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Black Lives, Black History: Primary Sources

Guide to research and resources for African American History.

Introduction to Primary Sources

Primary sources are found in libraries, archives, universities, government repositories, church documents, and a range of other organizations. Numerous digital collections provide access to primary source materials which may otherwise be inaccessible to the general public. The selections included here represent a small number of primary source materials related to slavery, abolition, Civil Rights, and other topics of interest in African American history.

What Are Primary Sources

According to the Library of Congress, "Primary sources provide a window into the past—unfiltered access to the record of artistic, social, scientific and political thought and achievement during the specific period under study, produced by people who lived during that period." Primary sources are the direct, uninterpreted records of a subject or event, or "the raw materials of history" (LOC, 2017). These may include letters, diaries, first person accounts, memoirs, speeches, interviews, birth/death records, artifacts, historical records, images, photographs, lab books, manuscripts, government publications, and some forms of newspaper articles.

Using primary sources for research allow for personal engagement with events of the past which helped shape the world as it is today, and promote a deeper understanding of these events. Because primary sources are often incomplete and without context, they help promote critical analysis and discovery as they are examined against what is already known about an event or a period in history. Primary sources also enable the researcher to construct knowledge about specific times, places, people, and events.

How to Find Primary Source Materials

The Internet is an excellent resource for locating primary source materials, especially materials that have been digitized. Here are a couple of strategies from the American Library Association to locate primary source materials.

Use a Keyword Search

Select keywords related to your research topic and include the phrase primary source as part of the search. For example:

African American history primary source

This will retrieve many authoritative and valid websites containing histories, digitized documents, and primary source collections housed in university special collections, libraries, archives, and organizations. 

Use a Primary Source Title

Identify a title of a primary source by reading a secondary source on the topic (e.g., encyclopedia, book, article, etc.). Search for the specific title online, enclosing the full title in quote marks to narrow the likely results list. Credits, acknowledgements, image captions, and bibliographies are good pointers to primary sources.

For example, The Harlem Renaissance (Steven Watson, NX 512.3.N5 W38 1995) includes a section on Permission Acknowledgements which provides details about the archives, estates, and foundations where original source materials (e.g., letters and manuscripts) were obtained.


Adapted from "Finding Primary Sources on the Web", American Library Association, January 11, 2015. (Accessed January 18, 2017) Document ID: 7bd7b564-6106-dec4-b928-899fc3f75548

Primary Source Digital Collections

Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) Primary Source Sets are designed to help students develop critical thinking skills by exploring topics in history, literature, and culture through primary sources. Drawing online materials from libraries, archives, and museums across the United States, the sets use letters, photographs, posters, oral histories, video clips, sheet music, and more.

FBI - The Vault is the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Library which contains 6,700 documents and other media that have been scanned from paper into digital copies. The Vault includes an extensive collection of documents related to Civil Rights and Popular Culture. Materials related to figures such as W.E.B. DuBois, Malcolm X, Freedom Riders, Martin Luther King Jr, Coretta Scott King, are contained within the Vault. 

National Archives houses the historical documents of the United States. It contains millions of documents, artifacts, records, photographs, and Ephemera. Among its digitized collections is an extensive set of primary source documents on Black History. Documents cover slavery and abolition, segregation, the Great Migration, and Civil Rights. provides a "13,000 page reference center dedicated to providing information to the general public on African American history and on the history of the more than one billion people of African ancestry around the world." It is a comprehensive repository of documents and materials that explore and explain African American history.

Born in Slavery Collection from the Library of Congress. "Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves."