "After a certain amount of time, that cheap paper is just going to be gone. And if it's been stored in somebody's basement, attic, or outbuilding, there's no hope."

Flint's Black historical newspapers could easily have been lost to the eroding effects of time. These publications, which ran from the late 1930s to the late 70s, chronicled the lives, perspectives and priorities of Flint's African American community. Outlets like The Bronze Reporter, The Flint Brownsville News and the Flint Spokesman covered topics ranging from who in town was going off to college to police brutality and systemic issues within the public school system. 

"These documents feel like small-town papers despite being published during Flint's boom years," Carr said. "They were written for a community within a community. We often talk about neighborhoods like St. John Street and Floral Park, but people don't really understand how these places were largely closed off from the rest of Flint."

A screenshot of The Bronze Reporter with the headline "Miss Bronze Reporter Contest Nears End." There are then three photos of African American female high school students.
These newspapers were active fixtures of Flint's Black community. Here, the Bronze Reporter highlighted notable high school students and announced its intention to create a scholarship fund.

Thanks to a collaboration between the Thompson Library and archives, The Gloria Coles Flint Public Library and the Digital Collections Services team at the University of Michigan Library, these historical publications are not only digitized for posterity but also freely accessible online for the public. 

It all started in 2019, with Carr's outreach to community organizations. They were working to identify if any external partners had needs with which the Thompson Library could assist. As it turns out, the GCFPL had already digitized Flint's Black community newspapers but didn't have a place to store them or an effective method of sharing them widely. That led to an agreement that Carr would find a way to permanently store the materials and display them for public use. 

After GCFPL conducted the initial digitization, Carr ran the files through optical character recognition software, making the documents searchable and significantly enhancing their value for researchers. Taliah Abdullah, GCFPL executive director, said that working together with the university offered an opportunity to serve a wide range of stakeholders. 

Taliah Abdullah

"Often, academic and public libraries serve different and diverse audiences. This project will allow for the unique audiences served to access the same information for educational, research, and informational purposes.

"Flint has a vibrant and rich history that can be overlooked when only focusing on current issues impacting the community. Having the Black Community Newspaper Collection available digitally, preserves history and contributes to the sense of pride that is embedded in Flint," said Abdullah. "This project highlights the individuals, businesses and social events that contributed to Flint being the thriving and forward-thinking community that it was and will be available for generations to come." 

The process of making the newspapers searchable resulted in files requiring massive amounts of storage — think terabytes of data. That's where the U-M Library comes in. The Digital Collections Services team leveraged its resources to make the digitized and searchable documents available online. Kat Hagedorn is the director of digital content and collections at the U-M Library. She emphasized the importance of collaborating with those closest to the source material to ensure accuracy and accessibility. 

Kat Hagedorn

"Those who bring us materials for digitization and hosting in a digital collection are familiar with the subject areas or are themselves in close collaboration with those who are. They are the ones who are able to provide reasons for the creation of a digital collection, which we then provide online," said Hagedorn. "We never launch a digital collection without our close collaborators 'signing off' on it, in terms of how we describe the materials, the features and functionality we are providing and how we will be sharing and disseminating the digital collection to others."

While the popular conception of a librarian's or archivist's work may be one of quiet solitude and strict adherence to long-standing prescriptions, Carr believes that connection and creativity are essential to success in this field. Carr will use those skills to continue the work of digitizing Flint's historical newspapers, including the UAW Headlight 599 collection and papers from the 19th century.

Most of all, Carr believes their efforts are meaningful not only to contemporary readers and researchers but also to the memory of those who created the original documents. 

"These newspapers lacked any kind of copyright mark, which leads us to believe that their publishers – who have all passed on – desperately wanted these things to be seen and be pushed into the future. I feel like I am honoring those wishes by making them accessible to the entire community," Carr said. 

The Black Community Newspapers of Flint collection can be accessed on the U-M Library Digital Collections webpage. More information about UM-Flint's Thompson Library can be found online

Logan McGrady is the marketing & digital communication manager for the Office of Marketing and Communication.