Searching for Black women in the archives: Part 1

By Audrey Altman, February 4, 2021.
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This is the first in a series of posts from DPLA’s Audrey Altman about the curatorial and technological challenges involved in the development of the Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection.

Missing from history

In 2020, as the Black Lives Matter movement inspired people across the United States to acknowledge and address institutional racism, I had the professional privilege of working on the creation of the Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection, a celebration of the generations of Black women who have fought for voting rights in our country. As data engineer, my goal was to build technologies and algorithms that would support the curatorial goals of the project, mitigating underlying biases that might otherwise distort the final collection.  I worked alongside curators Shaneé Yvette Murrain and Kathleen Williams, searching through the Digital Library of America’s trove of over 40 million cultural heritage items, and learning strategies to uncover materials that would tell a truly representative story Black women’s suffrage and its enduring legacy.  

The first challenge we faced when curating the Black Women’s Suffrage collection — and indeed a key motivation for its creation — was the relative paucity of stories and materials about Black women’s contributions to the Suffrage Movement in comparison to those about White people and men.  The DPLA aggregation, which brings together materials from thousands of archives, libraries, and museums, reflects a racial inequity that is shared by many cultural heritage institutions in the United States.  Murrain notes that this gap is “rooted in the history of racism and exclusion within the Suffrage Movement, which resulted in White women emerging as the movement’s primary protagonists, while Black women were effectively wiped from the narrative.”[1]  Racism from White suffragists took many forms, including exclusion from organizations and segregated public demonstrations.  Some White suffragists — including prominent figures — vociferously opposed Black enfranchisement.[2]  Black women’s marginalization within the movement itself extended to marginalization in the public memory of the movement.

The historical literature of the Suffrage Movement through most of the 20th century minimized or ignored the contributions of Black women.  Rosalyn Terborg-Penn broke ground with her 1977 dissertation “Afro-Americans in the Struggle for Woman Suffrage.”  Although this work was highly influential to other historians, it did not immediately change the dominant narrative.  As historian Ellen Carol DuBois recalled, “it was available only as a difficult-to-access dissertation until it was published as a book in 1998.”[3]  While scholarship on Black women’s suffrage has advanced considerably since the 1970s, a deficit remains. Writing in 2016, Valenthia Watkins observed, “The relative absence of Black people in the literature of woman suffrage—with the exception of cursory references to Frederick Douglass or Sojourner Truth—has the tendency to convey the false idea that Black people did not support women’s suffrage. It also erases the Black perspective from the larger suffrage story.”[4]  A legacy of institutionalized racism within the academy is partly to blame for this absence.  Another culprit is the under-representation of Black women in archives, which historians depend upon for source material.

Rosalyn Terborg-Penn
Historian Rosalyn Terborg-Penn in front of an exhibit of Black activist Anna J. Cooper at the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum. Photograph by Chris Capilongo.  Courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum.

Black stories have been historically under-collected in archives.  This is partly due to institutional biases that have favored the collection of materials by and about White people and men.  While some individual institutions have a long history of preserving Black voices, it was not until the 1960s and 1970s that archivists became more broadly interested in building racial diversity into their collections, in response to the Civil Rights Movement and the development of social history.[5][6]  Professionally, Black women have been and continue to be under-represented in archives, and thus disempowered from influencing collection strategies pertaining to their own communities.[7]  Even when given the opportunity, some Black women have chosen not to donate personal papers to manuscript repositories.  Historian Deborah Grey White explained that reasons for their reluctance include:

…the black woman’s perennial concern with image, a justifiable concern born of centuries of vilification… the adversarial nature of the relationship that countless black women have had with many public institutions and the resultant suspicion of anyone seeking private information… [and] because they have grown used to being undervalued and invisible, believing that no one is interested in them.[8]

White also points out that a strong oral tradition in the Black community, combined with a history of greater illiteracy relative to White populations, makes it less likely for Black women to appear in the written record.[8]  Archivists continue the work of correcting racial and gender imbalances, and today many wonderful collections exist.  Yet, these new efforts have not wholly compensated for generations of under-collection.  

The DPLA aggregation contains a treasure trove of materials about Black suffragists and voting rights advocates — but significantly more materials about White ones.  To combat this disparity in the Black Women’s Suffrage collection we strove to include as many materials about Black women as possible, and limit the number of materials about White people and men.  We did not want to exclude White and male voices from the collection, because they provide important context for Black women’s experiences.  Our aim was proportional representation of Black and White subjects; this would enable users to more easily find materials about Black women, and highlight the significance of their contributions by making them literally visible in search results.  

In practice, finding the right balance between Black and White voices proved very difficult to achieve.  Since it would be impossible to individually evaluate all 40+ million materials in DPLA’s collection, we rely on carefully crafted search queries to identify materials for inclusion in Black Women’s Suffrage.  Much of the work of the curatorial team involved learning to build effective search queries. Using generic keyword phrases like “suffrage movement” or “voting rights” would predictably return materials that were mostly about White suffragists.  We compensated for this by adding filters to our searches, for example searching for “Suffrage movement AND African American women.”  We also included many searches for the names of Black activists and organizations, such as “Sojourner Truth” and “National Association of Colored Women.”  Had we been interested in the history of White suffragists, our original query of “suffrage movement” would have sufficed.

Harriet Tubman
Photograph of Harriet Tubman. Courtesy of Digital Commonwealth and the Massachusetts Historical Society. The Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection strives to uncover materials about Black activists such as this.

These searching strategies were ultimately effective.  The Black Women’s Suffrage collection contains, for example, three times as many materials about Black suffragist Harriet Tubman as White suffragist Susan B. Anthony.  Yet, it required a good deal of effort and prior knowledge to arrive at a set of search queries that would surface a comprehensive collection of materials about Black women, and curators are engaged in an ongoing effort to maintain proportional representation as the collection grows.   Our experience shows that even when archives contain materials about Black women, if they are significantly outnumbered by materials about White people and men, users may struggle to find them.

Addressing the relative quantity of materials about Black experiences is not the only challenge we faced.  We also had to consider their quality, specifically the ways in which they represent — or misrepresent — Black individuals, communities, and experiences.  In the next post, I will discuss issues of representation in the archives, and our efforts to build a positive, Afrocentric collection.

Audrey Altman and DPLA Director of Community Engagement Shaneé Yvette Murrain will be talking more about the creation of the Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection at a DPLA Member Brown Bag on February 25th at 1 pm ET. If your institution is a DPLA member, you can register for that conversation here.

More from the Searching for Black women in the archives series

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  1. ^ Shaneé Yvette Murrain, “About,” Black Women’s Suffrage Project.
  2. ^ Brent Staples, “How the Suffrage Movement Betrayed Black Women,” The New York Times,  July 28, 2016.
  3. ^ “Interchange: Women’s Suffrage, the Nineteenth Amendment, and the Right to Vote,” Journal of American History 106, no. 3 (Dec 2019): 662–694.
  4. ^ Valethia Watkins, “Votes for Women: Race, Gender, and W.E.B. Du Bois’s Advocacy of Woman Suffrage,” Phylon 53, no. 2 (2016): 3-19.
  5. ^ Dominique Daniel, “Documenting the Immigrant and Ethnic Experience in American Archives,” The American Archivist 73, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2010): 82-104.
  6. ^ Doris Hargrett Clack, “Subject Access to African American Studies Resources in Online Catalogs: Issues and Answers,” Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 19, no. 2 (1994): 49-66.
  7. ^ Kellee E. Warren, “We Need These Bodies, But Not Their Knowledge: Black Women in the Archival Science Professions and Their Connection to the Archives of Enslaved Black Women in the French Antilles,” Library Trends 64, no. 4 (2016): 776-794.
  8. ^ Deborah Gray White, “Mining the Forgotten: Manuscript Sources for Black Women’s History,” The Journal of American History, 74, no. 1 (Jun 1987): 237-242.