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What if …?

A not-so-short history of the idea behind the Locating Slavery’s Legacies database.

The story starts in the virtual universe of Linked Open Data, where everything is – or can be – linked, aggregated, integrated, and shared, as represented by this image of the Linked Open Data Cloud, an edited copy of that produced by

How did the Locating Slavery’s Legacies database get started?

Prepare yourself for a bit of a long story.

The point of origin for the database is easily located. It was in a crowded conference room on the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville around midday, as I recall, on March 6, 2020. After that hour of time and for the rest of the day, there were only two things I could think about.

One, it goes without saying, was the coronavirus. Everyone at the conference was worried-not worried, nervously cracking jokes, and sitting too closely together. Only a few days later, over spring break, my campus, the University of the South, would shut down like most others and shift to remote instruction, and we, like everyone else for the nine or more months ahead, would be groping in the pandemic wilderness, searching for masks, redesigning syllabi, shaking our fists at Zoom, living mostly in isolation, and walking a lot.

The other thing preoccupying my attention on that day, though, is not so obvious or threatening.

I was obsessing about Linked Open Data, which people in the know call “LOD” (ell-oh-dee).

On that March Friday, only days before the drawbridges were raised against COVID-19, I was attending the Universities Studying Slavery meeting at UVA. Aside from the anxious talk about the virus, what I remember best about it was a series of sessions on Friday: an inspiring talk by genealogist Kenyatta Berry, host of the PBS series Genealogy Roadshow, about the gargantuan challenges of tracing the pre-emancipation family histories of enslaved people; the historian of slavery Ed Baptist and software engineer Brandon Kowalski, both from Cornell, presenting on the crowd-sourced “Freedom on the Move: Freedom’s Loom” database, which collects information from “runaway slave” ads to document the lives of fugitives from bondage.

But the talk that set my hair on fire, as I have described it ever since, was about LOD, a term I had never encountered before that moment on March 5th, when Dr. Sharon Leon, then of George Mason University’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, explained its meaning and implications to the room.

Had I missed that session because I had quite sensibly decided to head home because the virus was an immediate threat, it is almost certain the LSLdb would never have come to pass.

What is LOD?

Google “Linked Open Data” and you will get a definition that is no help at all if you do not come from a world in which the word “metadata” occurs naturally in conversations. Here is Wikipedia’s: “In computing, linked data is structured data which is interlinked with other data so it becomes more useful through semantic queries.” That of the Digital Humanities Workbench at the University of Amsterdam is an improvement: “Linked Data is a way of publishing structured data so that they can be interlinked, and be processed by computer programs. This technology enables the connection and sharing of data from different (re)sources and makes it possible to formulate semantic queries that will yield richer information than traditional database searches or internet searches would do.” When you perform a Google search of “LOD,” you set off a chain of semantic interactions as Google tries to understand your query and match your search words with the words in the universe of websites. (And metadata, by the way, are sets of data containing information about other sets of data, like a library catalogue entry.)

I do not come from the linguistic world of information technology, so allow me to try to put LOD into my own practical words. First, LOD refers to “open data,” meaning its contents are accessible to the public, not restricted or proprietary. The linking part happens because the information in an electronic virtual database is entered into it in a precisely structured way. If everyone follows the prescribed rules and makes their data “open,” then you have a foundation for different bodies of information to communicate with other bodies of information. They can be linked (open data).

For an example of the advantages of LOD, the Digital Humanities Workshop points to “the field of cultural heritage,” in which “many museums and data archives provide online access to their collections and data. In the last decade many of these institutions have embarked on projects to provide their datasets as Linked Data, in order to achieve easy cross-referencing, interlinking and integration. Thus, LOD for cultural heritage and digital humanities enable large-scale digital humanities research, collaboration and aggregation.” (Keep these words in boldface in mind.) Digital collections using LOD can talk to, understand, and collaborate with each other. They speak and use the same language, which means we can use or analyze the contents across institutional, geographic, or language walls. (If you are still confused, this entertaining video may help.)

By the spring of 2020 I had been attending the twice-annual meetings of Universities Studying Slavery for nearly four years. These friendly and collegial gatherings are enormously helpful. You learn how other universities and colleges are investigating their historic connections or investments in slavery, and I get to share what the Roberson Project is doing at Sewanee. And I have made professional friendships with innovative thinkers across the Eastern United States. With so much in common among the participants, the potential for collaboration seemed obvious to me and obviously needed. But at the end of each meeting, the consortium of institutions broke up. Each of us returned to our respective campuses and continued our campus-based projects, producing information and insight that we focused on campus users and stored in campus silos. I was dissatisfied with the fragmentation of the movement studying and reckoning with higher education’s role in the global slave trade. I was looking for a way to mobilize collaboration, pool resources, and activate relationships, especially among the people working at under-resourced and teaching-focused colleges like Sewanee.

And so this challenge was grinding away in my mind when I heard Dr. Leon’s presentation on LOD. Brilliant rays of sunshine broke through my clouded brain.

Today Dr. Sharon Leon is an Associate Professor of History and Digital Humanities at Michigan State University, but we at the Roberson Project came to know and work with her in her capacity as the Director of Omeka, the web-publishing platform that she and others have developed. The latest Omeka platform – called Omeka S – utilizes LOD to connect hitherto disconnected digital collections or resources. It enables teams of researchers at different institutions to share their information by creating an interconnected database. Dr. Leon explained the application advantages of LOD by pointing to, a massive database project on “Peoples of the Historical Slave Trade.” The designers of describe it as a “discovery hub” that connects information from 27 or more separate databases. Scholars, genealogists, or anyone else may search across all these sites for information about people caught in the global slave trade. As explained on the website, “ has built a linked open data platform that makes available thousands of records of People, Events, Places, and Sources that span slavery in North and South America, Africa, and Western Europe, from the early fifteenth century to final slave emancipation in Brazil, in 1888.”

Dr. Sharon Leon, Associate Professor of History and Digital Humanities, Michigan State University

Understanding some, if not all that Dr. Leon was saying, I glimpsed a mechanism or way to build the collaborative research partnerships and inter-campus relationships I was wishing for. What if we created a collaborative database that enabled “large-scale digital humanities research, collaboration and aggregation”? My hair, as I said, was on fire.

What if …?

COVID understandably hogged all my attention when I returned to Sewanee. It took me a good month to email Dr. Leon. After introducing myself and apologizing for not doing so in Charlottesville, I made my pitch:

I am interested in pursuing and developing ways to contribute the data we are gathering as we research our college’s entanglements with slavery to a project like Enslaved … Your talk on LOD and the work you have done convinced me that we must find a way to put our data to work in ways that transcend the confines of our own campus. Is there a way that we could develop a relationship with a project like Enslaved so that we can convert and transfer our research into LOD form to your project?

I ask this question also because we are interested in formally building partnerships with other small colleges in the Southeast who either have similar investigations going on at their campuses or are wishing to launch such investigations. It seems critical to us that we fight against the “silo” effect of gathering and holding this information for ourselves.

That also is important if we wish to do more than focus on our own institutional histories for their own sakes and contemplate ways that we can contribute to repairing the damaging legacies of slavery through the work we pursue. In other words, as we colleges work together, we need to go beyond the usual sharing syllabi and presentations on our research. We need to develop ways to aggregate and share our data. Continuing to work as independents would constitute a missed opportunity, or so it seems to me.

At the time I had an idea for a database inspired by Kenyatta Berry’s USS presentation. She had described the great difficulty of finding documentation on enslaved persons and making that information publicly accessible. The information most widely used by genealogists today, the U.S. Census data, listed enslaved persons only by sex and age in 1850 and 1860. No names were included, which made the Census virtually useless for research on actual enslaved people and their descendants. But there are other, harder to reach sources of value. I knew that our Roberson Project research was frequently turning up probate records of estate inventories that listed much more valuable information: the names, ages, and assessed value of the deceased owner’s enslaved property. What if we could mobilize college students at Sewanee and other institutions across the South to comb through county archives to find such inventories and then enter that information as LOD on a database that could feed into

Dr. Leon’s friendly response several days later was encouraging, offering several angles from which to develop this idea and accepting my invitation to give a presentation in Sewanee “if,” she said, “we’re ever allowed to travel again.”

Ten months later I responded to her email.

Of course, COVID was to blame for the delay. In addition to everything else associated with the pandemic, the departure of the Roberson Project researcher combined with a university-wide hiring freeze at Sewanee pared the staff down to one person: me. Almost all plans, no matter how promising, were shelved as we went to class wearing masks, taught outdoors in tents, avoided indoor contact, and awaited the promised vaccines.

My delinquent email in February 2021 began with an apology – “I never imagined last spring that …” – but continued with a different “What if …?”

We at the Roberson Project had not been idle during the pandemic shutdown. In fact, we had pursued and won a major grant from the Council of Independent Colleges and Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. The “Legacies of American Slavery” grant, which will surpass $250,000 in value when it ends a year from now, designated Sewanee as a regional hub for developing programs about “Commemoration and Memory” in relation to the Civil War, slavery, and the post-bellum Lost Cause campaign to redefine and celebrate the Confederacy as a heroic defense of truly American rights and beliefs.

In designing our grant application, we came up with a new idea for inter-campus collaboration using LOD. As my email to Dr. Leon explained, we wanted

to build an Inter-Campus Memorials Project – a digital humanities initiative to inventory and map campus memorials to slavery/Confederacy/Lost Cause as well as “emancipationist” memorials that opposed the legacies of slavery. This initiative aims to stimulate faculty-student collaborative projects or even courses that investigate the respective collegiate landscapes for such memorials…

The digital humanities database, using LOD architecture and tools, would aggregate and analyze individual campus data about Lost Cause memorials. “This sharing approach to data collection,” I argued,

can expand what we know about colleges’ memorializing practices, enable comparison of private and public commemorations, produce a website for public outreach, and, we hope, deepen the sense of organic partnership among participating schools. It also should be comparatively cheap to institute on individual campuses, requiring no large capital outlay or investment on the front end except on our campus, where we would build and maintain the IT infrastructure.

Similar databases already existed, I wrote, but they underserve college campuses and overlook the need to examine the specific cultural and social influences of these spaces. “In our view,” I continued,

collecting this data and sharing it could enable us to measure just what role campus memorials played in the Lost Cause projects, and analysis could reveal patterns, themes, or discontinuities that would enable us to understand better [the] role of higher ed in the infrastructure of the Lost Cause.

A month later, on March 5, 2021, the Roberson Project team – public historian Dr. Tiffany Momon, digital humanities specialist Dr. Hannah Huber, and me – met by Zoom with Dr. Leon and Ken Albers, a designer and developer with Omeka, to talk about building a Locating Slavery’s Legacies database.

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