Interpreting Written Documents (or How Do I Make Sense of Documents? )

Written materials from the past--manuscripts, letters, diaries, programs, reports, pamphlets--all reveal important information about people, places, and events that we might study. These first-hand accounts provide insiders' and observers' immediate impressions and reflections that reveal information, attitudes, and motivations. However, we must learn to read these materials with a critical eye in order to fully understand the context in which the document was written. We need to know the biases and perspectives of the author, the times that influenced this type of writing, and the intended audience. In studying ethnic history, in particular, we must be wary of sources that were produced by officials and observers often outside the cultural group. Yet because archives, libraries and museums have seldom collected the written materials of ethnic groups, the few sources that exist, when carefully examined, can help reconstruct the history of those groups.

This database features a variety of written sources about African Americans in the region. In surveying these sources, one clear theme emerges that characterizes their diverse experiences: Despite discrimination, African Americans throughout the Columbia River Basin created institutions and associations that sustained their communities. We might pursue this theme by examining a few selections from the database. How did African Americans come together as an ethnic community in the region's different cities and towns? What were some of the first institutions established and why? What roles did these institutions play in the community? We can come closer to answering these questions by reviewing the selected sample sources presented below.

Review the following two manuscripts produced by writers researching the region's folkways as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) writer's project. Then return to this page and the questions posed below that will help you think about the significance of the sources.

Folklore and Folkways in Roslyn, Washington, ca. 1938

What is the nature of this source?
What information does the author seek to impart? What appears to be her attitudes toward her subjects?
What do you learn about the community of Roslyn, Washington, and its ethnic diversity?
What kinds of community institutions and customs did African Americans create?
How did African Americans and other ethnic groups interact?
What celebrations appeared important to the African American community and why?
How does the writer analyze the category of "race" and apply it Rosyln?
Why do you think the writer chooses to emphasize certain subjects?
What information is missing about African Americans in Roslyn, and where could you find additional information?

State of Washington Ethnology and Folkways, 1938

How does the author characterize the racial diversity of Washington state?
Can you be confident of her assessment? Why or why not?
How does the author describe black history?
In what areas did African Americans find opportunities, and in which did they face discrimination?
How do you interpret the writer's final passage about superstitions in the mines and attitudes toward blacks?

Turning from the coal-mining community of Roslyn in the 1930s, we now look at a document concerning an African American church in Hanford. The secret nuclear test site drew thousands of workers from around the country to help with its construction during the Second World War. Review the following booklet to find out what role the Church appeared to play in this transitional community.

Memory Book of the Hanford Community Church, 1944

What kind of source is this?
Why is it a valuable source?
What do you learn about the Hanford African American community in 1944 based on this source?
To whom have the authors directed their "memory book"? What seems to be the occasion for the book's publication?
What do the authors choose to emphasize and why?
What are the origins of the church? What has been its principal mission? What role does it appear to play in the community?
What appear to be central activities of the church?
What does the Membership Roll reveal about the origins of parishioners?
How do you interpret the final entry in the booklet, the poem "Good Bye to the Church at Hanford"?
What remaining questions do you have about the Community Church and Hanford's African American population that are not answered by this booklet? What other primary sources might provide the information? Where could you go for additional information?

This one source can not provide all the details necessary to understand the history of the African American community in Hanford during the Second World War. Yet it presents images and words from people in the community to help us imagine what were their interests, goals, and social and religious customs.

After reviewing these three written sources, what can we say about the history of African American community institutions in the Columbia Basin in the mid-twentieth century? First, it is important to recognize what we know and what we do not know from these and other sources. They are fairly limited and offer just a mere glimpse of the activities of African Americans in Roslyn and Hanford at particular points in time. We should interpret these materials in light of other available research, such as published articles, oral history interviews, and photographs. But the booklet and manuscripts suggest that despite their minority status, blacks in Roslyn and Hanford created familiar institutions and celebrations that could sustain their sense of ethnic identity and provide mutual assistance in what was at times a hostile environment.

Additional Resources:

History of African Americans in Roslyn
Folklore and Folkways descriptions
WPA Writer's Project
History of African Americans in Hanford
Memory Book description
The African-American Church

Back to Tutorials

Home | Browse | Tutorial | Discussion Board | About this Project