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Bringing African American History to Life

By October 6, 2017September 16th, 2023No Comments

By Suzy Frisch

Girl with Blue Hair, from The New York Public Library

Girl with Blue Hair, from The New York Public Library

Many people know historical facts about segregation in the United States — separate schools, bathrooms, pools, and professional sports teams. But that history truly comes to life when watching a 1920s film clip of a Negro Baseball League game or viewing 1960s photos of a man pouring acid in a pool to scare away African American swimmers.

While archives across the country have reams of illustrative materials like this, it’s difficult to find by happenstance or from a distance. Thanks to the University of Minnesota Libraries, students, researchers, artists, and scholars have a new way to gain access. The Libraries recently developed a new search tool and database called Umbra Search African American History — available at

It’s chock full of 520,000 historical and cultural items from 1,000 archives, libraries, and museums, and it continues to grow. The Libraries started its Umbra Search effort in 2014 to pull together primary source materials from archives across the country. Whether it’s photos, videos, original materials like letters or marked-up manuscripts, users can easily search Umbra for items that support their research or open new avenues of thinking.

Officially launched in 2017 as a free online resource, Umbra Search is especially important because “accessing African American history through the archival record can be extremely challenging without the proper tools,” says Dorothy Berry, Metadata and Digitization Lead. Archives and institutions didn’t traditionally collect materials regarding African American culture and history because it wasn’t deemed important. Plus, many African Americans didn’t share their items with archives because of a lack of trust and relationships with such institutions.

Cecily Marcus (center) greets a guest

Cecily Marcus (center) greets a guest.

“Given how African American materials have been collected historically, there is even less of these materials,” says Cecily Marcus, Umbra Search Director and Curator of the Libraries’ Givens Collection of African American Literature, the Performing Arts Archives, and the Upper Midwest Literary Archives.

“They are scattered all over, so building a national corpus of African American material seems like a useful effort that demonstrates the impact of the material and how it can be used for research by anyone. It’s an important body of work that has been underrepresented. We need more.”

U Libraries uniquely suited to lead Umbra Search

This expertise helped attract national partners like the Smithsonian Institution, Yale University, and Howard University. Then it took significant outreach, negotiations, and communication to encourage other partners to allow the University to digitize and aggregate their archives in the Umbra Search database.

These efforts were immediately fruitful. Users often profess how powerful it is to dig into Umbra Search. Catherine Squires, Ph.D., a professor of communication studies, has her students at the University and Gordon Parks High School in St. Paul use Umbra Search for research projects, and she’s witnessed many exclaim “Wow!” when they see the wealth of resources. “Many of these students haven’t worked with archives much at all, and they didn’t realize how much was available,” she notes.

‘More to life than a Google search’

Junauda Petrus and Erin Sharkey, co-founders of Free Black Dirt, worked closely with Umbra Search materials as Coffee House Press Artists-In-Residence at the Given Collection.

Junauda Petrus and Erin Sharkey, co-founders of Free Black Dirt, worked closely with Umbra Search materials as Coffee House Press Artists-In-Residence
at the Givens Collection.

Certainly, the students know about historical figures like Martin Luther King and Sojourner Truth. But their eyes open to the topic even more when they can see photos or videos of civil rights leaders giving speeches, or they read accounts of events or editorials from the African American press.

“With Umbra, we can show students that there is more to life than a Google search, and it’s important to know that they have a legacy that’s accessible,” Squires adds. “So many of the undergrads and high school students inevitably say, ‘Why don’t we get to learn more about these people and this kind of history?’ They are glad they have this tool, but it reminds them that the way we teach history is very unidimensional.”

History often is presented as a collection of dates and influential people, but students, artists, and researchers can deepen their knowledge by viewing pictures or pamphlets from the daily life of an era.

Lou Bellamy, Penumbra founder and a long-time theater professor at the U, sees value in using a tool like Umbra Search as the theater starts to stage a play. He often wants to know, “What would the women be doing at this time?”— a question not as easily answered
before Umbra Search. Bellamy believes Umbra Search is especially meaningful for
artistic venues.

“With an ephemeral thing like theater, it’s here, and then it’s gone,” he says. “In the 40 years we’ve been doing work at Penumbra, we’ve learned some things about the way to produce this work in a historically correct, culturally responsible way. I want to share that in as wide an arena as I can. Umbra is certainly the way to do it.”

Erin Sharkey, a writer, educator, and co-founder of Free Black Dirt, an experimental arts production company, pitched in on the development of Umbra Search along with her artistic partner Junauda Petrus. During a 2015 Givens Collection residency, Petrus and Sharkey used it for research and consulted with the team to shape what the tool could and should offer users. 

Sharkey delights in being able to get access to primary source material that fuels her work, all without having to travel far and wide to see the items in person. Currently she’s interested in her ancestral home region of Mississippi, as well as the intersection of gardening and food and how it opens windows onto family histories.

“I’m really inspired by research in my own creative practice. I think it changes the way I think about myself as an artist, and now I’m thinking as an archivist,” Sharkey says. “Umbra is really fruitful in my own personal work and I find it really exciting to introduce the project to other people. They are surprised about this resource and they are really excited about it.”

The Umbra Search team intends for the tool to enrich African American history for all, helping people go beyond Black History Month and familiar figures to the hidden people and places that shaped America.

Mark Engebretson

Author Mark Engebretson

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