I’ve spent my MITH fellowship year working on “The Black Gotham Digital Archive.” My goal is to link an interactive web site, smart phones, and the geographic spaces of Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn to create a deeper understanding of nineteenth-century black New York. The project is an extension of my book, Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City (Yale UP, 2011), and is motivated by my search for new media forms that will allow greater flexibility, interactivity, and potential for reaching a broader audience.
I structured my book around two principal concepts. The first was chronology, in which I took family history as a starting point to construct a broader social and cultural history of New York City’s black elite from about 1805 to 1895. The second was social geography, in which I illustrated the myriad ways in which members of the black elite inhabited Gotham, emphasizing how, in contrast to the all too familiar Harlem model, nineteenth-century black New Yorkers lived throughout the entire city, in different wards and neighborhoods.
My digital archive is structured around the same conceptual principles, but it relies on a different form of storytelling, one which inverts the relationship between text and image. In my book, word was the primary vehicle for telling my story and image functioned as supporting illustration; in the digital archive, image is the primary vehicle and word supporting document. Throughout the year, I’ve been working with MITH staff member Seth Denbo to implement this storytelling principle. Using Omeka as a platform, we have created a series of exhibits based on images, maps with clickable icons, narrative and descriptive text with links to ancillary material (manuscript material, newspaper accounts, books, collections, etc). The result is a greater sense of simultaneity (different historical actors doing different things at same time), mobility (movement through the streets of New York), and audience interactivity.
In the next phase of my project, I encourage further interactivity in at least two ways. The first is the creation of smart phone walking tours that will enable visitors to my archive to download an app that uses real-time geo-location information to provide them with targeted content from it; they can visit the neighborhoods discussed in the archive, view the locations of places mentioned, see images in context, and read the information provided. The second is to create a feature that will allow viewers to add their own stories to “The Black Gotham Digital Archive” and thus enhance our knowledge base of the social and cultural history of black New Yorkers in the nineteenth century.
Carla L. Peterson is a professor in the Department of English at the University of Maryland, and affiliate faculty of the departments of Women’s Studies, American Studies, and African-American Studies. Peterson received her undergraduate degree from Radcliffe College and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Yale University. She is the author of“Doers of the Word”: African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830-1880) (Rutgers University Press, 1998). She has published numerous essays on nineteenth-century African American literature and culture. Her newly published book, titled Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City (Yale University Press, 2011), is a social and cultural history of African Americans in nineteenth-century New York City as seen through the lens of family history.
Seth Denbo is Project Coordinator for Project Bamboo at MITH. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom and is a cultural historian of eighteenth-century England. Before coming to MITH he has worked on projects in digital history, the AHRC ICT Programme in Arts and Humanities and been Research Associate at King’s College London where he has been involved in strategic planning for a major European digital research infrastructure. He is also a convenor of a new seminar in digital history at the Institute for Historical Research.