Searching for Black women in the archives: Part 2

By Audrey Altman, February 11, 2021.
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This is the second 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. As a data engineer, Audrey worked alongside curators Shaneé Yvette Murrain and Kathleen Williams to address underlying biases in the collection and surface representative stories about Black women’s contributions to voting rights movements.

Who gets to tell their story?

In Part 1 of this series, “Missing from history,” I discussed how a legacy of racism and exclusion caused Black women to be under-represented in archival collections and historical narratives about the Suffrage Movement.  Cultural heritage materials about Black women are rarer and harder to find than those about White people and men.  Beyond issues of under-representation, misrepresentation exists in many library and archival collections.  The former erases people from history; the latter includes them but in a way that distorts the truth about their experiences and contributions.  The Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection brings together documents in which Black women speak in their own voices, an Afrocentric representation of Black women in voting rights movements.

Misrepresentation can occur when Black people’s stories are told by or through White people, thereby privileging White perspectives and allowing them to control, shape, or pervert the narrative.  In archival collections in which materials produced by White people predominate, information about Black people is often filtered through a White lens.  In order to find items to include in the collection, we searched through the Digital Public Library of America’s aggregation of over 40 million cultural heritage materials from libraries, archives, and museums across the United States.  We found many wonderful materials created by Black women suffragists and their communities, including poetry, letters, newspapers, photographs, meeting minutes, and organizing materials, all of which show the diverse and important contributions they made to voting rights movements.  We also found many documents that misrepresent Black people, including pamphlets claiming they could not be trusted with the vote, offensive caricatures, and photographs of lynchings.  These misrepresentations express racist and dehumanizing characterizations of Black people.

A newspaper feature titled, “Votes for Women: A Symposium by Leading Thinkers of Colored America.”
“Votes for Women: A Symposium by Leading Thinkers of Colored America.” A feature in the August 1915 issue of The Crisis, a monthly publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The DPLA curators strove to include materials such as this, which features the writings of several Black women suffragists. Courtesy of the Digital Library of Tennessee and the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Curator Shaneé Yvette Murrain chose to include some Eurocentric and racist materials because they provide important historical context for the struggles of Black suffragists.  For example, items like this two-sided broadside, compiled by the Southern Women’s League for the Rejection of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, presents race-based arguments against the ratification of the 19th Amendment: 

A broadside titled, “Negro woman's resolutions for enforcement of federal suffrage amendments.”
“Negro woman’s resolutions for enforcement of federal suffrage amendments.” Courtesy of the Digital Library of Tennessee, Tennessee State Library and Archives.

One side of the broadside reprints resolutions of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs from their convention in Tuskegee, Alabama in June 1920.  The other side warns of the possible passage of three bills that would compel states to enforce the 14th Amendment along with the 19th Amendment, should the latter pass.  It states that these bills would reverse the trend of the previous thirty years, in which 14th and 15th Amendments had been allowed to “rest lightly” upon the South.  It also claims that Southern manhood will defend Anglo-Saxon civilization, reject the bills, and avoid reopening the wounds of Reconstruction.  Murrain explains,

Southern Women’s League for the Rejection of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment used The National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs to words against them in an effort to undermine progress, weaponizing the narratives of those in power, specifically those of the upper-class, white population, to be authoritative. We read a commentary on white men’s perceptions of the rights of white women, Black women and their analysis on the importance of voting and possibilities afforded by women’s full participation in the political process.[1]

Materials such as these allow for rich and nuanced analysis of history, especially when they are read alongside additional documents expressing Black women’s views, thereby forming a complete picture.

Just as materials about White women need to be balanced with materials about Black women (as discussed in Part 1 of the series), negative representations of Black people must be balanced with positive, Afrocentric ones.  As Safiya Umoja Noble demonstrated, when people are looking for information online — be it in a search index like Google or a digital library like Black Women’s Suffrage — it is harmful to see dehumanizing representations of themselves and their communities dominate search results.[2] We therefore worked to maximize the number of items in the collection that give fair and authentic representation to Black women, and minimize those that did not.

Building an Afrocentric perspective into the Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection is a complex and ongoing task.  It would not be feasible for our small team of curators to individually examine each of the nearly 200,000 items currently in the collection.  While it may be tempting to hope for some computational solution, such technologies remain elusive.  Racism is an abstract, subjective, often subtle concept that is beyond the capacity of any known computer algorithm to reliably identify. 

Items are selected for inclusion in Black Women’s Suffrage by an algorithm, which finds materials in the DPLA’s collection matching certain keywords.  We maximized Afrocentric representation by searching for known Black authors, artists, activists, organizations, periodicals, and social justice movements.  Identifying and parsing misrepresentations proved difficult.  Our team found, for example, that a search for “Jim Crow,” returned relevant documents about segregationist laws and Black resistance against these laws.  It also returned documents about a racist Blackface minstrel character named “Jim Crow,” which we determined did not have enough research value in the context of Black Women’s Suffrage to justify their inclusion.  This sort of human intervention and judgment is vital to combating bias in the collection.  We are continually revising the search algorithm to either include or exclude potentially problematic materials based on the curators’ discernment.

A poster protesting Jim Crow laws.
A poster protesting Jim Crow laws. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution and the National Museum of American History. Curators determined that items like should be included in the Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection, while other items that depicted “Jim Crow” the minstrel character should not.

We recognize with humility that some materials in Black Women’s Suffrage express racist or misogynoir views.  Some are intentionally included to provide relevant historical context.  Others include descriptions that were written by archivists or librarians throughout the twentieth century, using language that may have adhered to contemporary archival practices, but that may cause offense to our users.  And still others are items that perhaps should be purged from the collection, but that we have not yet identified or found a reliable way to exclude.  We worked with DPLA’s Metadata Working Group to create a Statement on Potentially Harmful Language for the Black Women’s Suffrage website in order to be transparent, accountable and invite conversation with our users around this topic.

Misrepresentation is not always caused by a Eurocentric point of view; it also occurs when some segments of a community are given voice, while others are marginalized or ignored.  The full diversity of experience within the Black community is neither fully captured nor equally represented in archival collections. Throughout history, Black people have held diverse views about how they wished to be recorded and remembered, and differing relationships to history-making institutions.  Librarian Rabia Gibbs found that Black people with advanced educations or higher socio-economic status not only had access to archives, but were also motivated to construct a public record of Blackness that emphasized intellectual achievement and social respectability.[3]  Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), important collectors of Black history, can be “representative of a particular class and perspective; blacks who could afford a college education and/or aspired to achieve the social and economic benefits of higher education and middle-class status.”[3]  Those with less education and status were less likely to have their stories recorded and preserved in HBCUs and other archives.  

Some Black women eluded the public record because they spent their lives eluding public (and predominately White) authorities.  As historian Ashley D. Farmer explained, escaped slaves, workers in informal or illegal economies and accused criminals often only entered the public record because they ran afoul of authorities.[4]  In the context of the Suffrage Movement, it may have been more feasible for Black women of higher socio-economic status to take on the significant risks associated with openly espousing political views that challenged White male authority.  These relatively privileged women were thus more likely to be documented, archived, and ultimately remembered as suffragists. 

Representations of Black people in the Black Women’s Suffrage collection vary along lines of class, education, and social status.  Members of the social and intellectual elite and prominent activists are well-represented, including Charlotta Bass, Septima Clark, Sojourner Truth, and Fannie Lou Hamer.  Such well-known individuals are relatively easy to find by name in both historical literature and archival records.  One method for finding common or marginalized people is to look for instances in which they organized.  Our team conducted extensive research into Black voting rights movements and identified organizations such as the Freedmen’s Aid Society, which provided literacy education to Black adults and children in the South during and after the Civil War; the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which fought against racist practices designed to discourage Black people from exercising their voting rights during the 1960s; and local Black women’s clubs, which advanced many community issues including education, housing, public health, voting rights, and racial uplift.  By searching for a broad range of individuals and organizations, the Black Women’s Suffrage curators were thus able to capture diversity within the Black community.

A group of women celebrate the 1952 biennial of the National Association of Colored Women.
A group of women celebrate the 1952 biennial of the National Association of Colored Women.  Clubs like these worked to advance voting rights and other community issues. Courtesy of California Digital Library and Oakland Public Library, African American Museum and Library at Oakland.

The diverse and nuanced ways in which archivists and librarians describe and classify materials can both help and hinder the search for stories about Black women.  In the next post, I will delve deeper into our process of identifying records for inclusion in the Black Women’s Suffrage Digital 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, in discussion with the author, February 2021.
  2. ^ Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, New York: New York University Press, 2018.
  3. ^ Rabia Gibbs, “The Heart of the Matter: The Developmental History of African American Archives,” The American Archivist 75, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2012): 195-204.
  4. ^ Ashley D. Farmer, “In Search of the Black Women’s History Archive,” Modern American History 1, no. 2 (2018): 289-293.