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Researching Black History at the BPL

A guide on researching Black history in the U.S. at the BPL and beyond


Curious about how to start researching Black history? Want to learn more about what resources the BPL has? Check out this guide!

A logo with a green circle is inside a larger red circle with the words "Boston Black United Front." Two illustrated brown hands grasp each other.

On this page: 

  • Research guides to help you get started
  • Digitized primary sources and collection directories for researching Black history across the country
  • Places to find archives and academic articles
  • Black research centers in New England

Image Right: A sticker of the logo for the Boston Black United Front. The Boston Black United Front was founded as a power-oriented organization with the goal of developing Boston’s Black community into a united base of economic and political power, ultimately improving the living conditions of community residents. Operating between 1968 and 1972 , it advocated for the safety and well-being not only of the Boston Black community, but also for that of allied communities in Cairo, Illinois, and New Bedford, Massachusetts. The entire archival collection for the BBUF has been digitized. Text and image courtesy of the Roxbury Community College Library Special Collections.

Note: The Black history resources on this page have information and archives from across the country and can work as a jumping off point for further research. They are not specific to Massachusetts, though they very well may have information about it. In order to find resources dedicated to Massachusetts, check out the Black History in Boston page in this guide or search for Massachusetts directly in the databases below. And don't forget to check our library catalog for past and current books about Black history!

Image Above: An illustrated postcard from the 1930s or 1940s depicting the outside of the Central Library at Copley Square. This is part of the Tichnor Brothers Collection, which contains approximately 25,000 office proofs of postcards of the United States published by the Boston firm Tichnor Brothers Inc.

What is a subject heading?

A subject heading is like a tag, or a label, which describes what the item (book, article, etc.) is about. Subject headings are useful because they provide a consistent way of describing the subject matter of the item. When an item is added to a database, an indexer will decide which topics are covered by the article, and choose several subject headings to apply. The subject headings used are selected from a standardised list, or thesaurus; this is known as a ‘controlled vocabulary’. This means that all items about a particular subject would be tagged with the same, standard subject heading, regardless of the words and phrases the author used in the title or abstract. (From University College London)

                   Image of the BPL website circling how to change to a subject heading search on the catalog search drop down menu

Image of the search bar. To search the catalog by subject, click the second drop down and change from "Keyword" to "Subject."

General Primary Sources

This 13,000 page reference center is 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.

The New York Public Library's "In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience" presents more than 16,500 pages of texts, 8,300 illustrations, and more than 60 maps. The Web site is organized around thirteen defining migrations that have formed and transformed African America and the nation. 

Image Above: A yellow, blue, and brown poster saying "Books are weapons," advertising collections at the Schomburg Collection (now Center) of the New York Public Library. 

Primary sources on the transatlantic slave trade and the global abolitionist movement, including contemporary books and periodicals, British, Spanish, and American colonial and legal records, manuscripts, correspondence, the papers of abolitionist organizations, and other materials from the collections of research institutions around the world. Includes essays, chronologies, reference and biographical articles, and bibliographies to support and contextualize the primary source material. Note: You must be signed in with your BPL card and access this resource through our website. 

Containing hearings and committee prints, legislative histories on the landmark legislations, CRS and GAO reports, briefs from major Supreme Court cases, and publications from the Commission on Civil Rights, this database allows users to educate themselves on the ways our civil rights have been strengthened and expanded over time, as well as how these legal protections can go further still.

Primary and secondary legal and historical materials on the institution of slavery, primarily in the United States and the English-speaking world. Includes every relevant colony, state, and federal statute and all reported state and federal cases on slavery, as well as historical and current periodical articles and commentaries, book reviews, and an extensive bibliography of additional print and electronic sources.

Searchable reproductions of 29,000 books, pamphlets, periodicals, and other documents about the Americas, providing original accounts of exploration, trade, colonialism, slavery and abolition, westward expansion, Native Americans, military actions, and much more.

Image Above: This printed booklet contains Preamble and Constitution (with space left for the name of particular societies), Declaration of the Anti-Slavery Convention in Philadelphia, Dec. 4, 1833, Constitution of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and Constitution of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. This item is part of the Anti-Slavery Collection at the Boston Public Library.

Image Right: A cased daguerreotype Charles Lenox Remond, taken by Samuel Broadbent in the 1850s. Based in Massachusetts, Remond was an orator, activist, and abolitionist who extensively lectured against slavery. This photograph is part of the Cased Photographs Collection at the Boston Public Library.

Former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun is seen shoulders up in a brown coat. She is smiling while speaking to a person facing away from the cameraA project of the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, this project interviewed 72 African American women between 1976 and 1981. The project recorded a cross section of women who had made significant contributions to American society during the first half of the 20th century. 

Image Right: Former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley-Braun is seen here after speaking at the University of Illinois at Springfield on February 4th, 2009. At the time of her election in 1993, she was only the second African American to serve in the Senate. Her biography, photographs, and interviews are all part of the HistoryMakers digitized collections.  

Academic Research

Image Right: A black and white photo of poets Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou dancing at an event at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Image via James Nova on Flickr. 

Cross-search all Gale databases to which BPL subscribes.

Full-text journal articles in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, including ethnic studies, women’s studies, history, and more. Coverage from 1972-present.

Full-text news and scholarly journal articles, audiovisual materials, reports, and primary source material covering all academic disciplines.  Includes translation and citation tools and a TopicFinder to expand your research. Coverage: 1980-present.