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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

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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

ABSTRACT

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.

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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!

Abstract:

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.

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UHA Logo

I’ll be discussing Digital Harlem as part of my contribution to this roundtable:

Roundtable at the Urban History Association Biennial Conference, Philadelphia, October 10, 2014

Chair and Moderator: LaDale Winling, Virginia Tech

Participants:

  • Colin Gordon, University of Iowa
  • Susan Lawrence, Ohio State University
  • Stephen Robertson, George Mason University, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media
  • J. Mark Souther, Cleveland State University, Center for Public History and Digital Humanities

Since the 2008 publication of the Journal of American History’s Interchange “The Promise of Digital History,” the landscapes of print publishing, research methods, teaching resources, funding streams, and expectations of how to communicate digitally have changed dramatically.  Scholars have developed a robust ecosystem of digital history projects, especially in urban history, while digital methods and tools continue to gain traction within the profession.  Digital research and communication opportunities increasingly inform scholars’ interpretive frameworks, which reflects back on demand for digital tools, beginning to form an iterative feedback process between digital methods and scholarly inquiry in may seem an accelerating process.

Several urban historians, however, have been involved in the digital realm for significant portions of their careers.  This roundtable will draw upon the insights of some of the most experienced digital urban historians in discussion about digital topics increasingly central to the profession.   These will include the life cycles of digital projects, the changing value of tools and platforms, the role of digital skills and tools in training undergraduate and graduate students for research, and the value of digital work in building a career as a historian.

By offering the long view of the digital turn, this roundtable seeks to distinguish the signal from the noise, in the words of a recent work on data-driven analysis. What are the enduring values of digital research and publishing for historians, what are the greatest advantages and pitfalls of digital history for scholars of the urban realm?  What remains of the promise of digital history?

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On April 1, I’ll be giving two talks on Digital Harlem at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Behind the Scenes at Digital Harlem

Tools-and-Techniques in the Digital Humanities, Digital Humanities Forum
TIME: 12:30-2:00pm
LOCATION: Penn Library

Digital Harlem is one of the earliest digital history projects to use Google Maps to visualize a range of historical sources, with the particular goal of exploring everyday life in the most famous black neighborhood of the 1920s. In this talk Stephen Robertson will discuss the process that produced the site, highlighting the contingencies, choices and failures that shaped the project, as well as the ways that Digital Harlem does not conform to the commonly held picture of large digital humanities projects.

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The Differences Digital Mapping Made: Thinking Spatially about Race and Sexuality in 1920s Harlem

Richard Shryock Lecture in American History
TIME: 4:30pm
LOCATION: 209 College Hall

Digital Mapping, like the use of other digital tools, raises questions rather than provides answers. In the case of Digital Harlem, some of those questions concern the character of the neighborhood’s nightlife and residences, and where individuals spent their time. The answers to those questions reveal that homes provided more privacy than reformers recognized, allowing residents to engage in a wide range of sexualities. At the same time, outside the home, black residents regularly encountered whites, whose presence throughout the neighborhood made interracial encounters and conflicts an everyday feature of life in the nation’s most famous ‘black metropolis.’

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Digital Harlem Talks

In December 2012 & January 2013, I will be giving a series of talks on Digital Harlem in the US & UK:

 

CCA

“Digital Harlem,” Center for Cultural Analysis, Rutgers University,  December 11, 2012

 

IHR

“Mapping Everyday Life: Digital Harlem, 1915-1930,” Digital History Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, January 8, 2013

 

Royal Holloway

“Digital Harlem: Researching and Mapping Everyday Life in 1920s Harlem,” Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London, January 9, 2013

 

nottingham

“Harlem in Black and White: Mapping Race and Place in the 1920s,” Department of American and Canadian Studies, University of Nottingham, January 14, 2013

 

AHRCnottingham

“Joining the Crowd: Connecting a Digital History Project to the Web,”  Data – Asset – Method Network Workshop – So you think you’re an expert?, University of Nottingham, January 15, 2013

 

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Aggregated census data have been important in establishing the character of Harlem as a black neighbourhood.  Census schedules individualize that data, and perhaps more importantly for Digital Harlem, locate individuals at an address, in a specific place. So while I use census schedules to identify and trace individuals, I just as often use them to populate places, as part of an approach that seeks to identify the variety of different places that made up the neighborhood and locate the events and individuals found in 1920s Harlem in the context of those places.

116 West 144th St in 1920

The building I’m going to use as an example in this post is 116 West 144thStreet.

116W144th in Google Earth

It is located in upper Harlem, right on the northern boundary of the black section in 1920.  A six-story apartment building, one of a pair, it still stands today. What drew this place to our attention was a fight that took place on West 144th Street, a few buildings east of number 116, in June 1928. A man visiting the friends exchanged words with a 17 year old boy he believed was behaving inappropriately toward a girl, provoking a confrontation with the boy’s father, who we have given the pseudonym Morgan Thompson, that led him to cut the visitor 5 times with a knife.  When police came to 144th Street that night to arrest Thompson, they found him asleep in his home, an apartment in 116 West 144th Street.

Thompson lived with his wife of seventeen years, Margaret, a domestic servant and their two children, the seventeen-year-old boy, George, and fifteen-year-old Elizabeth.  The family had resided in New York City since 1917, living the whole eleven years at 116 West 144th Street.  As late as 1910, the building and those surrounding it had been entirely occupied by whites.  By 1920, all the residents were black, and would remain so throughout the 1920s and 1930s, as the area occupied by blacks spread further north and west.  Just how many apartments there were in the building is unclear: the 1910 census recorded 29 households (as 118W144th), the 1920 census recorded 32, the 1925 State Census, 31 and the 1930 census only 25.

Long-Term Residents of 116 West 144th Street

A number of the first black residents remained for extended periods of time, as the Thompsons did.  While they moved out in 1929, four households residing there in 1920 were still in the building in 1930, 12 more remained from 1920 to at least 1925, and another five resident in 1925 were still there in 1930.  The census does not tell us anything about the relationships of those residents, but their long-term presence represents at least the raw material for some sort of community.

Address residents moved to or from

Tracking comings and goings from the building offers another perspective on community.  Its not possible to trace where most residents in the building came from, as the 1920s saw so many arrivals from outside the city, but it is possible to use census schedule to trace where many of those who left went to — 1/2 those who I can identify moved within a 7 block radius, close enough not to require the complete rupturing of any ties they had established

West Indian Households in 116 West 144th Street (highlighted in brown)

Identifying the building as occupied by blacks captures only part of its character. It is a picture drawn from one of the census questions.  Moving across the census schedule to the question about birthplace reveals diversity obscured by the focus on race:  ¾ of the building’s residents were West Indians like the Thompsons, whereas West Indians represented only about 20% of the overall population of Harlem. So this building appears to have been one in which West Indians gathered. With one in every five residents hailing from the West Indies, there was ample scope for them to live much of their lives in the company of fellow immigrants. That did not mean they were isolated from the larger African American community, but it certainly helped them retain an identity that created sometimes tense relationships with their black neighbors. West Indians could be distinguished from native-born blacks by their accent and language, and distinctive styles of worship, cuisine, and sartorial display. Color prejudice against dark Caribbeans also divided the two groups, as did the increasing prominence of West Indians as business owners, which stirred economic competition.

Households with Lodgers (highlighted in purple)

Neighborhood of 116W144th (click to enlarge)

Another feature obvious feature of 116 West 144th Street was the presence of lodgers. The building went from having lodgers in almost half of the thirty-two households in 1920, to in over 2/3 in the depression year of 1930. As the black population of Harlem expanded and spread, the area of black residences did not keep pace with the number of newcomers. Rising demand for housing produced skyrocketing rents, encouraging landlords to subdivide apartments, and forcing families into fewer rooms, and into sharing that limited space with lodgers. Higher proportions of black households contained lodgers than did whites living in New York City, with the blocks between Lenox and Seventh Avenues became among the most densely packed residential streets in all of New York City, as crowded as the better known tenements of the Lower East Side.  The abundance of lodgers led to large numbers of cafeterias, cheap restaurants, tearooms, cabaret and movie theatres to cater to them. 116 West 144th Street was well-situated in this regard, located within 2 blocks of the Odeon, Roosevelt and Douglas Theatres, and the Lincoln Recreation Center, with an auditorium and swimming pool, and with the Savoy Ballroom and the Renaissance Ballroom and Theatre two blocks further away, and restaurants and other businesses on Avenues and 145th Street.

Proportion of West Indian Households in 100-164 West 144th Street

116 West 144th Street shared many of these features with the 14 other buildings neighboring it on the block between Lenox and 7th Avenues. In total, 49 of the 322 households remained throughout the 1920s, just over 15% of the total, compared to 12.5% in #116 – although none did so at two addresses. West Indians resided in disproportionate numbers in those 14 buildings, with only 4 having less than double the proportion of West Indians in the population – but none had a larger proportion than number 116.  This block was evidently an area of Harlem in which West Indians gathered. The picture in regard to lodgers is more muddled. Number 116 had a slightly smaller proportion of households with lodgers in 1920 than the average for the street (44% vs 47.5%), and a significantly higher proportion in 1930 (69% vs 51%), with a wide variation among individual buildings in both years (27%-62% in 1920, 23%-81% in 1930).

The recently released 1940 census schedules reveal significant changes at 116 West 144th Street and the neighboring buildings. At #116, none of the households resident in 1920 or 1925 remained in 1940, and only 2 of those resident in 1930 remained in 1940, together with 6 households resident in 1935. As the Depression hit Harlem, many residents (including Morgan Thompson and Perry Brown) faced eviction and changed circumstances that dissolved the residential stability of the 1920s. The proportion of West Indian households at #116 dropped to only 42%, with the proportion including lodgers also dropping to 42%. The rest of the block had also changed significantly by 1940: across all 14 of the other buildings, only 9 households remained through the entire 1930s (3% compared to 15% in 1920-1930).  The West Indian population of the block dropped, from 46% of households to only 30%.  At odds with the change at #116, the proportion of households with lodgers increased, with only 3 of the 14 buildings having lodgers in less than 50% of households.

What I hope this example demonstrates is how census schedules individualize data about locations as well as their residents, allowing the focus to be narrowed from enumeration districts of several blocks to individual buildings.  As much as we think of the census as a source of information about individuals, it is also a picture of the places that made up the United States in the past.

This post is based on my presentation to “The 1940 Census as Digital Data,” a roundtable discussion organized by the Digital Innovation Lab at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill on April 10, 2012.

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