Pilot Summary

Pilot Summary: Early Black Boston Digital Almanac

This project, based in Northeastern’s English Department, brings together faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students with members of the broader community to publish digital exhibits related to black individuals in Boston. The EBBDA exhibits, published through the Digital Scholarship Group’s CERES Publisher, include maps and timelines that contextualize and connect archival objects from the seventeenth through the early nineteenth centuries. The project is dedicated to exposing the movements, places, art, and spoken words of black individuals that have shaped Boston over the years, encouraging viewers to learn more about the various positions of black figures in Boston’s history and the larger social impacts that black individuals have had, and still have, on Boston.

The EBBDA also draws from larger-scale efforts such as the Umbra Search platform and the Black Metropolis Research Consortium to bring together materials related to African American and Black history in Boston. With a tighter, local focus, EBBDA seeks to make unique maps and collections related to the lives and experiences of Black Bostonians accessible. This distinctive focus provides an important correction to a largely white-centered public history narratives in Boston and wider academic research.

The EBBDA has already built several exhibits and developed spaces for community and classroom involvement. For its BRC pilot, during the summer of 2018, the EBBDA team expanded the existing EBBDA resources through the creation of digitized maps and datasets related to the distribution of the black population in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood in the mid-19th century. This project explores the challenges of tracing the geospatial history in Boston arising from the fact that Boston’s geography and topography have changed so significantly over time: substantial portions of the city are built on infill, and the shifting boundaries of neighborhoods in turn required repeated changes to civic geographies such as ward boundaries. To navigate these challenges, the team developed a digitized vector map of the ward distribution as of these 1850 boundaries. This map was then embedded in a contemporary map of Boston using ArcGIS to show the 1850 distribution of wards in Boston. The team then selected Ward 6 to attach census data to these street-level maps to show where the 1850 black population of Boston was distributed within Beacon Hill.

In order to provide this census information at the street level, the project team transcribed census tables from 1850. Census records at this time provided population data for Boston faceted by sex, age, nationality, and race at the ward level, and at the street-level within each ward. One interesting challenge arising from this transcription process was that there are inconsistencies in the original census tables, in which some of the column totals provided differ from what the actual totals should be when all values are summed. Future iterations of this project will provide an opportunity to delve more deeply into ways of illustrating those inconsistencies in the data associated with the ward maps themselves.

As an ongoing project, the EBBDA demonstrates opportunities for using the BRC as a pedagogical tool in undergraduate courses. The expanded BRC architecture will make it possible to create interactive data layers on historical maps, enabling users to explore the 1850 ward maps, and others, on their own. Importantly, these exhibits can also be embedded and reused in other projects within the BRC and more generally. The EBBDA provides a model for projects that actively engage with student work, while also informing larger guidelines for the use and re-use of inconsistent or partial datasets in digital humanities projects.