Current Research in Digital History


Current Issue: Volume 2 (2019)

A Committee of the Whole

Jim Casey
Anti-slavery efforts have long served as the ostensible setting of early struggles for Black freedom and equal rights in the United States, including both the Colored Conventions and the early Black press. Recent collection, digitization, and data curation efforts, however, have made it possible to test that view using social network analysis. Based on this analysis, I show that early Black activist communities cannot be collapsed into the white-led abolitionist circuits. The Colored Conventions and the early Black press operated independently of the anti-slavery societies across six regionally distinct communities. A brief survey of these regional communities points to the wealth of research opportunities among robust, rediscovered, and reassembled archives into areas that speak to enduring questions of rights, resistance, and community-building. These inquiries simultaneously demonstrate the need for careful attention to Black data curation practices, especially with regard to inclusive approaches to scattered archives.

Century of Black Mormons: A Preliminary Interpretation of the Data

W. Paul Reeve
People of black-African descent have been members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from its founding in 1830 to the present yet their names and stories have been erased from public perception on the outside and collective Latter-day Saint memory on the inside. Century of Black Mormons is a digital history project designed to recover what was lost, the identities of Black Latter-day Saints during the faith's first 100 years, from 1830 to 1930. This paper offers an initial interpretation of the data collected thus far. It begins to document what life was like in the pews for Black Mormons and finds that integrated worship services varied across time and space. It demonstrates that kinship networks were important to Black Mormon conversions, and that pioneering black converts presided over multi-generational families of Black Mormons whose legacies stretch into the 21st century.

Improving Lynching Inventories with Local Newspapers: Racial Terror in Virginia, 1877-1927

Gianluca De Fazio
Lynching inventories are fundamental tools to measure the extent and trends of lethal mob violence against alleged criminals during the post-Reconstruction era in the United States. The digital history project "Racial Terror: Lynchings in Virginia, 1877-1927" revisits the Beck-Tolnay inventory of Southern lynchings, the most comprehensive and accurate scholarly catalogue of lethal mob violence in the Deep South. Focusing on lynching in Virginia, this project uses local, rather than national, newspapers as its main source of information. Importantly, the use of local sources reveals that white victims of lynching in Virginia have been overcounted in lynching inventories. This is a significant finding because lynching apologists often used white lynching victims to defend lethal mob violence arguing that, rather than a tool of white domination, lynching was a legitimate and non-racialized form of "popular justice" against hideous crimes. This project enhances our understanding of lynching as a form of racialized terrorism and recommends the systematic use of local newspapers and sources to correct existing lynching catalogues.

Mapping Black Ecologies

J.T. Roane and Justin Hosbey
This essay is our first effort in a long-term collective project organized to collect historical and contemporary narratives from Black communities that offer alternative epistemic entry points for historicizing and interrupting mounting ecological crisis. We use the space of this essay to lay the conceptual groundwork for this collaborative effort through our primary concept, Black ecologies. On the one hand, this idea provides a way of historicizing and analyzing the ongoing reality that Black communities in the US South and in the wider African Diaspora are most susceptible to the effects of climate change, including rising sea levels, subsidence, sinking land, as well as the ongoing effects of toxic stewardship. On the other hand, Black ecologies names the corpus of insurgent knowledge produced by these same communities, which we hold to have bearing on how we should historicize the current crisis and how we conceive of futures outside of destruction.

Black Placemaking in Texas: Sonic and Social Histories of Newton and Jasper County Freedom Colonies

Andrea Roberts and Mohammad Javad Biazar
While public awareness of incorporated black historic towns and urban neighborhoods in places like Rosewood, Florida, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Eatonville, Florida grow, less is known about unincorporated Black settlements in Texas. From 1865 to 1920, African Americans founded at least 557 self-sustaining freedom colonies in Texas. The authors engage the history of Black placemaking through the lens of Texas freedom colonies in Newton and Jasper Counties, areas better known for racial violence than liberation. The paper argues that biases in public history and historic preservation policy toward white settlerism, building integrity, and property ownership inhibit the documentation, recognition, and, consequently, the preservation of freedom colonies and their origin stories. The authors argue that freedom colonies' marginal status necessitates creative approaches to mapping and crafting arguments for these communities' "historic significance" and protection. Authors mapped freedom colonies through collection and analysis of both publically available data and intangible heritage, specifically sonic and social histories in Newton and Jasper County during a pilot study. This initial mapping exercise gave birth to the statewide crowdsourcing and mapping project, The Texas Freedom Colonies Atlas. Housed on multiple digital humanities platforms, the Atlas contains a map of 357 settlements and translates local constructions of historical significance to policymakers and cultural resource managers.

Labor and Business at Congressional Hearings, 1877–1990: Unequal Power and the Significance of Elections

Vilja Hulden
Testimony before Congressional committees forms an important body of evidence in many scholarly works, but as a subject in its own right, testifying before Congress is relatively little studied. Yet, as the most accessible form of (federal) lobbying, Congressional hearings offer a wide-angle view of attempts to gain the ear of the state, one that in no way excludes the influence of powerful financial interests but also encompasses the presence of representatives of ordinary Americans, such as labor unions. Using metadata on testimony at Congressional hearings, this paper makes a first attempt at combining a historical overview approach with a focus on labor both as a topic and an actor, examining both Congressional attention to work-related matters and labor's representation at hearings. The birds-eye view presented in the paper underlines a crude yet important point: politics matters, but to make a mark in politics, one needs a base of power. Political alliances and electoral shifts have mattered greatly to labor's Congressional fortunes both through access to hearings and by potentially shaping the testimony of the many government and party witnesses, but such political alliances are insufficient in themselves unless labor is able to assert power outside of electoral politics.

Women and Federal Officeholding in the Late Nineteenth-Century U.S.

Cameron Blevins
When and how did American women enter the federal workforce? In order to answer this question I turn to the nineteenth century's largest government institution, the U.S. Post. During the nineteenth century thousands of women served as postmasters. As is often the case for women's history, however, an incomplete archival record makes it difficult to know how many were in office and how that number changed over time. This essay compares three separate data sources to distill that pattern. All three data sources show a similar trajectory: beginning in the 1860s and accelerating through the 1870s and 1880s, many more women began serving as postmasters in the federal government. The nature of the nineteenth-century postal system provided women with a number of advantages for women to step into public office. The wave of female postmasters during the late nineteenth century was a crucial wedge for women's broader entry into the federal government.

Networks of Piety and Slavery among Late Eighteenth-Century Rural Maryland Catholics

Rachel Bohlmann and Suzanna Krivulskaya
The first Catholic Bible published in the United States in 1790 contained a subscriber list: names and locations of people, mostly Catholics, who helped finance the publication. An initial map of these 429 names, created for a 2017 exhibition in the University of Notre Dame's Rare Books and Special Collections, showed clusters of subscribers in Maryland and Pennsylvania. The largest subset identified so far (102 subscribers) was in rural Maryland, and is this paper's focus. Digital tools helped us visualize networks within this community, including historical connections between slavery and piety. We found that a large majority of Maryland Catholics who purchased Bibles were also slaveholders (more than twice the average rate of slaveholding in the South). The densest subscriber locations also trace a discernable path along the pattern of Jesuit plantations in southern and eastern Maryland, a parallel between piety and slaveholding the map made visible. Digital mapping also pulled into focus connections among rural Catholics, as well as relationships between them and the people they enslaved. Archival records revealed dense kinship, religious, and fraternal relationships among subscribers. Records also uncovered enslaved Marylanders who embraced Catholicism, sued or petitioned for freedom, or fled. Slavery and religion formed connective tissue in post-Revolutionary Maryland.

Royal African Company Networks

Anne Ruderman, Mark Heller, and Harry Xue
Royal African Company Networks is a pilot project designed to explore the possibilities of using computational text analysis and GIS to investigate the correspondence of the Royal African Company, England’s late seventeenth-century African trade monopoly. Our project maps over 3,000 letters between the company’s main fort, Cape Coast Castle, in modern-day Ghana and the company’s ‘outforts,’ or smaller holdings on the coast. We then combine mapping with computational text analysis to draw out themes in the correspondence. We hope this project demonstrates the potential of bringing an interdisciplinary approach to historical analysis and serves as a stepping-stone for further exploration.

Topic Modeling and Textual Analysis of American Scientific Journals, 1818–1922

Shawn Martin
When performing a distant reading of some of the most prominent American scientific publications in the nineteenth-century U.S., some very clear patterns emerge. LDA topic modeling and textual analysis methods of over one hundred years of the American Journal of Science (AJS), Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (PAAAS), and the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS) between 1818 and 1922 helps historians to understand how these journals evolved over the nineteenth-century. Overall, there was an increase in discussion of business and professional issues and a shift in the journals that scientists used to discuss these issues. This shift happened during a very specific period, 1870-1890, the very same time that specialized scientific societies, particularly the American Chemical Society, split from the more generalized American Association for the Advancement of Science. Further analyses of these datasets may help to better understand shifts American science in the nineteenth century, and topic modeling methods allow historians of science to better identify this evolution of American science.

Dance Touring and Embodied Data: Some Approaches to Katherine Dunham’s Movement on the Move

Harmony Bench and Kate Elswit
This article represents the first stage of a larger research project that considers the kinds of questions and problems that make the analysis and visualization of data meaningful for the study of dance in a historical context. We pursue this work through the exemplary case study of mid-century African American choreographer Katherine Dunham and the global legacy of her international touring. In this short piece, we focus on a dataset we manually curated to document Dunham’s location nearly every day for the four years between January 1st, 1950 and December 31st, 1953. We use this daily itinerary to consider patterns of her travel and their implications, engaging with dance both as a mode of thinking about archives of moving bodies, and as an object of historical study.

“For the Love of People”: Berkeley's Rainbow Sign and the Secret History of the Black Arts Movement

Scott Saul and Tessa Rissacher
With its all-female leadership and its balance of black nationalism, experimental art, and the politics of respectability, the Berkeley cultural center Rainbow Sign suggests some of the hidden complexities of the Black Arts Movement as it translated itself into the 1970s. Reflecting on their digital curation of the Rainbow Sign archive, the authors suggest that, while a computation-driven strain of digital history has broken much new methodological ground, another strain of digital history-oriented to a larger public and interested in dramatizing the complexities of primary sources through the affordances of digital media-can also yield fresh arguments through the pressure it puts on primary sources to speak to one another. We suggest that the work of digital curation is especially suited for dramatizing the often invisible curatorial work performed by black women such as Mary Ann Pollar, the founder of Rainbow Sign.

Race and Place: Dialect and the Construction of Southern Identity in the Ex-Slave Narratives

Lauren Tilton
In the 1930s, the New Deal provided employment for cultural workers through organizations like the Federal Writers' Project (FWP). The federal government sent writers across the country to collect life histories, an emerging genre at the intersection of oral history, ethnography, and literature. Among the most prominent and debated are the Ex-Slave Narratives, a collection of over 2,400 life histories with former enslaved peoples. Rather than focusing on the Ex-Slave Narratives as a source for understanding the antebellum era or American south during Reconstruction, this article explores how the writing style of the narratives shaped the construction of race and southern identity in the late 1930s. Using text analysis, I show how dialect was not only racialized but also connected to a particular (cultural) geography—the American South. I build off of Catherine Stewart's argument that Ex-Slave Narratives dialect was racialized and often worked to deny interviewees rights to full citizenship by using this powerful representational, rhetorical strategy to "other" formerly enslaved people and therefore deny their full selfhood in the interviews. At the same time, the FWP's Southern Life Histories Project—which focused on life histories with laborers in the lowest economic strata residing in the South—marked dialect as a regional feature. Dialect, therefore, also signified that the person speaking was rural, uneducated, and Southern. This came at a time when Southern life was under a microscope; the national debate centered around whether the South was the reason the nation struggled to end the Great Depression and progress. Dialect effectively marked a person as poor, black, and southern, leaving those interviewed in the Ex-Slave Narratives representationally on the margins of US society.