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Arts/Culture

Rochester digitizing one of NYS' longest-running Black-owned newspapers

A front page of the Frederick Douglass Voice
Rochester Voices
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The Frederick Douglass Voice, published on May 20, 1996. It was one of the last issues of The Voice to be published. It features an article about Robert Reynolds, the first African American to retire from the Rochester Fire Department.

There’s an effort underway to digitize one of the longest-running Black newspapers in New York state. The newspaper is The Frederick Douglass Voice, which was in circulation for more than 60 years, from 1933 to 1996.

The Rochester Museum and Science Center has 350 copies of the paper in its collection, which have been used as a resource for academic research and others in the community.

“We’ve worked with the Teen Empowerment Youth Ambassadors, on their research for the Clarissa Street Reunion and the project that they're doing. It's been used for curriculum. We've had (research on) redlining in Rochester, even some Frederick Douglass scholars have come in and used it,” said RMSC archivist and librarian Stephanie Ball.

Working together with the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division, the RMSC said that the papers will be digitized to help preserve them and make them more accessible to the community.

The owner and editor of The Voice (as it was sometimes known) was Howard W. Coles. Coles chronicled Rochester's 20th-century Black community by showcasing literary, artistic and intellectual achievements, as well as documenting living conditions and everyday challenges.

Coles’ daughter, Joan Coles Howard has been dedicated to getting the newspaper made available online.

Coles Howard would like to give the opportunity to the young people she works with at the Teen Empowerment Center in Rochester and others in the community to know more about the accomplishments and the challenges Black people have faced.

“It is important for people to see that and know that and, and to be able to read it not just teens, and not just my people, but everybody,” said Coles Howard. “This is Rochester, this was what Rochester was, compared to what it is now, what do we need to do in order to make things right.”

Coles Howard said it’s important for young people to “be able to look back and some of them will recognize their forebearers and know that we were doing things, we were a community, we were a village.”

She said that the newspapers “gave voice to the people, allowing them to tell their stories in ways only they could do.” Coles Howard said that access to the newspapers will help “ensure these voices and our history will live forever.”

Ball said that even though the newspapers have been available at the museum in physical form, it makes sense to digitize them.

“Allowing people to have open access to that, allowing them to do their research and also preserving the newspaper in itself is a great thing, I think,” said Ball.

A sampling of issues of the Frederick Douglass Voice will be available online on the Rochester Public Library's Rochester Voices website starting Nov. 12, in honor of Howard W. Coles' birthday.

Sometime in 2022, the remaining issues in the RMSC’s collection will be made available on the RMSC Collections website and on the New York State Historic Newspapers website.