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African American History

African American History Subject Guide


The collections at the William L. Clements Library document the varied and rich histories of African Americans, with particular strengths on the history of slavery, antislavery and abolition movements, the Civil War, and emancipation. Materials from all of the divisions grant different entry points to explore how Americans experienced, interpreted, and recorded race.

Examples of some key manuscript collections include the African American History Collection, the Weld-Grimké Family Papers, and collections in the James S. Schoff Civil War Collection. The Graphics Division helps document the visual history of African Americans through sources like the Arabella Chapman Carte-de-Visite Albums, which illustrate the lives of the Chapman family, middle-class African Americans from Albany, New York.

Selected examples of the type of material on this subject to be found in each division include:

Book Division

  • Pro- and anti-slavery tracts and defenses
  • Printed travel accounts describing slave states
  • Autobiographies and biographies of formerly enslaved people, abolitionists, and leading figures
  • City directories with information about free and enslaved residents and their various business enterprises

Manuscript Division

  • Family papers that include information about plantation management, mixed-race children, and commentary on enslaved workers
  • Diaries, journals, and letters describing travel through and everyday life in slave-holding states as well as encounters with African Americans in free states
  • Papers from military figures, soldiers, and civilians during wartime documenting African American participation in wars and debates relating to race and slavery generated during them
  • Papers of antislavery groups and activists

Graphics Division

  • Photographs representing African Americans, free and enslaved, including portraits commissioned by African Americans and albums assembled by them
  • Printed historical views that include representations of African Americans
  • Printed satires commenting on race, slavery, abolition, and politics
  • Sketchbooks and other original artwork depicting African Americans
  • Sheet music, including minstrel songs and music relating to African Americans and slavery

Map Division

  • Printed maps of particular slave states or of the nation as a whole delineating boundaries between slave-holding and free territories
  • Maps with demographic information about enslaved populations
  • Maps with details of plantations

Subject Headings

African Americans
Antislavery literature
Antislavery movements–United States
Black race
Fugitive slaves
Minstrel music
Plantation life
Race relations
Slave insurrections
Slave trade
Slavery–United States
Slavery and the church
United States. President (1861-1865 : Lincoln). Emancipation Proclamation
United States–Race relations

subdivision African Americans under individual subjects, e.g. United States — History — Revolution, 1775-1783 — African Americans.

Online Resources

Selections in the William L. Clements Library Image Bank and volumes from the Book Division scanned into HathiTrust relate to African Americans. 

Last Updated 11/22/2019