The Obsidian Collection and Google are working to digitize Black legacy newspapers for a modern world
According to reports from the Smithsonian and Chicago magazine, Google Arts & Culture is collaborating with digital archivists from the Chicago Defender and other Black newspapers such as the Dallas Post-Tribune, the Washington Informer and the Baltimore Afro-American to digitize their archives and maintain their legacy.
This effort began in earnest when Angela Ford was searching through the archives of the Chicago Defender for clips of her grandmother, who owned a business in the 1950’s and often appeared in the paper. Ford became concerned when she found the archives in bad shape and soon moved to digitize the collection, founding the Obsidian Collection so that the issues would be preserved for future generations.
There are already 8 free and searchable exhibitions live on the digital collection, exploring subjects such as the legacy of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor, an exhibition of a housewares show which was hosted by the Chicago Defender in 1959 to raise funds for the paper and draw attention from an emerging Black middle class, and an exhibition titled “Hot Fun in the Summertime” which depicts photos of Black Chicagoans relaxing by the Washington Park Lagoon and splashing in fire hydrants to beat the summertime heat. Ford officially began collaborating with Google Arts & Culture last year.
According to the Obsidian Collective’s website “As black people moved about the country, the documentation of their lives was recorded on very few mediums… The African American Newspapers were of the few published tools of the first half of the twentieth century to capture any record of our lives, our goals, our suffering and our strength.”
Ford tells Chicago magazine:
More than just digitizing it for researchers, I’m passionate about the next generation seeing how awesome we are and in changing the narrative permeating the American conversation right now about African Americans… What happens is a lot of these archive collections speak in an echo chamber of libraries and archives where it just doesn’t get out to the laypeople. What I love about Google Arts and Culture is you could be standing in line at the grocery store and viewing our archives. We’ll keep rotating them in and out and keep pushing them through social media. We want everyone to see us.
One of the long-term goals of this project is to eventually develop a virtual 3-D space from the images. Ford is working with a board that includes people who have worked on the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture to make this happen.
There are fears, however. “Google Culture Institute in Paris has invented the capacity to create virtual 3D spaces from a photograph,” says Ford, “The question is, are we altering the art?” Still, Ford is excited about creating a new digital home for these publications, telling Chicago magazine’s Adrienne Samuels Gibbs,“Google’s arts and culture strategy is that everybody in the world can access everybody in the world and that will create a new world… We want to make sure we are part of that conversation.”