Interactive Map Traces Slaves’ Path to Emancipation

Image from Visualizing Emancipation

Edward L. Ayers, a historian and president of the University of Richmond, calls the emancipation of slaves during the Civil War “the least-understood social transformation in American history.” A new interactive map he helped build shows that emancipation didn’t occur in one moment, he says, but was “an unfolding,” happening from the very first years of the war to the very last. And, he adds, it happened because of African-Americans, not merely for them, or to them.

These are some insights offered by Visualizing Emancipation, the latest digital-humanities project from the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond. Mr. Ayers, who is a senior research fellow at the lab, worked with Scott Nesbit, an associate director there, to create an interactive timeline chronicling what Mr. Ayers says is “the migration of four million people across an area the size of continental Europe.” After receiving a $48,155 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2010, the pair, along with a team of graduate and undergraduate students, started combing through primary texts to digitally map every instance of “emancipation events,” as indicated by runaway slave notices or articles about returned slaves.

The result is a detailed map that combines those emancipation events, troop locations, and instances of African-Americans helping the Union, among other details.

“Looking at the map, there’s no single event that you can point to and say, ‘Emancipation happened here,’” Mr. Ayers said. “But in the absence of the defining moment, you start to see patterns of how African-Americans helped the Union and followed the paths of the armies and fought for their own emancipation. Here, the emancipated people appear as key players in their own stories, not told through the eyes of someone else.”

The timeline also reveals seasonal patterns, as well as the growing trust between Union forces and the emancipated slaves, Mr. Nesbit said.

“With the timeline, you can see the African-Americans helping Union soldiers in 1862, ’63, ’64, but it’s not the case in the first year of the war,” he said. “There’s very little evidence that Union armies were relying very much on African-Americans, and when we start to look at the evidence, we see that this is because they don’t trust each other yet. These are the kind of patterns that we notice with visualized data.”

Visualizing Emancipation builds upon Valley of the Shadow, Mr. Ayers’s 2007 project that digitized articles written about major Civil War events in Virginia and Pennsylvania. The Visualizing Emancipation team used these sources for research, as well as articles from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and texts from the The War of the Rebellion that were digitized by Cornell University. The collection from Cornell alone totaled over 160,000 pages.

The undergraduates who contributed to the project—about a dozen in all—were crucial to the map’s success, said Mr. Nesbit, who believes that those data visualizations represent new opportunities for undergraduate humanities research.

“The thing that excites me is the way the undergraduates are able to manage these very small tasks of interpretation,” Mr. Nesbit said. “If we framed the data correctly and gave these students a coherent enough chunk of text, they can understand a very small part of the world in ways that are new to scholarship.”

But digital scholarship does raise new questions about methods and accuracy, he added. For example, many of the primary texts did not state the exact location of events they describe. As a result, the team chose to put “uncertainty halos” around certain points on the map to indicate that those events could only be traced to a general area.

Now that the map is published online, Mr. Ayers and Mr. Nesbit are inviting the public and members of other universities to contribute more information from primary texts. So far, they have received about 12 submissions.

Next, the Digital Scholarship Lab will digitize a 1932 atlas which, fittingly, has the following inscription on its first page: “In many ways, the ideal historical atlas would be a series of moving images on the pages of a book without the paraphernalia of the projector and screen.”

“Of course, that’s what we’re doing now, getting rid of the paraphernalia,” Mr. Ayers said. “And of course, scholarship will eventually be digital. Everything is digital, and people will be working from the ground up imagining how to explain the things people are fascinated by. That’s what is exciting for me about the field. I’m just trying to keep it warm until the young people come along; for them, this is their native language.”

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