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Carole Watson on Chronicling America

Carole Watson, Acting Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

Old Post Office Building
1100 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington , DC 20506
United States

September 11, 2013

National Digital Newspaper Program

Annual Awardees’ Meeting

Good afternoon.

Welcome to NEH. 

I am Carole Watson, Acting NEH Chairman

We gather once again for the annual meeting of the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP).  We have 36 individual state projects represented here today.  And, we extend a special welcome to our newest state partners:

Connecticut

Florida

Puerto Rico

Idaho, and

Mississippi.

The National Digital Newspaper Program, now known as Chronicling America, has a long history at NEH and is one of our signature programs.  With our partner, the Library of Congress, NEH has made a long-term commitment to this multi-year effort to preserve and provide access to these critical historical materials.  There are now 1,105 newspapers from 30 states and the District of Columbia represented in Chronicling America.  And all told, the program has made it possible at his point to search more than 6.6 million pages of historic American newspapers.  This is an impressive accomplishment of which all of you can be proud (we’re immensely proud!) — and it’s an important milestone for this collaborative, national effort.

We at NEH are especially pleased with an exciting development in Chronicling America: the opportunity to digitize historic newspapers in languages other than English—specifically, Spanish, Italian, French and German. As all of us are aware, we’re a country of immigrants.  The addition of newspapers from a multitude of cultural communities in America will give depth and dimension to the story that emerges from the interplay of the political, economic, and social history in each state.   By including titles from the ethnic press,  Chronicling America supports the goals of NEH’s special initiative, Bridging Cultures, which engages the power of the humanities to promote understanding of  the American story in all its richness and complexity: the thousands—actually millions—of local, regional, and statewide stories that constitute our history and our heritage.  The NDNP provides access to that priceless repository to everyone with access to the internet here in the U.S. and around the world. 

In NDNP’s next phase, the number of languages the program can accommodate will continue to increase.  Please be aware that it is now possible for state projects to also select for digitization/ newspaper titles in Danish, Hungarian, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Swedish.

And I can tell you about something else that’s new.  EDSITEment, NEH’s award-winning website for K-12 teachers, conducted a contest in conjunction with National History Day this year.  The goal was to encourage middle and high school students to use Chronicling America’s rich resources in the National History Day competition.  National History Day, as you may know, is a national, year-long academic program/ focused on historical research for 6th- to 12th-grade students in which thousands of students participate each year. The partnership between NEH, Chronicling America, and National History Day holds great promise.  As a new generation of young people discovers historic American newspapers online they will also discover ways to immerse themselves in the worldviews of Americans of an earlier era and see how the nation has changed drastically—or what has remained the same—over the years.

This past June, I had the pleasure of awarding medals to the first two winners of the Chronicling America prize at the National History Day awards ceremony, held at the University of Maryland in College Park. Responding to this year’s theme of “Turning Points in History: People, Ideas, Events,”  Richard Hernasy from St. Dominic Savio Home School in Mills River, North Carolina, received the award in the junior category for his film documentary,  “Unexpected Verdict: The Trial of John Peter Zenger,” and Joanna Slusarewicz, from the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington, Kentucky, took the prize in the senior category for her documentary “It’s a Jungle Out There: Upton Sinclair Turns the Tables on the Chicago Meatpackers and the Food Industry.” I’m sure that our partners from Kentucky and North Carolina were pleased to know about the success of these young scholars from their states.

As a native of Kansas and an American cultural historian, I took a personal interest in learning that newspapers from the 1870s—and available on the Chronicling America site—contained stories about Benjamin “Pap” Singleton and his efforts to encourage African Americans to leave all they had known, make the long journey, and homestead in Kansas.

 In fact, my great grandmother homesteaded on a farm in the southeastern corner of Kansas, in an area called the Little Balkans because immigrants from so many European countries had journeyed there to work in the coal mines in the 1870s and ’80s.   During that same period, African American families from Alabama and Georgia—including my not so distant ancestors—were part of that migration that fled to Kansas from the South.  Many lived in the mining camps; others lived and worked on farms that surrounded the mines.  These people developed a series of vibrant communities with schools, churches, community halls, and such, that have now completely disappeared.  Almost no buildings remain; it’s all farmland now. But the Pittsburg Headlight & Sun, the small town newspaper of Pittsburg, Kansas where I grew up—about 10 miles away from one of those mining/farming communities—recorded a small part of their history.  I was amazed to discover that paper had a small special section devoted to Yale, the community where my great grandparents lived as young people.  As to the economic history, the paper had stories about the coal companies, the opening and closing of the mines, mining accidents, and the strikes.  But I was also interested in the daily life of the people.  A quick look at the paper in the early years of the 20th century revealed so much about the particular experiences of those miners and farmers and their families.  For example, I was amazed at the number of lightning strikes in Yale, and the fires that destroyed houses and barns.  I was wide-eyed at the diseases people succumbed to then, some that no longer exist:  diphtheria, chicken pox, small pox, dropsy, mumps, scarlet fever, and cholera infantum.   I smiled when I read about a certain man, woman, or family that left to try to make a go of it in the Territory.  The Territory in this case being Oklahoma, which then was not yet a state. 

The Pittsburg Headlight & Sun newspaper is not among those selected for digitization.  But, tracing down the list of Kansas newspaper titles, I did see:

The Abilene Reflector, published between (l883–1888)

The Big Blue Union ( l862–l866)

The Kansas Herald of Freedom (l854–l860)

The Thomas County Cat (l885––1891)  What could that one be?

The Squatter Sovereign

We can learn a lot about the era just from those titles.

These newspapers and others from other states, have recorded our history, and are in your care.

So, welcome once again. We hope the meeting gives all of you: the opportunity to learn, to ask questions, and to draw on the experience of your fellow awardees and that of the Library of Congress and NEH staff.  For the ongoing projects, I wish you continued success in your work.  And for the new state partners, I look forward to the time when I can read the historic newspapers of your state in Chronicling America.

Thank you.