Mapping Slavery in D.C.: A Digital Project Proposal

Last semester, I spent some time researching the history of slavery in Washington, D.C. for my fellowship at the White House Historical Association. One of the topics that I studied was the history of the Pearl incident, which was one of the largest attempted slave escapes in the United States. On March April 15, 1848, 77 enslaved people attempted to leave D.C. on the Pearl schooner, charting course to freedom in the Northeast. Unfortunately, adverse weather forced the Pearl to anchor near Point Lookout, Maryland that night. The next day, the Pearl fugitives were transported back to D.C. Several of the enslaved people who attempted to escape were resold by their owners and transported to the Deep South. Through my research, I have found a couple of newspaper articles that list the names of the Pearl fugitives as well as their owners. I have also found sources and census records that fill in the narratives of a couple of the Pearl fugitives. For example, Ellen Stewart was resold after the Pearl incident and gained her freedom with the assistance of abolitionists William Chaplin and Dr. Joseph Evans. Mary and Emily Edmonson obtained their freedom through funds raised by abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, and their story contributed to parts of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.   

Somewhat connected to the people involved in the Pearl incident, I also spent some time researching the enslaved individuals who worked for families at the Cutts-Madison House and the Daniel Webster’s House (currently the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Building) on Lafayette Square. My research primarily focused on Paul Jennings. Jennings was formerly enslaved by James and Dolley Madison. He was purchased in 1847 by Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, and the two worked out an agreement for Jennings to purchase his own freedom. Webster arranged similar agreements with some of his other servants, including Monica McCarty, Henry Pleasants, Sarah Smith, and Ann Bean. Before his death, Webster included statements in his will to ensure that his African-American servants obtained their freedom.

For my digital project, I am interested in using a tool like Google My Maps to visualize either the lives of the Pearl fugitives or the enslaved individuals who worked on Lafayette Square.

With the Pearl incident option, I would conduct more research about the lives of the enslaved individuals who attempted to escape on the Pearl to demonstrate the impact of sale and separation that the families and enslaved individuals faced during the aftermath of the Pearl incident. I hope to trace as many of the Pearl fugitives as I can; however, I am unsure of the records and sources available. As a result, I am planning to start with the families and individuals that I know more about such as Ellen Stewart, the Edmonson family, and the Bell family.

With the Lafayette Square example, I think it would be important to conduct more research about the people who lived on the Square as well as the buildings and structures on Lafayette Square as the historic landscape changed over time. I am most familiar with Daniel Webster’s and Dolley Madison’s relation to slavery in the neighborhood. As a result, if I choose to pursue this option, I will conduct more research to gain additional insight into the different people who lived on the Square or had businesses on the Square.

This is an image of Dolley Madison’s house on Lafayette Square where Ellen Stewart and Paul Jennings worked.
Image Credit: Library of Congress

I am unsure whether ArcGIS Story Maps or a combination of Google My Maps and WordPress would present the information more effectively. I would like to include both geographic and narrative information about the Pearl fugitives and/or the enslaved individuals working on Lafayette Square (depending on the option that I choose). I like the narrative functions and presentation style of Story Maps. However, I think that content created in My Maps and WordPress offer more simplified, adaptable presentations that could more easily incorporate additional individuals and narratives if I wanted to continue this project in the future. Part of my inspiration for this proposal comes from the O Say Can You See: Early Washington, D.C., Law, and Family project, which includes an interactive map formed from city directory data. The software that the project uses for the map might be too technical. However, I think it provides a good example as I continue to work out details for my project.

With either option, I hope that this resource will be helpful for anyone studying the history of slavery by contributing to our understanding of the challenges that enslaved individuals faced. I also hope that this resource would help add to the narrative of enslaved individuals by showcasing their experiences through geographic visualization.

Thanks for reading!

Cookbooks and Cuisine in the United States

After growing up attending potluck dinners at family reunions and helping my mom recreate recipes from the annual church cookbook, the community and personal relationships surrounding food has always a memorable and influential part of my upbringing. When I was in middle school, I remember receiving my first cookbook from my aunt. She had filled the recipe cards with some of her favorite recipes as well as some dishes that her parents and grandparents taught her. On the back of each recipe, she wrote about these family connections to the dishes or brief anecdotes about making the food for various events. She also included several pages of blank cards for me to contribute new recipes.

In addition to my aunt’s gifted cookbook, my family has accumulated several cookbooks over time, ranging from commercially printed volumes full of recipes from professional chefs, to culturally specific recipes, to the annual church cookbook crowdsourced for fundraising purposes. Looking through the volumes, some of the cookbooks contain a fascinating range of anecdotes, cultural histories, and community histories accompanying some of the recipes. Others give sparse, direct language for creating the dishes. Due to variety of approaches for sharing recipes, I began to wonder about the development of cookbooks over time, which led me to the Michigan State University Libraries’ Feeding America Project.

Landing page for the Feeding America Project at MSU Libraries

The Feeding America Project, was a digitization project made possible through a 2001 IMLS National Leadership grant. The project researchers carefully selected 75 books out of nearly 7,000 volumes of cookbooks held in the MSU Libraries’ Cookery and Food Collection to represent the history of cookbooks in America. The selected cookbooks cover various themes and include publications from 1798 to 1922. In order to give a broad overview of the cookbooks found in the United States, the digitized collection includes cookbooks published for a variety of audiences and cultural regions (both nationally and internationally). In addition to scanning each page of the selected books, project participants transcribed each of the selected cookbooks by undergraduate teams of typists and proofread. As a result, the full text transcriptions of each of the digitized volumes are easily accessible.

For my print project, I am interested in analyzing the cookbooks found in Michigan State University’s Feeding America online collection. I think it would be interesting to see how the language used in the cookbooks changes over time and/or based on the theme of the cookbooks. Since the cookbooks are tagged by subject, I think it would be particularly interesting to analyze the way that Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine is represented. With the transcription text available for each cookbook, I could input each of the books into Voyant and analyze the texts thought distant reading, similar to Cameron Blevins’ topic modeling of Martha Ballard’s diary.

Example of one of the cookbooks in the collection. This book was published in 1914.

If this scope of Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine becomes too narrow to draw analysis from the texts, I could incorporate other cookbooks found in the collection to draw additional comparisons. I think it would also be interesting to see if I could analyze differences between the cookbooks representing Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine and the cookbooks representing regions of the United States. Through either method, I am curious to see if the language used in the cookbooks can reveal additional historical context to foodways and food culture in the United States.

Taking a walk (or a stroll?) through digital humanities

This may be an odd question, but how would you describe the way that you walk or move around in the world? Do you hold a certain posture? Does it depend on the people, places, and things surrounding you?

According to Joanna Guldi, the way a person’s style of walking is described can carry a lot of contextual and cultural information, especially in London during the 19th century. Guldi used databases and keyword variants to research the cultural change through walking habits in her article “The History of Walking and the Digital Turn.” Making use of Google Book Search, The Making of the Modern World (MMW) and Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) databases, she explored the shifting terminology to reveal the changing discourse of walking in 19th century London. Guldi noticed expressions such as “lurching,” “dodging,” and “waddling” grew in popularity over time. She also observed a contrast between the use of the words “lounge” and “stride” that reflected “the struggle between aristocratic and middle-class views of city, strangers, and the body.” On the other hand, the word “slodge” appeared in 1829 to describe “a drunken, foot-dragging walk, with all the poverty and dissolution such a posture could imply.” After examining the change of language over time through digital tools, Guldi asks other historians to establish new methodologies to glean additional information from digital database resources. Did Guldi’s methods change the way that you view historical texts? Continuing the conversation of “big data” that we started last week, have you come across historians incorporating similar methods in their research?

Ben Schmidt, who is currently the Director of Digital Humanities at New York University, also enjoyed experimenting with digital analysis tools. For one of his projects, he used Google Ngram to investigate the extent of anachronistic language in the popular British historical drama Downton Abbey. In his blog post “Making Downton more traditional,” shared his process of checking every single line of the show’s script for historical accuracy by running every two-word phrase through the Google Ngram database. (For a great overview of Google Ngram, check out Rosie’s blog post!) Schmidt gave a list of 34 anachronistic phrases that appeared in season 3 of the show. I have never seen Downton Abbey, and I was surprised to see the phrase “unicorn if” on the list.

Schmidt also found that every episode included dozens of phrases following speech patterns that were more consistent with teenagers’ language during the 1990s than the characters in the show. The characters’ phrasing was not the only anachronistic aspect of the show. Schmidt acknowledged that “the sensibilities are obviously modern, easy for us to understand, and false to the reality of the past.” A couple of the commenters also discussed the show’s use of contemporary phrases to create a historical drama that appealed to modern audiences. (This may be an aside from the main analysis of the readings, but do you agree with the commenters? What is the balance between historical accuracy and appealing to contemporary audiences?)

Guldi’s and Schmidt’s use of text databases and digital analysis tools demonstrate a facet of digital humanities’ many capabilities.  In the article “Digital visualization as a scholarly activity,” Martyn Jessop shares a variety of methods for visualizing information through images, diagrams, and animations to communicate messages. Visualization is not only a method for viewing information, but also a method for studying information. This includes examining spatial relationships, quantitative analysis, temporal relationships, and 3D visualizations of built environments. Are there some forms of data visualization that work better than others? Additionally, Jessop claims that digital visualization’s greatest value is “not for analysis, but for synthesis and modelling.” Do you agree with Jessop’s assertion?

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

Introduction: Mia

Hello! My name is Mia, and I am a first-year graduate student in the Public History master’s program at American University. I moved to DC a couple of weeks ago, and I have enjoyed experiencing the first snow of the year!

I took a walk last weekend and made a little snow pal!

I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama where I attended Samford University for my bachelor’s degree. During undergrad, I studied French and Global Studies (an interdisciplinary history major), which gave me a lot of flexibility to explore a variety of classes across departments. My university also had an oral history department, and I enjoyed helping them interview people from local communities. I learned so much about Birmingham’s history from their stories, and I was excited to help preserve their memories through the interviews.

After I graduated from Samford, I wanted to find more ways to combine my interests in history and community engagement. I took a break from school to explore public history opportunities. During summer 2019, I worked as an intern at the WBHM radio station (Birmingham’s local NPR affiliate) for their StoryCorps “One Small Step” project. After I completed the internship, I moved to Warren, Ohio to serve as an AmeriCorps member with the Ohio History Service Corps. My host site was the Trumbull County Historical Society, and I really enjoyed planning and facilitating projects with different historical organizations throughout the county.

I am excited to continue learning about public history methodology as a graduate student. After spending some time with historical societies and museums in Ohio, I am hoping to use this opportunity to learn from public history professionals and historical organizations throughout the DC community. I am currently doing a fellowship with the White House Historical Association to conduct research for their Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood initiative.

I have had some experience with digital history through oral history and co-creating a suffrage history website for my AmeriCorps position: For the most part, I enjoy learning about new software and figuring out the mechanics of digital programs. However, I still feel uncertain and inexperienced when it comes to creating digital content for a public audience. Although I have accounts on various social media platforms, I have not posted on them in years. Blogging also feels like an unknown resource for me. Through this course, I am hoping to become more comfortable with using digital resources to connect people to their history.

I’m excited to learn from y’all this semester!