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.


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.

Crowdsourcing & Social Justice: The Digital Reparations Movement (Print Project Proposal)

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Can historytelling be a catalyst for activism? Do historians have an obligation, at least to some degree, to double as activists and allies for the historically excluded in their chosen field of study? Although some may disagree, I would argue that we should–at a minimum–ponder these questions, and preferably answer in the affirmative. There exists, for example, a robust scholarly engagement with the problem of slavery in America, but that engagement dwindles when we start to ask questions like: who should be held responsible for slavery and its aftermath? How do we reconcile the generational trauma, the stolen economic autonomy, the disenfranchisement? Can monetary restitution alone right historical wrongs? Even after emancipation, racist policy and racial terror lynchings persisted to prolong the white-dominated social order established under slavery; indeed, redlining, voter ID laws, inequitable access to healthcare, disproportionate police brutality, and racist ideas turned mainstream continue to carry on a legacy of white supremacy: how do we account for the historical and contemporary reconciliation that black Americans and their allies have long sought, but have been denied? And how do we justify said denial of reparations for black Americans when sufficient precedent–in the form of reparations to Japanese Americans, black South Africans, victims of the Holocaust, etc.–exists?

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Many scholarly activists argue, and I tend to agree, that the first step towards reconciliation of any kind is truthtelling. There must be a robust, inclusive effort made to gather evidence of historical wrongdoing, turn that evidence into convincing histories, and persuade the masses that those histories are worth disseminating. Digital repositories such as the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project , the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database, and the Digital Library on American Slavery are excellent examples of this ongoing process. Yet, there is still much work to be done; indeed, the federal government is yet to issue a formal apology for decades of state-sanctioned slavery.

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Truthfully representing black histories in America is one thing. Making an argument that those histories, and the wrongdoing therein, justify reconciliation–or more specifically, reparations–is entirely more complicated. Indeed, the origins and history of the black reparations movement has, until very recently, received little scholarly attention. Historians have directed even less attention towards contemporary iterations of the movement for reparations.

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Although a federal-level apology and formal reparations have failed to materialize, there has been a marked shift in strategy: grassroots cooperatives and digital crowdsourcing offer an alternative where federal lobbying has historically failed.

The above images represent a current effort, undertaken by Soul Fire Farms in New York, to develop a cooperative network of black and brown farmers across America. The project links racism–and the legacies of slavery–with injustice in our agricultural systems, thus calling for reparations to mitigate historical damage done to black and brown farmers.

This second project, now defunct, was a crowdsourcing platform that allowed users to make reparations claims. In addition, anyone could commit to partially or fully meeting these claims through donation of time, money, resources, or services.

My proposed project would be to compare these digital crowdsourcing platforms with the traditional movement for federal reparations: how do their goals align, or diverge? Have historians interacted with the digital model of the reparations movement? Are historians doing enough to engage with the movement as it evolves? How can historians use digital platforms to become activists in the field of reconciliation?

I am, of course, open to other suggestions that might be a bit more concrete than my current idea. If anyone can imagine a similar project, perhaps using different digital resources that we have discussed, please feel free to let me know! I am also considering a project that compares the EJI’s efforts to account for lynchings in America broadly with local accounting in states such as Maryland. There is a marked difference in the EJI’s reporting compared to state-level reporting.

HistoryWired: A Lost(?) Digital Text and Visual Collections Repository

Unlike Obi-Wan Kenobi’s enduring one-liner, HistoryWired is gone. Indeed, any attempt to visit the original link to the Smithsonian’s first digital collections repository will end in futility—HistoryWired has been replaced by a nostalgic, commemorative blog post on the National Museum of American History’s website. But what was HistoryWired? Is it actually gone? Is it really lost? Does HistoryWired—and its novel premise—still have implications on the field?

To find the answer to these questions, and to learn more about HistoryWired, we will embark on a twofold journey: first, we will dig for remnants of HistoryWired that still exist today. Second, we will use a visual, screen capture archive, the wonderous Wayback Machine, to travel back in time and go hands-on with HistoryWired. Let’s jump in!

When HistoryWired was first released in August 2001 by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, it was not met with particular enthusiasm from the scholarly community; certainly, it was not met with the same enthusiasm that this adorable dog has for its owner. [1] Perhaps this was because HistoryWired was an attempt at something that had never been attempted before: the creation of a digital collections repository that was not centered on text. Rather, HistoryWired was, first and foremost, a visualization of digitized materials. It was, in the spirit of Matthew Jockers’ Macroanalysis, an embrace of “new approaches and new methodologies designed for accessing and leveraging the electronic texts that make up the twenty-first century digital library.” [2]

HistoryWired, according to the Smithsonian, was a digital collections repository that contained 450 objects as a “sampling” of the Museum’s holdings. These objects were deemed, by curators, to be of significant interest to the general public. Most importantly, HistoryWired utilized a distinctive mapping interface; rather than relying exclusively on text-based searches to find the collections, HistoryWired allowed visitors to interact with a spatial map. Users could approach the website in several ways: conducting a keyword search, browsing by curated categories, or simply clicking on a box in the map.

The spatial map was at the center of the interface. As highlighted above, each box represented a single item in the Museum’s digitized collection, and each item belonged to several curated categories. A sampling of some of the items that could be found on HistoryWired: George Washington’s tent, the first Singer sewing machine, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, an ENIAC computer, Shirley Chisholm’s campaign materials, and Mary Todd Lincoln’s silver dining set.

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The map served a twofold purpose: first, it displayed the breadth of collections contained in HistoryWired. Second, it was a novel method of visualizing user-dictated hierarchy. Do you notice, in the image above, how each individual rectangle—representative of a single object in the digitized collection—is of a different size? This is purposeful! Depending on user interest ratings and the frequency of user traffic, each rectangle changed its size accordingly—more hits and higher interest ratings yielded a larger rectangle, while less interest yielded a smaller rectangle. In this way, HistoryWired was as much an experiment in collaborative, user-driven public history as it was a digital repository for the Smithsonian’s holdings.

The spatial treemap that HistoryWired used to depict hierarchy was designed by SmartMoney, Inc. The picture above is of SmartMoney’s original project, a Map of the Market—a visual representation of stock activity in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The Smithsonian hired SmartMoney to create a similar visual interface for HistoryWired. Not unlike Wordle, these sorts of treemaps are a useful tool for public historians. Not only are they visually appealing, but they require a democratization—a fundamental rupture therein—of the digital archival process due to their interactivity and user-generated hierarchies. Even in 2001, innovative digital interfaces were experimenting with the notion of a shared authority.

With all of this in mind, can we still see and use HistoryWired today? The Wayback Machine is our only hope!

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I promise, that will be the last of the corny Star Wars references. I encourage you to travel back in time with me as we see what interacting with HistoryWired was like at its online birth in 2001.

Alas, it would appear that the spatial map—the centerpiece of HistoryWired—is no longer functional. How anti-climatic, Wayback Machine. But, not all hope is lost!

A text-only version of HistoryWired is still accessible via Wayback Machine. Although many of the links are broken, one can still see the categories and items that once populated the spatial map.

Moreover, a brief instruction page provides insight into the user experience that was curated by the Smithsonian on HistoryWired. Visitors were prompted to select an archived item on the spatial map, peruse the textual description and photographs accompanying the object, and provide an interest rating to inform the hierarchical size of the object on the spatial map.

There are but few remnants of HistoryWired that remain. It is, by and large, a relic of early experiments with digitized collections— a thing of the past for a Smithsonian Institution that has moved on. Is this really the case, however? I would argue that HistoryWired was revolutionary in its time and place, and still has lasting implications for the field of digital history and the digital humanities more broadly. Albeit, HistoryWired had its flaws: were curators simply pandering to mainstream, exclusive historical narratives by only including items of highest interest? Were items pertinent to marginalized histories included? Surely, there were plenty of opportunities for HistoryWired to improve its collaborative interface and truly represent a multitude of communities. There is also much that HistoryWired did for the field: it was perhaps the first attempt at codifying a shared authority—albeit, imperfectly—in an online, digitized collections setting, and it increased accessibility to parties unable to travel to the National Museum of American History physically. Most importantly, HistoryWired made —and continues to make—a convincing argument to the field: text and spatial visualizations, working in harmony, garner significant public interest in digitized collections. Platforms like HistoryWired begin to bridge the (often) self-inflicted gap between practitioners and the public, both of whom have much to learn from the other.

(Sorry, I couldn’t help myself)

[1] Blackaby, Jim. “The Search for Just the Right Tool.” Curator: The Museum Journal 43, no. 4 (October 2000): 366–369.

[2] Matthew L. Jockers, Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History (University of Indiana Press, 2013), 9.

Hello friends, I’m Jack Del Nunzio!

First, a bit about me and how I got here:

I was born in New Orleans in 1997; in my opinion, there is nothing quite like the diverse peoples and beautiful city I was born in. I still visit New Orleans and my extended family as often as possible, and I credit the city– alongside its troubling, racist past–with sparking my passion for public history and activism.

When I was but a wee baby, we moved to Sykesville, MD, a suburban town just outside of Baltimore (about 1-1.5 hours north of AU). Through elementary, middle, and high school, I likely read all the history books that my schools’ media centers and the public library had to offer. When I took a moment to put the books down, I loved performing in theatrical productions. I was often lucky enough to share the stage with my wonderful girlfriend–now of five years–Mallorie.

I received my B.A. in History and Economics in May 2019 from McDaniel College, a tiny liberal arts college located in nearby Westminster, MD. Given the recent removal of Confederate statues from public spaces, a movement that originated in New Orleans at the behest of the community and Mayor Mitch Landrieu, I had originally intended to focus on collected memory and the underrepresentation of black history in memorials as my undergraduate colloquium. However, a suggestion from my professor led me to focus my studies on lynchings; soon after, I found that lynchings had received very little scholarly consideration beyond the Deep South. I focused my study on lynchings in Maryland, and I am currently working with the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project, EJI, and a committee of concerned members of the public to work towards reconciliation. With suggestions from the public and descendants, reconciliation will begin with markers, soil collection, and memorials in remembrance of Townsend Cook, who was lynched in Westminster, MD.

My scholarly interests at AU include black intellectual tradition and history, racial terror lynchings and associated injustices/reconciliation, as well as activism that works towards decolonizing archives and museums. I am really looking forward to taking this class–I enrolled in a new media class at McDaniel and although it was unrelated to history, it was one of the more compelling undergraduate courses I took. I am also very much looking forward to the interdisciplinary aspects of this course–bridging the challenging gap between the public and history through accessible media.

Outside of the classroom, and when I am not cursing myself over the self-inflicted commute from MD to DC, I have many passions: coaching early morning Crossfit, working as the Graduate Ambassador for CAS at AU, doing research at the National Archives for a small non-profit, and playing with my dog Nola.