The African American Experience in Florida Collections Initiative and Portal

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Guest article by David Shedden, Assistant Librarian, Head of Special Collections & University Archives, USF Libraries, St. Petersburg campus

On June 4, 2020, soon after the world learned of the death of George Floyd, USF Libraries Dean Todd Chavez wrote in an email that “Anyone watching the recent protests and demonstrations has to wonder, how will we solve the deep, ingrained problem of systemic racism? The Dean’s message continued by stating that the USF Libraries would contribute to the solution by leveraging existing collections to “promote peaceful solutions and promote social justice for all.” The USF Libraries Special Collections in Tampa and St. Petersburg are leading the initiative by identifying both collections and contributors that will facilitate the portal’s development.

As this initiative moves forward, a portal will be established and maintained to provide open access to materials – regardless of format, subject matter or discipline – that advance the conversation around the African American experience in Florida. A brief Qualtrics survey was distributed for people to register their interest in this initiative and volunteer their expertise towards developing a portal that leverages USF Libraries’ resources to promote diversity and inclusivity.

Stories of racism and injustice against African Americans, ranging from narratives of the formerly enslaved to news reports about Black Lives Matter protests, are already preserved in various USF Libraries special collections and will be shared through the African American Experience in Florida (AAE) collections portal.

The initiative has just begun, but we have already compiled the following list of current special and digital collections for the portal. We look forward to using our special collections about the past to help promote social justice for African Americans in the future.

Explore the Collections:


Transcript of “Father” Charles Coates [1]
Florida Slave Narratives
Dates: 1926-1936 (Tampa digital collection)

Description: Written interviews of elderly African Americans who were enslaved during their childhood and teenage years. The narratives are presented with the permission and cooperation of the Florida Historical Society, owner of the original set of typed documents.

Weekly Challenger African American Newspaper Collection
Dates: 1967-Present (St. Petersburg digital collection)

Cleveland Johnson in front of the The Weekly Challenger office [2]
Description: The Weekly Challenger newspaper has documented the history of St. Petersburg, Florida’s African American community since the paper was established by Cleveland Johnson Jr. in 1967. In March 2013, an agreement between the USF Nelson Poynter Memorial Library and the Johnson family allowed the library to become the home for existing issues of The Weekly Challenger. Since that time, the library and newspaper have worked in partnership to create The Weekly Challenger Newspaper Digital Archive. Many students and researchers don’t know enough about the newspaper and local history to search The Weekly Challenger digital archive effectively. To meet that need, a detailed research guide has been created as a way to introduce news topics and history to students, including a new section with Black Lives Matters related stories.

The Civil Rights Papers of Cody Fowler and Steven Lawson
Dates: 1960-1974 (Tampa collection)

Three people standing outside the Pinellas County Urban League [3]
Description: Cody Fowler (1892-1978) was a prominent attorney who played a major role in furthering nonviolent racial integration in Tampa during the turbulent Civil Rights era of the 1960s. Dr. Steven F. Lawson is former professor at the University of South Florida. Together, Fowler’s and Lawson’s papers document Tampa’s Bi-Racial Committee, the city’s Commission on Community Relations, as well as the numerous issues faced by African Americans in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Papers of Norman E. Jones
Dates: 1940s-1980s (St. Petersburg collection)

Photo of Norman Jones, Sr. [4]
Description: Norman E. Jones was a conservative African-American newspaper columnist and publicist from the 1950s through the early 1970s who opposed integration and preached economic self-sufficiency and self-determination during the Civil Rights era. He wrote a column for black newspapers called “Let’s Talk Politics” where he shared his contrarian and conservative political views, including his active support of George Wallace’s segregationist presidential campaign. He moved to Tampa in 1950 and later settled in St. Petersburg in 1955, where he lived until his death in 1990.

Robert W. and Helen S. Saunders Collection
Dates: 1950-2001 (Tampa collection)

Photo of Robert Saunders [5]
Description: The late Dr. Robert W. Saunders was a staunch political activist whose professional career included work as Field Secretary for the Florida NAACP, Chief of the Civil Rights Division for the southeastern region of the Office of Equal Opportunity, and Director of the Hillsborough County Equal Employment Opportunity Office. An active member of the NAACP’s Tampa Branch, Dr. Saunders served in various posts, including that of president. His wife, Helen Strickland Saunders, served as secretary of the NAACP Tampa branch from 1964-1976 and as branch president from 1976-1981.




[1]”Transcript of ‘Father’ Charles Coates.” Florida Slave Narratives. Digital Collections, University of South Florida Libraries – Tampa Campus.

[2]”Cleveland Johnson in front of the The Weekly Challenger office.” The Weekly Challenger image collection. Special Collections, University of South Florida Libraries – Nelson Poynter Memorial Library.

[3]“Three people standing outside the Pinellas County Urban League.” The Weekly Challenger image collection. Special Collections, University of South Florida Libraries – Nelson Poynter Memorial Library.

[4]“Photo of Norman Jones, Sr.” Papers of Norman E. Jones, Sr. Special Collections, University of South Florida Libraries – Nelson Poynter Memorial Library.

[5]”Photo of Robert Saunders.” Robert W. and Helen S. Saunders papers. Special Collections, University of South Florida Libraries – Tampa Campus.

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