The stereotype of the Fourth of July is a culmination of fireworks, food, and friends coming together, but has it always been a celebration of freedom? A recent student research project at Virginia Tech finds that, historically, that’s not always been the case.

First-year history students researched seven historical African American newspapers to trace the meanings of Independence Day. They transcribed more than 400 articles written between 1865 to 1988 from geographically diverse locations. Divided into groups, each team analyzed the writings from their assigned newspaper to uncover themes and document the changes of attitudes over time. Each group selected two articles that best represented their findings.  

As a platform for their research, they created content for the “African American Fourth of July” website. Each newspaper has its own page, which includes a chronological listing of the transcribed articles, along with the students’ analysis and key word tags.

“The articles collected here reveal a fascinating history,” said Brett Shadle, a professor in the Department of History. “Some African Americans treated the Fourth as white Americans might have: a day free from their jobs, a time for relaxation and watching baseball. But at other times, African Americans saw the Fourth as a way to make a political statement.

“Early parades often included Black military units that illustrated Black patriotism, power, and fighting prowess,” Shadle said. “Reference to these displays disappear from the newspapers, as they presumably did from public spaces, with the spread of Jim Crow.”

Shadle chose this project for his students to learn about a thought-provoking historical topic and as a way for them to provide a useful tool to the general public. The website is available to anyone with internet access.

To secure a live or recorded video interview on this topic from the Virginia Tech campus, contact Bill Foy in the Media Relations office at 540-231-8719 or 540-998-0288.  

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