African Americans and the Election of 1896, Reviewing Omeka, and Stephen Berry on DH for Grad Students

Over three decades removed from emancipation, in 1896 African-Americans began to move out of virtually one-party allegiance toward the Republican Party and consider allying themselves with the Democratic Party. Why?

I am studying African-Americans’ role in the election of 1896, because I want to find out who supported William Jennings Bryan and why, in order to understand African-Americans’ relationship to populism and the Democratic Party of the 19th century.

This cartoon originated in the New York Commerical Advertiser and was run in the October 10, 1896, issue of The Richmond Planet.
This cartoon originated in the New York Commerical Advertiser and was run in the October 10, 1896, issue of The Richmond Planet.

That cartoon, on the whole, makes a lot of sense, right? African-Americans voted for Republicans in overwhelming majorities after Reconstruction, as Abraham Lincoln’s party was the one which emancipated so many of them. Pretty standard, textbook stuff.

But then we take a look at this:

An Oskaloosa, Iowa, African-American indicts the Republican Party of 1896 for failing to protect African-Americans' economic well-being.
An Oskaloosa, Iowa, African-American indicts the Republican Party of 1896 for failing to protect African-Americans’ economic well-being.

That’s…different. In particular, that man, George Taylor, argues that while only 15% of African-Americans lived (in 1896) in what he called the “Mississippi Valley,” they represented a substantial voting bloc which was fed up with policies like the gold standard and tariffs supporting the moneyed interests of the East.

So we’ve got two opposite political planks, being articulated by African-Americans, on the same subject. Why?

Well, so far I don’t know. But I’m thinking Taylor might’ve been onto something–region and occupation may well have something to do with blacks’ political preferences in the election of 1896.

The sources I’ve loaded into my Omeka page reflect those disparities and, in the coming weeks, will hopefully expand to provide a wider picture of the 1896 election. Using the Daniel Murray collection of African-American pamphlets, the Library of Congress Chronicling America project, Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, and perhaps electoral data if I can get my hands on it, I want to chart the 1896 election to show (1) where African-Americans were articulating political thoughts, (2) what those thoughts were, and (3) if there are any regional or socioeconomic factors which contributed to those thoughts.


A Brief Bibliography:

Adam, Anthony J. Black Populism in the United States: An Annotated Bibliography, Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.

Ali, Omar H. In the Balance of Power: Independent Black Politics and Third Party Movements in the United States, Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008.

Ali, Omar H. In the Lion’s Mouth: Black Populism in the New South, 1886-1900. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010.

Gaither, Gerald H. Blacks and the Populist Movement: Ballots and Bigotry in the New South. Tuscaloosa, Ala: University of Alabama Press, 2005. Second edition.

Goodwyn, Lawrence. The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Hahn, Steven. A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Harpine, William D. “Playing to the Press in McKinley’s Front Porch Campaign: The Early Weeks of a Nineteenth-Century Pseudo-Event.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 30, no. 3 (2000): 73-90. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3886055.

Ostler, Jeffrey. Prairie Populism: the Fate of Agrarian Radicalism in Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa, 1880-1892. Lawrence, Kan: University Press of Kansas, 1993.

Postel, Charles. The Populist Vision. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Sipress, Joel. “A Narrowing of Vision: Hardy L. Brian and the Fate of Louisiana Populism.” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 7, no. 1 (2008): 43-67. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25144508.

Wang, Xi. The Trial of Democracy: Black Suffrage and Northern Republicans, 1860-1910. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997.


So far I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do with Omeka. It provides a place to catalog a bunch of sources, but as an item-based content management system, I don’t think I’d be posting any of my items in my actual dissertation research to it.

Perhaps this is the tribalism I’ve felt in the world of research and academic publishing. The moment I put something out there that’s a source, someone can grab it and do their own work with it, possibly scooping me in the process. Grad school has been really good at putting “The Fear” in me that someone else will publish my research first, and because I know I’m using sources and materials that no academic has seen, touched, or possibly even known existed, I don’t want those things getting out there. Maybe the Public/Private function is reason enough to do that. I don’t know (right now in my studies) that the amount of time spent justifies the work.

The Klement Lecture

Last week at our Klement Lecture, Dr. Stephen Berry of the University of Georgia gave a talk entitled “Drinking Yourself to Death in the Grand Age of Temperance: Edgar Allan Poe and the Art of Self-Destruction.” The talk aside (which was extremely interesting), my favorite parts of visiting scholars are the opportunities the department gives graduate students for a “meet and greet.” Since Dr. Berry has done work on CSI: Dixie and Marquette is in the midst of a yearlong “Digital Humanities for evvvveryone!” kick, many of us had questions about that project and the field of Digital Humanities as a whole.

Along with his emphasis on “Form follows function” (let your research determine your need for certain aspects of DH), Dr. Berry also gave a very illuminating answer to a question about why most DH projects are a scholar’s second or–more often–third project (usually after they’ve received tenure). He noted not only a lack of literacy on the part of departments to learn what the value of a digital project is, but an academic system of publishing and producing research which often made it impractical for graduate students to actually commit to DH. While he argued that he was obviously in favor of increasing digital scholarship among graduate students, he sympathized with the difficulty faced by graduate students and junior faculty in doing DH work if it was not properly rewarded.

Of course that’s not to say any one person has the answer or that there aren’t programs which actively reward DH; more programs figuring it out and pushing it appropriately would certainly sweeten the pot for the rest of us, though.

Reviewing the Marquette Digital Scholarship Symposium

On Tuesday, September 29 Marquette hosted what organizers Janice Welburn and James Marten promised was the second of many annual Digital Scholarship Symposiums. Held in the Beaumier Suites in the basement of the Raynor Memorial Library, the interdisciplinary sessions both charted a promising future for digital scholarship and highlighted the ways in which current Marquette researchers, both faculty and students, continue to use DH in research and the classroom.

University of Virginia Research Associate Professor of Digital Humanities Bethany Nowviskie gave the first keynote address, entitled “Alternate Futures, Visible Pasts.” Dr. Nowviskie highlighted the need for digital humanists and archivists to “design platforms that break the fatalism in historical archives” and position them not as statements of what was, but what can be. Using the concepts of “time’s arrow,” “time’s accountant,” and “the Anthropocene,” she indicted the modern archive for creating and sustaining “projects of retrospect, rather than projects of prospect.” Those projects of prospect, she reasoned, would help sustain movements like “Afro-Futurism,” wherein the greatest example of agency for communities like African-Americans (especially in the context of modern protest movements) are the ability to create an individual philosophical infrastructure.

Following Nowviskie, George Mason Director of Public Projects at the Center for History and New Media and Associate Professor in the History and Art History Department Sharon Leon presented a second keynote address on “Reading Between the Lines: Inquiry-Driven Digital Scholarly Infrastructure.” Opening with a survey of digital collections focusing on the various protests of police shootings across cities like Baltimore and Cleveland, Dr. Leon called attention to her own work on the the September 11 Digital Archive. Using both the September 11 project and her own work with Omeka, Dr. Leon argued for recognition of digital tool-making as academic scholarship, because she and others were “building the platform by which others do scholarship.”

Challenging Ed Ayers’ 2013 assertion that digital scholarship “must do the work we have long expected scholarship to do: contribute, in a meaningful and enduring way, to an identifiable collective and cumulative enterprise.” Building on her discussion of Omeka, Dr. Leon asserted that this attitude was part of a “reinforcing cycle”: Scholars, instead, need to change their conception of what counts as scholarship. Instead, of merely tracing footnotes or replicating research, she argued, scholars need to come to accept “non-narrative interpretive forms” of scholarship as an “equivalent piece of material.”

Returning to Omeka, Dr. Leon noted the importance of Linked Open Data in changing the way scholarship was done. Using the example of “Subject -> Predicate -> Object,” she related how, in visualizations of slavery relationships at Georgetown, she constructed vocabularies of “Francis Nease -> Relationship:EmployerOf -> Priscilla Queen” to map in 2D space the complex social structures of plantations. The “next step” in breaking the reinforcing cycle, Dr. Leon added, was creating platforms like Omeka S which could help adding “modifiers” (prepositions, start/end dates, etc.) which would add chronological and geographical depth and breadth to the 2D model.

A faculty roundtable in which various Marquette scholars shared “Tools and Technologies for Digital Scholarship” followed. Dr. Beth Godbee highlighted the ways in which undergraduate English classes encourage adaptations in digital rhetoric. James Brust of the Wakerly Media Lab highlighted the possibilities of collaboration between humanities and the world of communications, and Elizabeth Gibes of the Digital Scholarship Lab (where I am currently embedded as an intern) noted a number of the different digital tools for the classroom like Tableau and ThingLink. Finally, Dr. James Marten and his interns presented their work on the Near West Side project, which has traced the cultural history of the neighborhood around and west of Marquette, which has incorporated a narrative style to highlighting the lives of various residents of Milwaukee in the early 1930s.

Following a panel including Drs. Nowviskie and Leon, there are a number of important takeaway points for scholars wishing to “do” digital scholarship and universities wishing to support it. On the institutional side, if universities wish to attract young scholars, their faculty will need to abandon the “reticence to do the work to learn how to evaluate the scholarship.” Similarly, digital scholars will need to learn to negotiate when they come into a department what kind of research they are expected to put out, as well as what counts. While institutions need to understand, as Dr. Leon noted, that they merely “can’t put [digital scholarship] on top” of existing research and development, especially for young scholars, those scholars also need to know that they are not learning a technology, but learning how to produce things for that technology.

To be sure, there are potential points of frustration with future generations of digital scholars. Dr. Nowviskie’s sometimes-flippant remarks about the challenges associated with archival research appear either not to appreciate the amount of training and thought put into archival collections or flagrantly disregard the vital need for responsible archivists. Given that staff of the Marquette University Archives were in attendance, the remarks were likely poorly received by some. Digital scholarship must continue to embrace a working relationship with the archive–hardly static, always evolving and changing–as a means of promoting the highest levels of research. To dismiss where scholarship has been merely to embrace the digital would be foolhardy; discussions of how to preserve and embrace the agency of marginalized communities should not reject the archive out of hand. Such characterizations serve not only to further divide the scholarly community but limit historians’ ability to tell the whole story as it happened.

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