Combining Mapping & Democratized Depositories: A Novel Approach to Ongoing Research on Racial Terror Lynchings (Digital Project Proposal)

Perspective from the Baltimore Afro-American following the lynching of Matthew Williams in 1931.

Take a moment to peruse the newspaper clipping above. What do you notice? How are images used to evoke affect? What is in focus: the lynching victim(s) and their family, or the alleged crimes and purported “guilt” of said lynching victim(s)?

For scholars of lynching in America, this clipping is a rare sight. Few other sources placed the lynching victim, including their family and friends, at the fore. Few other sources challenged the lynching mob’s assumption that its target was guilty. Few other sources attempted to reflect some degree of empathy. Few other sources stood for antiracism when racist ideas and racist power were, perhaps, at their zenith in this country.

The field of racial terror lynching studies in the United States is young; as such, its archives are scarce, and the few resources we have are antithetical in tone and substance to the above Afro-American clipping. In Maryland specifically, most lynchings were reported by local, white-run newspapers; these newspapers, in turn, frequently encouraged the perpetrators of lynchings. They criminalized the black body–promoting a racist, hypersexualized image of the black man and the black woman. Indeed, just as lynchings themselves were tools to maintain the supremacy of white, able-bodied men, the newspapers that reported them perpetuated the same narrative. We thus see a distressing pattern emerge; rather than deconstructing white archival power, relying on these resources without highlighting their problems enables white supremacist power–racist power–to persist in the archives.

Notice the presumptive, racist language: “ATTEMPTED OUTRAGE ON A LITTLE WHITE GIRL–THE GUILTY NEGRO WRETCH CAUGHT AND HANGED.”

I should note: until very recently, lynchings in America were a story of complete black erasure from the record. Resources like the clipping above–from the Baltimore Sun on the lynching of George W. Peck–are vital in that they allowed us to identify and study lynchings and their victims. For all their problems, newspaper clippings allowed us to begin the process of reversing black erasure. However, I would argue that our overreliance on them, without interpretation, also enables racist power to persist in the archives unchecked.

Another problem with the field of racial terror lynchings is the macro approach that many scholars have taken. In particular, attempts to quantify and map lynchings in America have–perhaps inadvertently–largely omitted the names of lynching victims and the sources that verify the occurrence of these lynchings. Perhaps most egregiously, the process of research has been exclusive; rather than collaborating to complete oral histories and genealogical projects alongside members of the communities where lynchings occurred, scholars have been gatekeepers of their research. I am no exception, and I have been doing my very best to amend this habit since I came to AU.

Take, for example, the Equal Justice Initiative’s map of racial terror lynchings, pictured above. I highly recommend visiting their landing page for the Lynching in America project, because it provides a wonderful summary and set of resources on the subject. However, a close analysis at the map above reveals several problems: few, if any, names of victims are available to view; no sources are provided to justify the data; there is little opportunity for community collaboration; and, unfortunately, much of the data is outdated. As an example: EJI lists 29 lynching victims in Maryland, while the most recent research places this number well above 40 and growing. Could these problems be attributed to the EJI’s macro approach to lynchings?

Even mapping projects that take a micro approach, such as the above map from the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project, still fail to reconcile all of these problems. While the map does list the names of victims and provides more updated reporting specific to Maryland, it still fails to provide useful sources or democratize the process of research.

Where do we go from here?

My digital project proposal is as follows: combine a mapping project with a democratized depository for community oral histories and primary sources on lynchings. Seeing as my own research has centered on lynchings in Maryland, I would start here. The map would include the locales of lynchings, the names of victims, as well as a brief description of what we know about the victim–identifying them as human beings, rather than statistics–and the circumstances of their lynching. After clicking a map tag and perusing a victim’s landing page, there would also be an option to view or add (with approval) sources that corroborate these lynchings, such as newspaper clippings and medical records. Ideally, each primary source–especially clippings from white-run newspapers–would be fully digitized and allow for curated and user-generated interpretation. This interpretation would challenge and account for problems inherent in many of these sources, as I described in detail earlier in this post. Additionally, many communities in Maryland are engaged in remembrance/reconciliation projects in conjunction with the wonderful organizers at the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project. My hope is that community members across the state, engaged in research, can locate and add more sources to the depository that look like the Afro-American clipping–offering more nuanced perspectives to the white-centered archives of racial terror lynchings. I also could see a section of the mapping depository dedicated to community/individual oral histories–a distinctive source that could begin to account for the generational trauma that these lynchings incurred on black Marylanders. The lynching of Townsend Cook in 1885, for example, saw at least half the town involved, whether directly or indirectly. Surely there are descendants of these townsfolk alive today who have a story to tell. Finally, the idea is that this resource would be used as a central depository for researchers and the researching public as these reconciliation projects unfold; in this way, it will remain updated with the latest information.

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In short, combining a mapping project with a democratized, user-collaborative depository would work towards solving several major problems I have outlined: a failure to interpret overtly racist sources (or, in some cases, include any sources at all), an inability on the part of scholars to democratize the research process, the erasure of black voices from the archive, a tendency to take a macro approach rather than a micro approach, and generally inadequate and outdated mapping projects.

4 Replies to “Combining Mapping & Democratized Depositories: A Novel Approach to Ongoing Research on Racial Terror Lynchings (Digital Project Proposal)”

  1. What a well thought out project! I really hope you make this so I can use it with my students.

    While I find the EJI map to be a powerful tool, I have also found the lack of individual information lynching. Glad you’re building on that project in such an innovation and thoughtful way.

  2. Jack,

    What a great idea! When you told me about this project idea I thought it was a stellar idea. Now after reading your proposal, the world for sure needs something like this to truly represent our nation’s dark past. The commitment you have with this topic is commendable and this idea would be such a powerful tool to connect academic scholars with the local, personal stories of those directly impacted by these lynchings. Such a smart way to go about this!

  3. Jack, I really appreciate this project and its goals–it’s incredibly important and I’m excited/encouraged to hear there are concerted efforts already underway to recognize, identify, and analyze lynching events.

    Something worth considering in a project of this nature–especially one that works directly with descendant communities of traumatic events–is the role of a project as a memorial. For descendant communities, it might not only be important for the stories to be told because it incorporates important events/stories into whitewashed history, but ALSO because a website can take the form of a memorial and an opportunity to recognize and reconcile generational trauma. There is a plethora of research out there on the impact and efficacy of these types of virtual/digital memorials if you are interested in looking into this angle further.

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