Cross-posted from drstephenrobertson.com

On March 19, 2016, I participated in the Working Group on Interpreting the History of Race Riots and Racialized Mass Violence in the Context of “Black Lives Matter,” at the National Council on Public History Conference, in Baltimore.

Prior to the meeting, members of the Working Group contributed short posts on their projects to a group blog; my post can be found here. The post is a very preliminary account of my ongoing work mapping the events of March 19 and 20, 1935, in Harlem. Further research in the records of the Mayor’s Commission and the scrapbooks in Mayor LaGuardia’s Papers, and in La Prensa‘s coverage of the riot (kindly shared with me by Lorrin Thomas) has already turned up additional information that I need to add to this map.

The Working Group site also contains blogs on a range of other fascinating projects on the history of radicalized mass violence in the US.

Below is the slide I used in my lightning talk at the Working Group session in Baltimore


AHR-286x300The February 2016 issue of the American Historical Review includes an extended review of Digital Harlem — “Harlem Crime, Soapbox Speeches, and Beauty Parlors: Digital Historical Context and the Challenge of Preserving Source Integrity,” by Joshua Sternfeld, and my response, “Digital Mapping as a Research Tool: Digital Harlem: Everyday Life, 1915–1930.” 

The AHR provides authors with a free-access link to their publication, so clinking on the links takes you to the two articles regardless of whether you or your institution subscribes to the journal.

This exchange appears alongside another, on Vincent Brown‘s Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761, a very different kind of digital history mapping project than Digital Harlem, that works well as a companion piece to highlight a range of what is possible with web mapping tools.

For more on the exchange, see the post on drstephenrobertson.com

F1.mediumMatthew Vaz, a lecturer in the History Department at the City College of New York, City University of New York reviews Playing the Numbers in a review essay titled “Gambling, Legitimacy, and the Limits of Community” that appears in the Journal of Urban History 41, 6 (2015): 1152-1159

Open_Access_logo_PLoS_white.svg_-210x328For Open Access Week this year, I’ve finally found time to deposit copies of my articles in the institutional repository at George Mason University. Those copies are post-prints — the final version I submitted to the journal, not the published version. They are available online, for download, free to everyone.

Included are four articles on 1920s Harlem related to Digital Harlem:

Bryn-Mawr-conference-300x48On May 21, I am presenting a paper entitled “Putting Women on the Map: Gender and Everyday Life in 1920s Harlem” at the Women’s History in the Digital World Conference at Bryn Mawr College


This paper focuses on Digital Harlem, an award winning web-based geospatial digital history project on everyday life in the 1920s, to explore how visualizing evidence can provide a way of making meaning of the often fragmentary sources available to historians of women.

Digital mapping offers a means of visualizing historical sources that highlights the spatial dimensions of the past, and can offer a different perspective on particular places. It is not just that mapped sources are seen in their geographical context. Location provides a basis for integrating material from a wide range of disparate sources, and incorporating and organizing material that historians typically treat as ephemera, or pass over it as too sparse or fragmentary to support an analysis. Layers of different data, and hence large quantities of data, can be combined on a single map, providing an image of the complexity of the past. Examining those maps can reveal spatial relationships that prompt questions and facilitate comparisons that a researcher might otherwise not have considered.

Digital Harlem employs digital mapping to explore everyday life in the 1920s. It incorporates material from almost three thousand felony cases files from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, and hundreds of pages of black newspapers, which were mined for every event or place for which an address was given. Men dominate those sources, but they also contain a rich range of fragmentary material on women. Women are less often accused of crimes, and thus the focus of legal records, than men, but they are present as witnesses and victims of crime. If you look beyond the major news stories and editorial pages, women appear far more often in black newspapers than in legal records: in reports of church and fraternal orders, on social pages, sports pages, and in advertisements.

Mapping these sources goes someway towards makes it possible to see the gendered nature of waged work, business, home life, leisure, and criminal activity and victimization, to juxtapose the experiences of men and women to highlight the distinctive aspects of women’s lives in Harlem.

Sawyer-300x138On April 24, 2015, I’m presenting a paper entitled “What Was Life Like in 1920s Harlem?” at the Sawyer Seminar on The Ghetto: Concept, Conditions, and Connections in Transnational Historical Perspective, from the 11th Century to the Present, hosted by the Center for African American Urban Studies and the Economy, at Carnegie Mellon University.

Look out for new blog posts using content from this talk, on topics ranging from childcare in Harlem, to the YMCA and YWCA, to social clubs, and summer camps!


Gilbert Osofsky’s classic study of the early years of African American settlement in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood bears the subtitle, “The Making of a Ghetto.” It offers an unrelentingly negative picture of overcrowded residences that fostered disease, juvenile delinquency and family dissolution, poverty resulting from limited employment opportunities and low wages, and violence and vice encouraged by police neglect. Osofsky views Harlem from a distance, in terms of aggregates and patterns: the average number of lodgers in a household; rates of disease; lists of occupations. By contrast, a subsequent and still growing generation of scholarship focused on the Harlem Renaissance offers portraits of the lives of a small group of writers and intellectuals and the cabarets and parties they frequented. These studies offer rich accounts of Harlem’s high culture, but offer little sense of the lived experience of the mass of residents, or of aspects of the neighborhood, such as streetlife, religion, and sports, that loomed large in their lives.

This paper will use the award-winning web site Digital Harlem to explore the lived experience of the population of Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s. I will focus in particular on the extent to which residents lives confined to the ghetto, and within its bounds, tracing the rhythms of everyday life on different times of the day, week and year, and examine how those experiences are reshaped the Depression. The map-based interface of Digital Harlem enables a multi-scalar spatial analysis, one which zooms from a citywide perspective into the neighborhood and down to the individual places, to see the relationship between places, and to trace movement through the city.

The sources for this project include more than four thousand cases from the files of the District Attorney and Probation Department, and hundreds of pages of black newspapers, supplemented with a range of other published and archival material, including the records of the anti-prostitution organization the Committee of Fourteen, the Bedford Hills prison for women, the WPA Writers’ Program, and census schedules. Working with a geospatial database makes it possible to include and organize material from these sources that historians typically pass over it as too sparse or fragmentary to support an analysis: material from newspapers such society columns, sports reports, news from churches and fraternal organizations, and advertisements; and every offense, not just a particular crime or group of crimes, from the legal records, and information on victims and witnesses as well as offenders, on the nature of the crime’s location, and on the circumstances in which it occurred, which ranged from card games to shopping trips.

With my collaborators Shane White and Stephen Garton, I have been analyzing interwar Harlem for almost a decade, producing, in addition to Digital Harlem, a book, four articles, three book chapters and thirty-seven presentations on life in the neighborhood. That scholarship focuses on particular aspects of everyday life – numbers gambling, interactions with whites, privacy, family life, and confidence tricks. This paper will weave those threads together with topics such as work, public transport, shopping, sports, parades and fraternal lodges, to highlight the movement of residents within and beyond Harlem, and to reconsider the relationship between residence and daily life in understanding lived experience in the ghetto.

1012bThe September 2014 issue of the Journal of American History features an interchange on the history of capitalism, which includes this shout-out to Playing the Numbers from Peter James Hudson, an assistant professor in the Department of African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles:

One of the more intriguing books to emerge is Playing the Numbers (2010). Examining the illegal lotteries organized by African Americans and Afro-Caribbean migrants in Harlem during the 1920s, the authors argue that such forms of financial organization were of such a scale and of such import that they need to be seen alongside the work of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. The authors also implicitly suggest the possibilities for thinking of the history of forms of economic organization and financial institutions on the margins of the formal market as economic and political forces.

Monographs such as Playing the Numbers suggest that we need to consider not only those modes of exchange and financial and economic organization that are outside of the formal market but also how they are often a necessary component of capitalist regimes of accumulation. Instead of trying to draw clear lines between precapitalist and capitalist forms or noncapitalist and capitalist forms of exchange and accumulation, it seems more productive to try to understand how, in many cases, the former—precapitalist modes of accumulation—are mobilized, used, and continued by the latter—especially in those regions where the transition to capitalism was contingent, provisional, and unfinished.

“Interchange: The History of Capitalism,” Journal of American History 101, 2 (September 2014): 528-29.


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