Progress Update: A Democratized, Digital Repository for Lynchings in Maryland

Hello fellow digital historians! I hope everyone is doing as well as possible. Please continue to take care of yourselves and stay healthy.

I also hope that what you are about to read will prove to be at least somewhat coherent. As a reminder, my intention remains largely unchanged: to create a digital resource that (1) maps+documents+interprets the lynching victims in Maryland that we currently know about; (2) serves as an iterative platform whereby ongoing research committees associated with the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project (I am currently leading research for the Carroll County coalition) can reflect their latest research; (3) incentivizes collaboration & democratized research through open community access, oral history projects, preservation of descendant community artifacts, etc; and (4) gets at one of my primary research questions: what should lynching reconciliation look like in Maryland? Unfortunately, I am unable to share the link to my resource as doing so would require me to publish an unfinished product. A plethora of screenshots (yay!) will have to do. My digital project is very iterative right now and it will continue to evolve in the coming weeks–here is the progress I have made thus far:

MAPPING RESOURCE: the map itself is complete to my liking…for now. See below and I will explain more on the other side:

What I have done is marked all of the known and suspected lynching cases in Maryland from 1854-1933. This reflects a combination of my research, research done by the community committees associated with the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project (MLMP), and research done by scholars and universities across the state. In addition, I have deliberately crafted the map so as to say something about how we visualize space. The size of each red mark directly reflects the magnitude of violence; the larger the mark, the more lynchings occurred in that locale. I am working on putting together a legend to describe what each symbol means, but here is a basic breakdown:

  • The smallest red circles represent a single lynching victim
  • Middle-sized red circles represent a locale that recorded two lynchings
  • The largest red circles represent a locale that recorded three lynchings
  • The yellow stars represent cases of suspected lynchings, but evidence is currently anecdotal and needs further support/corroboration to be confirmed

Upon clicking a red circle, brief metadata appears. The bold text indicates the name of the lynching victim, and the subsequent text underneath tells the user where the lynching occurred. I had hoped that I would be able to include primary sources & further interpretation in these pop-ups as well, but it would appear that the mapping software is only designed to handle so much.

Notice too that the larger red marks contain multiple names–or in some cases, the lack of a name–of lynching victims.

For those of you that are also doing mapping projects, I am sure you can commiserate when I say that producing/labeling/navigating the controls of your map is very time-consuming. I am wondering whether you all think I should add additional metadata to accompany each lynching victim on the map. For example, should I include the age, race, alleged crime, etc. of each victim? Read ahead to see my current plan for this additional metadata, and let me know if you think it belongs on the map too.

DEMOCRATIZED DEPOSITORY/NARRATIVE INTERPRETATION: this is where I am running into some hiccups & additional questions. I want to leverage the map, community collaboration, ongoing research, and compiled primary sources to create a central depository for lynchings in Maryland. In other words, this will be an iterative project that will be molded not only by my own lynching research (statewide, but with specific focus in Carroll County), but by research that is being conducted by the various county committees/community groups associated with the MLMP. Although COVID-19 has put most of our work on hold, I am planning on bringing in all the research committees to add their latest research to this resource. I also want there to be some interpretation for these materials, so as to provide a sense of historicization/polish. See below the StoryMap that I have developed thus far (keeping in mind that much of this is rough and will be polished/added to later on):

The above is an initial draft of what will eventually be an integrated walk-through of Townsend Cook’s lynching in Westminster, MD. It will take users from the jail where Cook was being held, to the intersection of a railroad where he was assaulted/humiliated and thrown in a wagon, and to the presumed location of his lynching. The intention is not to simulate the role of a lyncher or lynching victim; rather, the slides will provide interpretation/historicization: many of Maryland’s lynchings occurred in plain sight; were spectacle/brutal performances intended to create terror/trauma for the target’s community; with much (if not all) of the town’s population in attendance–this is a story of historical, racist erasure that (in most cases) is yet to be rectified.

The map is included here too.

The above section is where I am running into some potential problems, and it is essentially the crux of my digital project. For all 43 lynching victims in Maryland, I have compiled associated primary sources including: newspaper clippings, oral histories, census records, correspondences between local government officials, everyday correspondences, photographs, medical records, etc. Please feel free to take a look at these materials, currently stored on my Google Drive.

The problem I am having is this: what is the best way to give users access to these resources? The above is my initial template that I plan to start with going forward. In the case of David Thomas, the first victim of lynching in Maryland, I have attached a newspaper clipping and included some metadata pertaining to him and the circumstances of his death. I anticipate (please correct me if I am wrong) that I will inevitably run into the problem of storage capacity–David Thomas is the rare exception that I only have one or two newspaper clippings for. Most other lynching victims come with several newspaper clippings, and a select few (like Townsend Cook, George Armwood, Matthew Williams, etc.) also come with oral histories, medical records, government documents obtained at the Maryland State Archives, etc.

My thought is that I may need to move much of these materials over to a platform like Omeka and provide links to those materials via this StoryMap. Again, my primary concerns are getting these materials to be easily accessible yet also easily modified/added to/archived as research continues. I would love to hear your thoughts on any of my concerns.

Next steps for this project:

  • Continue to populate the StoryMap (and possibly the map itself) with additional metadata for known lynching victims.
  • Add additional interpretation and edit current interpretation.
  • Try to the best of my ability, given the circumstances of COVID-19, to communicate with each county’s research committees and get them on board to collaborate.
  • Mediate with community partners to obtain additional oral histories, artifacts, records, etc. from Marylanders.
  • See if there is a way to make these resources, particularly the primary source digital archive, more open access/multi-access. In other words, it would be wonderful if heads of county research committees could make additions to the archive on their own, without having to go through me. I would also love to open this up to interested members of the public, in particular, the descendant community (Marylanders who are descendants of lynching victims). They could make contributions through their own research/oral histories and that content could then be curated/approved by administrators of the resource.
  • Move from truth-telling toward reconciliation. That is, quite frankly, the point of all the work the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project is doing. I hope that the map will soon be able to mark those locales that have placed historical markers/memorials, held community vigils, etc. in remembrance of those who were lynched in Maryland. I also hope to historicize the process of memorialization/reconciliation. Finally, I hope that this resource will be a catalyst for dialogue/blogging: what should a lynching reconciliation in Maryland look like?

Thanks for getting this far, and for trying your best to work through all my jumbled thoughts. Take care & be well! I look forward to reading about the progress you are all making on your projects.

3 Replies to “Progress Update: A Democratized, Digital Repository for Lynchings in Maryland”

  1. Hi Jack, Thanks for sharing the status of your project so far. From what I can see from the screenshots you’ve shared it looks like you are doing really great work here. As I’ve noted before, it’s great that your project connects to an ongoing area of work that you are involved in with the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project. It’s always good to have projects like this grounded in needs of ongoing programs or initiatives as that gives you a built in constituency that you can share the work with and consult on progress with.

    The StoryMap tour you showed some screenshots of is looking compelling. As you note, this prompts some questions about how your resource should work. That is, a narrative that moves through the stories of individual lynching victims can be really important and powerful. At the same time, you’re drawing something out that lays out the range of places and contexts that these terrible attacks took place, so there is that broader distant reading sort of set of elements that come from the zoomed out view of all the locations of lynchings in the state.

    To your question on how much info to include in the individual pins on the map, I think something worth considering is if you should build out information about the individuals in a separate platform, for instance in pages in a wordpress site, and then link to them. That way you could set up that broader set of context and info there and then link back and forth to it. I see you are thinking about Omeka, and that’s a good platform to think about too. But if what you really want to build out is individual pages about the people that include media like images from newspapers, it will likely be a lot easier to build and manage that information in something like WordPress.

    You’re thought about supporting contributions from individuals is an important concept. That said, given the relatively small network of folks working in this space, it may well make sense to think about how you might look at something like setting up additional admin accounts for folks that you would collaborate with in various areas or regions that could be the folks that primarily add content to the site with you.

    Overall, excited to see how this is coming together and the progress you are making on this despite the fact that you are working in these challenging times.

  2. Hi Jack! This project sounds like is coming along great! Thanks for another great post filled with information and insightful questions. Your use of StoryMap is very well used and thought out. Your thoughts on using different interpretations and viewpoints is well received. I think that will serve your project well going forward! StoryMap is a great resource and foundation to present your information to the public. I think the interactive element and easy to user interface will make it engaging for the average user. Because this subject matter needs to be told! Great project, Jack

  3. I know how much this topic interests you, so I am ecstatic to see how much progress you have made and how much information you provide. I can’t speak to the Omeka/WordPress conversation that Trevor mentioned above, but I think your instinct about age, race, alledged crime would be very helpful for the casual user. This way they can get some preliminary info without being inundated with information or required to go to a different platform. Great project and a great learning tool!

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