‘What are we celebrating?’ Virginia Tech class analyzes historical African American view of July Fourth

A class project at Virginia Tech has produced a website that shows how African American perspectives on Independence Day have changed through the years.

The students reviewed archives of seven different African American newspapers for over a century, beginning with stories written in the 1860s.

“It was a very different, a very striking take on what the Fourth of July meant,” said Brett Shadle, chair and professor of the Virginia Tech history department.

He has his students take a hands-on approach to learning.

The examination ran through the 1980s, and compared how African Americans from different eras and different parts of the country felt about the Fourth of July.

Using the archives at Virginia Tech, students looked at the following news sources:

One of the questions, of course, was: “What are we celebrating?” Shadle said.

“As time went on, through Jim Crow and later, many of the articles really wondered what they had to celebrate. What did the Fourth of July mean when people were being lynched? What was the celebration of freedom and democracy when so many African Americans couldn’t vote?”

And he thinks that it’s changing yet again.

“There are more white people, I think, who are willing to listen to Black people, and listen to their ideas and concerns, and there’s a greater push for that,” Shadle said.

The students in the project gathered more than 400 articles. They are compiled by date and keyword on a special website through Virginia Tech titled “African American Fourth of July.”

Valerie Bonk

Valerie Bonk started working at WTOP in 2016 and has lived in Howard County, Maryland, her entire life. She's thrilled to be a reporter for WTOP telling stories on air. She works as both a television and radio reporter in the Maryland and D.C. areas. 

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