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Black History Collections

Find out more about Black History Collections in the IHR Wohl Library. We collect historical sources and guides to finding and using sources. This page also shows examples from the collections.

The Great tournament roll of Westminster

Introduction

The IHR Wohl Library collection centres around published primary sources and guides, supported by reference and some secondary works. Collection policy has traditionally focused on Western Europe and its colonial history and complemented the collections held by SOAS, the Institute for Commonwealth Studies and Senate House Library. Our African material mainly covers colonial history, but sources for black histories resulting from the African diasporas can also be found across the national and chronological sections of the library. We welcome suggestions for acquisition and information about our existing holdings, and recognise that our holdings to date are to a great extent the result of colonial structures of power and the colonial gaze.

Finding material

When researching the early modern and late medieval periods, the nature of the subject makes it difficult to find material in the sources, as the historian Miranda Kaufmann notes in Black Tudors, 'many are recorded by no more than a one-line entry in a parish record or a tax return.' Sources may not even identify someone as black. For example, 'James, a servant from Jamaica' may well be of interest. Detective work and creative thinking are often needed. In modern and twentieth century history, a lack of collecting, archiving and preservation can be a concern for some areas of research, but organisations such as the Black Cultural Archives and the Institute of Race Relations have considerable, expertly-curated holdings. The National Archives also has a collections guide that highlights documents related to Black British history in their holdings. 

We collect more secondary works in this area than in some others, since their bibliographies and references are useful for identifying sources. Catalogue subject headings will also be useful for works that are primarily about this subject. Where black history is just one aspect among many themes in a source, searching the catalogue for 'black history' and related terms is unlikely to identify it; readers may also find some catalogue headings misleading or outdated.

Some thought about terminology is required when searching databases. Outdated and derogatory terms will need to be used as well as those in current usage. It is easy to miss things by not using right term. Some online resources such as the Times Digital Archive and the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary have tools for looking at changing usage and frequency over time.

Highlights from the collections: primary sources

The collections include letters and diaries, memoirs and autobiographies of a cross-section of society. Here is a selection limited to black authors:

Diaries, Memoirs and Interviews 

Letters

Autobiographies

UK history

See collection guide on UK Parliamentary History, for help locating the petitions, debates, reports and legislation covering your area of research. Examples of subjects covered include Race riots, Slavery and the Slave Trade, British Nationality Act, Institutional Racism.

Other items:

US history

There are extensive collections of US Government materials, some of which are listed in the guide to United States Collections, as well as specialist material on Civil Rights and #BlackLivesMatter:

Selected themes

This is a selection of works covering this subject: more can be found by browsing the shelves and using keyword and subject searches on the catalogue:

Compilations

See also coverage in more general resources, for example:

Highlights from the collections: secondary works

There are Historiography sections within the relevant subject areas (e.g. E. General historiography, CB.94 African historigraphy, UF.0931 United States historiography: African-American history, CB.9116 and CB.92016 Historiography of Slavery). Examples include:

Biographical listings

We have a strong collection of biographical listings at both national level and covering specific subjects (for example lists by profession, political figures, university alumni lists). Selected examples are included below. There is a relevant section in each of the national collections.

Biography

Lady sings the blues / Billie Holiday
Race, sexuality and identity in Britain and Jamaica : the biography of Patrick Nelson, 1916-196

Renegade : the life and times of Darcus Howe

Current copies of most of our periodicals are on open access in the periodicals room on the ground floor. Back issues can be ordered from the store. Many are also available online within the building via the links on the catalogue entry. Bibliography of British and Irish History and Jstor are examples of the online databases that can be used to locate journal articles. 

The subject will be found across many periodicals, but subject specific titles include Journal of Black Studies, Palimpsest: a journal on women, gender and the black international and Africa today. There are also some specialist issues such as History Today, vol. 31, issue 9, 1981. Jstor also includes some historic titles such as Phylon.

The subject is covered in both general and specific resources, examples are included in the relevant sections above, and we have listed some examples here: 

Holders of a British Library reader pass can also access to a number of remote online resources remotely. These include Readex's African American Newspapers 1827-1998 I & II and Caribbean Newspapers 1718-1876.

Contact us if you would like help on finding or using our collections, or if you have any comments or suggestions about the content of this guide. We are happy to help.

You can also book a tour or training session.

Examples from sources

The following provide some sense of how race is recorded in a range of historical source. Please note that the following make use of terms that would be unacceptable today.

"a certain Abbot Hadrian, a man of African race and well versed in the holy Scriptures, trained both in monastic and ecclesiastical ways and equally skilled in the Greek and Latin tongues."

Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book IV, c. late 7th century. 

Marriage of "Salomon Cowrder of Popler a niger sailler & Katheren Castilliano a niger also, he came out of East Indies"

The marriage registers of St. Dunstan's Stepney, in the County of Middlesex, 3 September 1610

"unto the negro called Domingo, my servant, I give £50"

Will of Robert Blake (1650s), Letters of Robert Blake, Navy Records Society (vol. 76)

"To-day school commenced.. There is one young girl and only one—Miss [Sarah] B[rown] who I believe thoroughly and heartily appreciates anti-slavery,—radical anti-slavery, and has no prejudice against color. I wonder that every colored person is not a misanthrope. Surely we have everything to make us hate mankind... Oh! it is hard to go through life meeting contempt with contempt, hatred with hatred, fearing, with too good reason, to love and trust hardly any one whose skin is white"

A Free Negro in the Slave Era: The Journal of Charlotte L. Forten, 12 September 1855

" "The League of Coloured Peoples" was inaugurated at a meeting, attended principally by coloured students from the Colonies, which was held on Friday at the Central Y.M.C.A, Tottenham Court-road. The provisional objects of the organization are to promote the economic, educational, political, and social interests of coloured peoples"

The Times, 16 March 1931

"Primrose Hill, negro and negress who live in flat underneath one where I am staying just entering in evening dress."

Mass observation online, Day Survey Respondent Unidentified, March 1937 - December 1938