Friday, December 9, 2022
Online Search Engine Brings Black History to Light
By Charlene Muhammad, Contributing Writer
Published November 2, 2017

Cecily Marcus, principal investigator ofUmbra Search African American History, with Lou Bel-lamy, founder of Penumbra Theatre Company. (Courtesy photo )

An online search engine birthed by a small team of researchers at the University of Minnesota connects students, artists, scholars, educators, and the general public to the great history of Blacks in America.

The University of Minnesota Libraries, in partnership with the Penumbra Theatre Company, launched Umbra Search African American History earlier this year with access to over 400,000 digitized archival materials from more than 1,000 libraries, archives, and cultural heritage institutions across the United States, according to site administrators.

Currently, 725,000 materials are facilitated on the free, openly available search tool at  Visitors may use the embeddable search widget without any account or special access.


It includes materials that touch every subject and discipline, from every part of the country; from music to oral histories to photographs, maps, handwritten letters, and much more.  Content, which is updated four times a year, is derived from institutions, including Yale University, Temple University, Howard University, and the Smithsonian Institute.

“It might be a letter from W.E.B. Dubois … it might be thousands and thousands of materials that librarians and archivists have never been able to identify; so, there’s thousands of unidentified African American men, for example, photographs, maps, and publications, manuscripts … FBI files,” said Cecily Marcus, principal investigator, and director of Umbra Search.

Marcus elaborated on Umbra Search’s richness, how it benefits Blacks across America and worldwide, some of its limitations, and efforts to expand its database.

“This is really an opportunity for discovery,” said Marcus, who is also curator of the Archie Givens, Sr. Collection of African American Literature at the University of Minnesota Libraries.

Discoveries include items, such as the cover of a 1964 pamphlet depicting the late civil rights champion Medgar Evers.

Some searches invoke curiosity to learn more about people and places unknown to many before Marcus and Umbra’s team of researchers came along.  And some others beg the question, what is missing?


For instance, a search of “Danny Bakewell”, for Sentinel publisher Danny Bakewell, Sr., produces 14 pages, with information from California State University Northridge and the Library of Congress between approximately 1980 and 1997.

Included are photos and captions of his advocacy work during his tenure with the Brotherhood Crusade, but no mention of the civil rights activist and entrepreneur’s work as founder of Taste of Soul, the largest street festival in Los Angeles, his tenure as former chair of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, his community organizing, and economic development ventures, nor a link to his own websites that house such information.

1964 pamphlet depicting slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers.(Courtesy photo)

That the compilation team consists of predominantly White university students who may be compiling data from narrow lens about Black history and figures is not at issue, because Umbra Search’s core audience is middle to high school students, across all racial/ethnic lines, Marcus stated when asked of its methodology.

One reason website links may not be found, is that Umbra Search is focused on materials held in libraries in archives, she explained.  Umbra Search is meant to be a companion piece and in some ways, a counter-argument to things like Google Search, according to the Marcus.

“For example, if you search ‘freedom fighters’ in Google, or something like that, you’re going to find Wikipedia.  You’re going to find  You’re going to find … good sources, but within Umbra Search, you’re going to find posters from the Black Power Movement or FBI files of people who were being surveilled by the United States Government, and things like that,” Marcus continued.

She said the tool will never tell everything, in part due to the many gaps in what libraries have collected and digitized.  And that’s probably one of the greatest limitations of Umbra Search, she said further.

Marcus added, limitations also stem from copyright laws, which hinder Umbra Search’s ability to post some data online.

“It’s not comprehensive.  It’s not going to show you what has been collected,” she said.  To address the limitations, with private, internal controls, the researchers can add descriptions to some of the objects.

For instance, explained Marcus, if materials stem from an entirely racist perspective, they may add ‘White supremacy’ as one of the descriptors to make clearer there are biases and prejudices within the documents.  While they cannot massage every description, they can put the materials in the hands of artists to create critical perspectives out of them.

One remedy is, newspapers and libraries can contribute materials, but there is no upload feature.  Users may connect with those entities to discuss how to get into their internet archives, and then write to [email protected] and tell Umbra Search how to locate them, recommended Marcus.

One of the best things about Umbra Search is that, on the one hand, it brings these forgotten historical materials that have not been well used, or stories untold in mainstream media, out of the shadows, she said. Another is to reference all about Black history, which is still unseen, because that history is American history.

“The people who have been using it really are coming from all over the world,” Marcus stated.

Categories: History | National | News
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