Stephen Hanna an E. Fariss Hodder discuss “Reading the Signs: Using a Qualitative Geographic Information System to Examine the Commemoration of Slavery and Emancipation on Historical Markers in Fredericksburg, Virginia.” in the latest issue of Cultural Geographies (July 1, 2015).
Until recently, narratives of slavery and emancipation have been absent from, or at best marginalized within, landscapes designed to commemorate colonial, antebellum, and Civil War history in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and most other places within the United States. As many scholars, journalists, and activists argue, the erasure of slavery, Jim Crow era segregation, and other race-based discrimination from national understandings of United States’ history continues to have a large and negative impact on efforts to understand and redress racial inequality. In this article, we argue that historical markers and monuments, as both elements within and interpretations of Fredericksburg’s commemorative landscape can be used to assess the extent to which slavery and emancipation have been integrated into the town’s collective memory. Since the locations as well as the content of these markers determine which past narratives are central and which are marginal, we use a qualitative Geographic Information System to perform content and discourse analyses on markers selected by their topics and locations. This approach enables us to critically examine both the presences and absences of slavery and emancipation in Fredericksburg’s commemorative landscape.
Hanna and Hodder analyzed 277 “wayside exhibits, plaques, and other historical markers contain text, photographs, maps, and additional artwork.” using ArcGIS. The result was a qualitative and quantitative study of how slavery was being commemorated and integrated into the historical landscape of Fredericksburg, VA. Hanna and Hodder studied the distance between markers, their distance from popular historic tours and sites, the number of words on each marker, the number of times keywords like “slavery” or “bondage” appeared across markers, and the kind of historical data displayed (photos, quotes from actual slave narratives, general description, size and shape).
The authors concluded slavery was underrepresented in historic commemoration in Fredericksburg and, where represented, the experience of local slaves and free people of color continued to be absent. Of 277 markers, 117 interpret Civil War battles and another 25 interpret the Civil War in general. But only 16 markers commemorated or dealt with slavery and emancipation.
More conclusions were drawn (it is a very interesting article!) but two things really stood out to me. One was the important role the National Park Service played in building historical markers specific to slavery in Fredericksburg, VA. Of the 16 markers dealing with slavery, 10 were placed by NPS. Most of the markers were also very recent (11/16) as of 2005. (#HurricaneKatrinaEffect?)
Second was the low word count the slavery markers displayed as a whole. Between 277 markers, almost 39,000 words of text were used. Only 54 of those words were used on slavery markers or were devoted to the topic of slavery or emancipation, and they compared this number to the number of times Robert E. Lee was mentioned (95).
Most of all, I very much enjoyed how Hanna and Hoder used GIS as a tool to ask quantitative and qualitative questions about how slavery is remembered. It is one thing to plot commemorative sites on a map but it is another to imagine ways of analyzing historical silences using distance, tour routes, word count, and more. It requires, as all history does–and all digital humanities research–a deep understanding of historical context, what is in the archive, and lived sense of a place in its present-day moment.
I’d love to see a similar study for New Orleans.