In Catherine Fosl and Tracy E. K’Meyer’s Freedom on the Border: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky, the authors present a collection of voices that attempt to portray the wide variety of experiences of black life and activism in the mid-twentieth century. Special attention is paid to the urban/rural divide across the state, an issue that still resonates in Kentucky’s social and political milieu in 2015. Moreover, the product of cultural and economic geographies, the urban Bluegrass region provides an interesting case study of this diversity. Historically the base of Kentucky’s largest black populations, rural dislocations in the early twentieth century furthered ballooned Louisville’s African American presence. This process of change shaped particular race relations close to the falls of the Ohio River, and the binary thinking separating urban and rural spheres proves valid in assessing Kentucky’s patchwork of intolerance. Interracial relations were influenced by an intersection of Midwestern, Ohio Valley moderation and Deep South, plantation-style bigotry, producing what Fosl and K’Meyer call, using a term coined by Louisville historian George C. Wright, ‘polite racism.’
The urban geography of Louisville reflected this dichotomy. The vibrant and close-knit community of Walnut Street, later renamed Muhammad Ali, was a prosperous center of attraction for blacks. The combination of transit networks and real estate interests created what Lyman Johnson called an “unwritten rule,” shackling black businesses (read: communities) beyond a safety threshold. Johnson said that there was a “definite understanding that Negro businesses didn’t go beyond 6th Street.” The everyday cityscape for African Americans featured imposing landmarks and experiences that were ruled by codes and practices explicitly barring blacks. The old amusement park and Olmsted park system are two of the most glaring examples of bigoted eyesores dotting the urban grid. The ‘polite’ part of the character of Louisville’s racial harmony was constituted by honest and token experiences of inclusion that also come through in the narratives; however, the deep humiliation of separate spheres — permeating aspects of life such as food, education, and even prostitution — remains dominant in the oral histories of black activists.
The great historian of the American South and early convert to Digital History, Edward Ayers, argued that while social movements generated a democratization of academic History’s subject matter, it did not produce a democratization of the audience or consumers of this strain of scholarship. While women, blacks, latinos, the gay and transgender, the environment, and other democratic subjectivities entered the historiography, the make-up of the readership of academic books and journals, powerful conveyors of arguments about their past, remained static (read: elitist). The voice that many of these groups had in this new wave of scholarship was only that which the publishing historian wished or managed to hear. The production process remained exclusive and clouded in mystique, thus, some narratives produced since then have been found inadequate. In part six of the collection of essays, Writing History in the Digital Age, the authors address this problem and offer scenarios of bilateral creative processes applied to the historical craft.
Rosales Castaneda’s piece titled “Writing Chicano History with the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project,” details the history of the latter public/digital history website (http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/). The site’s grand scope is not the emphasis of his piece, but the elevated stage that it provided for the production and consumption of Latino narratives embedded in larger struggles for social and racial justice. This case study sheds light on the way that public history, in this case expressed in a symbiotic relation with digital resources, reshapes and is reshaped by academic history. This isolated part of the larger SCRLHP website filled a gap in the urban latino experience historiography, and added to the vast literature in the humanities and social sciences dealing with “borderlands” and society due to Seattle’s unique geographic conditions.
Graham et al. in their piece on the “The HeritageCrowd Project: A Case Study in Crowdsourcing Public History” detail another attempt to address Ayers’s concern which took place in rural Canada. The HeritageCrowd project is interesting because it does not embrace the latest technologies just because, but rather looks at the material conditions of the community of interest, and factors in the inequalities in literacy and access. The input of the community was actively sought, and was considered to be the lifeblood of the project. However, the authors speak to the difficulty of getting the ball rolling with this crowdsourcing efforts, and recommend that public/digital historians perform “retroactive crowdsourcing” before turning to the community. “Retroactive crowsourcing” seems to be just a byword for doing traditional historical research of existing sources and formulating specific questions, and then structure your inquiry around these questions. It seems that the historical community is working to address Ayers’s concerns about elitism and History, but the solution is still in the process of trial and error.
In the first part of the collection of essays, Writing History in the Digital Age, authors explore the impact that digitalization has had on two of the most fundamental traits of history as scholarship: argument and narrative. Sherman Dorm makes the case for digitalization being one of the biggest challenges for 20th century historiography, alongside methodological and philosophical curents such as quantitative history and post-modernism. However, the outcomes of this latest challenge remains uncertain. Is digital history at its best when acting as a new medium of dissemination of the traditional historical monograph? Or is it at its best when it embodies a paradigm shift that could potentially revolutionize academic AND public history?
Stefan Tanaka’s piece on the role of narrative in digital history provides a historical context to understand the rationale and implications of ideas of universal time for understandings of the past. Tanaka calls attention to the origins of the ‘modern literary system,’ shaped by the assemblage of knowledge authority, libraries, universities, institutions, and licensing. This literary system was is based on the ‘gatekeeper,’ a remnant of its elitist past. This literary system was founded on the paradigm of information scarcity and on Leopold Von Ranke’s linear, hegelian, and eurocentric conception of linear time. The democratization of knowledge, political power, and institutions that is embodied in the digital tools of the 21st century can have monumental implications for the historical thinking inherited from Von Ranke.