University of North Texas digitizes a chunk of black history

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and even James Brown have played significant roles in black history, but the public only remembers a few select images of them.

The Sepia Photo Collection provides a long list of rare photos of these icons, as well as well as photos of black life in the United States from the 1940s to the 1980s. Since 1999, graduate students of the University of North Texas School of Library and Information Sciences have been digitizing this collection and providing access to the public at

Sepia was a black-owned, Texas-based photo magazine that focused primarily on the achievements of African Americans. It began in 1947 and was a contemporary to Ebony and Jet magazines before folding in 1983.

Sepia exposed the obstacles facing blacks, from lynching and Ku Klux Klan operations, in its early issues, focusing later on the rise in violence among blacks. The magazine also highlighted various aspects of African-American culture, including churches, civil rights, and education.

In its last year in 1983, under the direction of publisher Beatrice Pringle, Sepia had a circulation of approximately 160,000.
Until the late 1990s, the magazine's photo collection sat in the basement of Bishop College, a Baptist school in Marshall. Dr. Harry Robinson Jr., the former president of the college, then added the photos to the collections of the African-American Museum in Dallas, which he currently serves as president.

In collaboration with UNT, the museum arranged for much of its art collection and artifacts as well as the Sepia photos to be added to a digital museum for the general public in 1999. The project was funded through a several grants from the Institute of

Museum and Library Services. Created by the Museum and Library Services Act of 1996, IMLS is an independent federal grant-making agency that fosters leadership, innovation and a lifetime of learning by supporting museums and libraries.

Today, 10,000 photos of black activists, celebrities, and icons are available from the Sepia collection.

"In so many ways this is a one of a kind collection," says Dr. Samantha Hastings, UNT associate professor of library and information sciences and head of the project. "Less than half of the images were used in publication during Sepia's run, so many of them have never been seen before."

The goal of the project, beyond preserving a piece of history for generations to come, is to train students as digital managers of virtual museums, Hastings says. Each student is trained to place images of museum pieces on the Internet, manage databases about the pieces and maintain the Internet server.

The collection includes never-before-seen candid shots of icons, including civil rights activists Julian Bond, tennis player Arthur Ashe and singer Nina Simone.

The students are currently identifying subjects in the photos and collectingdescriptive terms from the general public via a user survey linked to the website.

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108