Working with the Oral Histories Present in the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project Collection: “Always Be My Home” StoryMap

Oral histories provide us with a direct window to the past – interviews with people that provide not only historical context and information, but also personal details and stories. They show how history is not just a series of events, but the real lived experience of everyday people. Oral histories can be revelatory, sad, empowering, and even just plain funny. Giving people free reign to talk about their lives gives us the chance to examine the details – the facts that often get left behind. What I wanted to do was provide  a method for visualizing a few of the stories that were told in the oral histories that the Community-Driven Archives team of the University Libraries at UNC-Chapel Hill had the privilege of archiving throughout our time working with the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project (EKAAMP).

Throughout my time working with the EKAAMP oral history collection, I reviewed transcripts and read through the words of Black former coal mining communities from eastern Kentucky that Dr. Karida Brown collected in collaboration with EKAAMP members. I was consistently drawn to the stories of the women. Their experiences – their drive throughout the Second Great Migration and beyond; their stories of working, having fun, falling in love – reading about the lives of these women really was breathtaking. Their lives, even down to the most mundane moments, were so rich and full of warmth. I wanted to find a way to show their experiences in historical context, to show just how far so many of these women went in their lives during a time where so many things were stacked against them. That’s how I decided to start the “Always Will Be My Home” StoryMap project.

Selecting Stories

To start this project, I selected several stories from the oral history collection. I started by narrowing down the stories just to the women in the collection. Then, after a primary review of these interview transcripts, I pulled out the transcripts of the women who had moved away from the Kentucky area at some point in their lives, whether on their own or with their families.

Since I had chosen the Second Great Migration period as the timeframe for my project – a time period following the second World War in which many African American families moved from the American South to the Northeast, Midwest, and West – I was able to further narrow down the list of women to those who had made that journey. I had a pretty short list by this time, and I selected four amazing women whose stories ranged across many experiences – moving with their family for work, moving on their own but returning to Kentucky frequently throughout their lives, reuniting with community and family who had already moved, and more.

However, after selecting these stories, I felt I had limited the field. I wanted to show that Black women during these times led rich lives, but not all rich lives had to be contextualized by a move away from the South or by Southern culture and Black Southern experiences. Ultimately, I chose to add the story of a woman who moved to St. Louis, Missouri with her husband during the industrialization period.

Of course, I still feel sad that I couldn’t include the experiences of so many other women in the collection. But the purpose of this project was to highlight a few women’s stories and show the visual storytelling possibilities that oral history collections can provide.

Using StoryMaps

I had heard of and learned how to use ArcGIS’s mapping software before, but it didn’t provide me with a way to portray the stories and visuals that I wanted to add to the oral histories I had selected. Thankfully, Kimber Thomas, Postdoctoral Fellow at the University Libraries, showed me how a tool created by ArcGIS, StoryMaps, could be used to create a flowing story post using maps that could be created quickly and easily to illustrate the journeys of the selected oral history narrators.

A map of the U.S. Northeast and part of the South reading, "Viola Brown's Journey," featuring map points in southern Virginia, eastern Kentucky, New York City, New York, and Cleveland, Ohio, with lines drawn between them to indicate movement. The point over Cleveland features a small, blurred graphic
StoryMap featuring EKAAMP oral history narrator Viola Brown’s life journey during the Second Great Migration era. Courtesy Lidia Morris

Entries can be created like the one featured above, to allow for a map to be seen alongside selected text. When a reader clicks into the map, each point in the map can have images, text, and links added in to give geographical, historical, and personal information based on each location.

Creating these maps is fairly intuitive – the tool gives you a short tutorial, and everything can be customized – from the color of the lines and pins, to the type of map itself. And StoryMaps even provides examples of other stories that have been created using the tool to give you ideas. Videos, text posts, slideshows, and images or other visualizations can also be embedded throughout the story. Of course, more detailed or complicated map visualizations created in ArcGIS can also be embedded and are even more interactive or illustrative. But the ease of using the simpler maps for this project suited me and my needs well!

Research

Part of the experience of working on this project was research – I wanted to add historical context to many of the stories I was gathering. My sources ranged from other historical collections in libraries and universities, as well as books written about the Second Great Migration and Black communities in the United States. So many of the oral history subjects had their lives coincide with major social movements and events. Hearing about how people lived their lives during these huge events, lived them like it was just any other day, helps to contextualize life today. It’s hard to recognize in the moment, when you’re a young person going through daily life, that what you’re living through is going to change the course of history.

For example, one of the subjects, Yvonne McCaskill, marched with civil rights activist Father James Groppi, who worked to desegregate schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For her, this was just an action she took as a young girl. She understood the importance of the event at the time because it was important to her and to her community – this was an event she had to join for her rights, not one she believed would become historically important. The urgency of this event in the moment was extremely personal. Seeing the personal side of history is just one of the things that working with oral history can really show people.

Reflection

Though my project changed many times and went through many iterations throughout the past year, I was ultimately able to do what I set out to do – to help people see and learn about the larger context of a few of the amazing stories available in the EKAAMP oral history collection. These story maps, together, create a narrative that underscores the connection of history and humanity. They are just one way to explore how oral histories can be used to guide people through the lives of others. Oral histories don’t just share context, but also perspective, joy, and depth.

Community Archives as Data: Reflections on Oral History Text Analysis within the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project Archive

Between September 2020 and January 2021, I worked on an EBSCO-funded internship administered through the Association of Research Libraries focused on a Python text analysis project on oral history interview transcripts. I worked with the Community-Driven Archives team, which partnered with communities across the American South to amplify histories that have been silenced or marginalized in traditional archives. The purpose of this project was to explore the possibility of using computational methods on oral history data. I was interested in exploring how computational methods can build upon digitization, in which historical records are searchable on the web, to make community archives more accessible to their respective communities.

My project focused on oral histories created by the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project (EKAAMP), a public history and community archival project centered on the stories of Black former coal mining families in Eastern Kentucky. The Community-Driven Archives team collaborated with EKAAMP to support the creation of its collection, some of which is housed in the Southern Historical Collection at University Libraries at UNC-Chapel Hill, along with a series of traveling exhibitions. EKAAMP honors the place of Black Americans in Appalachia.

Learning Text Analysis in Python

Python is a powerful programming language. Aside from its extensive use in software and web development, Python is also widely used in computing and applying computational methods to humanities and social sciences data because of its powerful data modeling libraries and natural language processing algorithms. One such application is text analysis, where a body of textual data is processed and analyzed. When done well, text analysis can reveal patterns in topics and sentiments in large quantities of textual data.

I started this project being very new to the world of text analysis and to Python as a programming language. I used a variety of resources in my self-directed and explorative learning process, both on Python and on text analysis methodologies. Here are some of the resources that guided my project and helped me respond to challenges along the way:

I found the following text analysis projects and papers informative and relevant to this project:

I learned that most resources and available projects utilizing text analysis deal with bodies of text that are different than oral histories, both in content and structure. For instance, the conversational format of the interview transcripts meant that the more common text analysis techniques that are used on other kinds of texts will not yield meaningful results. Based on what I learned in my research, I explored two main text analysis methods, including Term Frequency-Inverse Document Frequency (TF-IDF) and Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA), to categorize main topics discussed in the interviews.

My preliminary results yielded by the LDA methods aligned with the main topics covered in EKAAMP and Dr. Karida Brown’s research related to these histories. Some of the main topics that emerged in the text analysis results were: family reunions, school integration, and mining accidents.

Archives as Data: Computational Methods for Community Archives

In support of the larger work of the Community-Driven Archives project, I wanted to explore the research value of archival collections, such as oral history transcripts, as data that can be analyzed and visualized through computational methods. My goal was to gain deeper insight into these histories through text analysis, an automated process for gaining insight into a large collection of oral history interviews by mapping common topics and visualizing patterns in conversations. Such computational techniques would then be used to extract a variety of data about the collection as a whole and about individual interviews. This would support community researchers’ discovery and identification of these histories.

This model can then be built upon and implemented in the future for metadata generation for collections with similar size and scope. High quality metadata that provides descriptive information about an oral history collection not only facilitates better discovery and identification, but also creates exciting possibilities for presenting and analyzing the research data, such as data visualization of migration paths among Black former coal mining families represented in EKAAMP oral histories.

Perhaps this project can serve as an example of using computational tools and techniques for unlocking data and gaining insight into large oral history collections. Community leaders in charge of similar public history projects can use such tools to reimagine discovery, management, and description of their oral history archives.

I am in the final phases of developing a website to open source my code for the public to use and build upon. The website will include a brief collection description, as well as a brief discussion of challenges and snippets of Python code to run on an internet browser.

Data analysis methods and techniques can transform large quantities of non-machine-readable content, such as oral histories, into machine readable content. This transformation would enable community leaders to enhance their archives by creating robust research data sets for computational research. The new data would then allow community researchers to present, visualize, and analyze oral histories in new and dynamic ways.

2019 BlackCom Challenge: Community Driven Archives Team edition 

I don’t know how many of you have been a part of a grant funded project but we here on the Community Driven Archives Team can attest to how stressful it can be. We’ve got relationships, timelines, and deliverables to manage and sometimes it can be hard to find time to talk about the value of this work and how it is impacting us as individuals. We were grateful for the friendly challenge from the Black Communities social media team in the lead up to the conference this fall. 

Graphic for Promote Black Communities Challenge

    

All four of our pilot communities have ties to African American communities so this challenge was right in our wheelhouse. What follows is some information about who we are and why we chose to represent Black Communities in this way. 

Who: Chaitra Powell, Project Director 

Why: I chose to make my piece about Lil Nas X for a few reasons. I love the way that the music video for his single, Old Town Road, visually references Black cowboys. These cowboys are the Buffalo Soldiers and homesteaders that founded Black towns in the Western States which are related to our work in Historic Black Towns and Settlements. Lil Nas X’s identity is the perfect example of how Black communities are not monolithic and even if we must talk about ourselves in aggregates to fight systemic inequalities, we can’t erase the experiences of the individual, especially young people. Lastly, the controversy around his genre-defying hit single is a reminder to deny the myth of a post-race society and see how race is still being used to exclude people from membership and resources. 

Link to Chaitra’s video

Who: Sonoe Nakasone, Community Archivist 

Why: I wanted to highlight the role archives can play in sharing the rich history and stories of Black communities that have often been excluded from textbooks and prominent institutions.  Archives can also empower those communities to share their history in their own voice. 

Link to Sonoe’s video

A large black dove shape with three poems written on its body, on a blue background
Three Haiku poems inspired by work in Black Communities, written by Sonoe Nakasone
3 "word poems" written over 9 bright colored hands
Three “word poems” inspired by work in Black Communities written by Sonoe Nakasone

Who: Bernetiae ReedProject Documentarian and Oral Historian 

Why: Here was an opportunity to tell about the Community-Driven Archives grant by showcasing the four focal groups of the grant: HBTSA (Historic Black Towns and Settlement Alliances), ASHC (Appalachian Student Health Coalition), EKAAMP (Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project), and SAAACAM (San Antonio African American Community Archives and Museum). Video clips from events and places were used to provide content and serve as reminders of the importance of our work. 

Link to Bernetiae’s video

Who: Lindsey TerrellGraduate Student  

Why: One of the first things I was able to do on this grant is to travel and meet with the residents of Princeville, North Carolina for an Archivist in a Backpack training. Flood-prone Princeville was impacted heavily by Hurricanes Floyd & Matthew and although the residents have suffered immense loss, they have remained resilient and eager to tell their stories in hopes that it will effect positive change. One of the residents we had the pleasure of engaging with that day was Milton “The Golden Platter” Bullock, former member of The Platters. In highlighting this lovely performance by Mr. Bullock, I wanted to show how these communities have been finding and sharing joy even throughout ongoing trials. 

Link to Lindsey’s video

Who: Leah Epting, Graduate Student 

Why: It’s always been said that that to “put it on the map” is to make something known, to say that it’s important. I get a little misty every time I work on this project for SAAACAM and see all the names and places important to Black History appearing on the map of San Antonio. So I wanted to try and communicate that feeling.  

Link to Leah’s video

I am extremely grateful to all my team members who took this assignment seriously and stretched their comfort levels to share an authentic part of their interpretations of this work. In the best-case community driven archive scenario, institutions will change communities for the better and communities will change institutions for the better – this exercise demonstrates that we are well on our way. 

So What’s a CDAT Anyway? Meet the Community-Driven Archives Team at the Southern Historical Collection

What are community-driven archives all about?

In October 2017, the Southern Historical Collection celebrated the complete staffing of our “Building A Model For All Users: Transforming Archive Collections Through Community-Driven Archives” Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant team. In recent months, we have launched the initial steps of supporting community-driven archives initiatives and programs through our Community-Driven Archives Team (CDAT).  There are many models for community-driven archives; the upshot of ours is that we want to form meaningful, mutually supportive partnerships to build and preserve community archival collections. We provide communities with the tools and resources to safeguard and represent their own histories. And we want you to be able to CDAT, too!

This community-based approach extends to how we do our work as a team – working together proactively to tease out tricky issues and create accessible and approachable documentation. Our method for creating and publishing content such as presentations, handouts, media, peer-reviewed publications, social media content, and yes, even this blog, is all about collaborative peer-editing.

Our grant prioritizes collaboration, and owes much to the research of Michelle Caswell, Bergis Jules, and many others who have theorized and brought to life the idea of inclusive, representative, empowered archival practice. Community archives models and community-driven archival practice address the “symbolic annihilation” of historically marginalized groups in the historical record, and aim to create sustainable and accessible memory projects that address these archival absences.

Continue reading “So What’s a CDAT Anyway? Meet the Community-Driven Archives Team at the Southern Historical Collection”

Presenting “Gone Home: Race and Roots through Appalachia”

Intro PanelOver the last few years the SHC has been collaborating with Karida Brown (Ph.D. candidate at Brown University) and many Appalachian families on the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project (EKAAMP), which documents peoples’ lives in eastern Kentucky and their tale of migration into and out of the communities there. The wonderful stories shared by the endlessly generous people who grew up in these small towns inspired the creation of Gone Home: Race and Roots through Appalachia–an exhibit hosted in Wilson Library’s Melba Saltarelli Exhibit Room.
The exhibit explores an often forgotten part of American History. It shares part of the story of the Great Migration of African Americans out of the Deep South and into coal mines of Appalachia. After the mining industry collapsed, the people who grew up there left again. The exhibit explores what home means to a community that sometimes spent only one generation in Appalachian America.
 
The exhibit opens on Monday, and we hope that during its life you’ll come to share our enthusiasm for these stories. You can learn more about EKAAMP on its website, and we hope to see you here between April 27th and July 31st 2015.

Staff profile: Biff Hollingsworth, Collecting and Outreach Archivist

[As we look to “reboot” the Southern Sources blog this semester, we plan to focus some attention on the people who make the wheels of the Southern Historical Collection turn: our wonderful staff, students, volunteers, donors, and SHC champions. We hope this series of profiles will give a human face to our work, especially since we have so many new faces on our team. Today we are featuring Biff Hollingsworth, Collecting and Outreach Archivist for the Southern Historical Collection.] 

biff_cropped
Biff Hollingsworth, Collecting and Outreach Archivist, Southern Historical Collection

What do you for the Southern Historical Collection?

I would say I’m kind of the “utility infielder” for the Collection. Depending on the day, I might be involved in any number of collection management activities: meeting with donors to discuss new materials for the collection, performing on-site reviews of materials being offered to the Collection to determine whether or not they fit within our scope, processing gifts, and working with other library departments to solve collection issues that come up each day (from mold and critter abatement to handling special shipping and receiving requests). I am also responsible for a few outreach duties: I curate onsite and online exhibitions, I develop programs, workshops, and tours, and I co-manage our social media efforts.

How did you get into this line of work?

My journey to the archival profession has been full of switchbacks and detours, as I’ve held various jobs in my life, from managing a small immigration law office, to teaching Spanish classes, to working as an electrician and delivering pizzas to pay my way through college. But, I first had the idea of becoming a librarian during a 2004 stint as a volunteer at a public library in my hometown of Atlanta. So, I moved to North Carolina in 2005 and was accepted into the School of Information and Library Science program at Carolina. I joined the Southern Historical Collection in the fall of 2006 as a graduate assistant. Later, in 2008, I was hired into my current professional position with the SHC, and I’ve been here ever since.

A briefcase full of documents that had been stored in the cellar of a historic home in Yanceyville, N.C.
A briefcase full of books and documents that had been stored in the cellar of a historic home in Yanceyville, N.C.

What do you like about your job?

As I mentioned, I am involved in the day-to-day work to acquire new material for the Collection. Most of the time, this happens by way of a donation being brought in to the library for our consideration. Other times, our staff travels to do onsite reviews of possible new acquisitions. The most fulfilling part of my job is the sort of archaeology of it, getting to unearth materials that have long been stored in attics, closets, crawlspaces and storage units.

Also, like all archivists, I enjoy learning about the context behind the collections that we acquire. I work directly with the creators of these records, or with their descendants or relatives, and so I’m responsible for listening and recording as much as I can about their lives and experiences. This as an extremely important part of my job because this context will impact what kind of arrangement and description we give to the collection, which can translate to the level of accessibility (or searchability) of each collection for our researchers.

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[Right to left]: Biff Hollingsworth working with Rev. Edgar J. Moss (community photographer who recently donated his collection to the SHC), and Karida Brown (founder of the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project).
What are you working on right now?  What are some new and exciting projects on the horizon?

We are very proud of the work we have been doing on a new project called the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project (EKAAMP), a community-driven archival and digital humanities project aimed at documenting the lives of African American coal miners and their families in Harlan County, Kentucky, as well as the story of the intergenerational migration of members of this community into and out of the Appalachian region during the 20th century. This is an exciting project because it allows us to work with a community that has been historically underrepresented in the archival record, and because it has truly been a cooperative effort among the SHC, our fantastic partner Karida Brown (sociologist at Brown University, Harlan County native, and EKAAMP founder), and with many wonderful individuals who have been donating their stories and archival collections to EKAAMP and the SHC. I have really been inspired by the generosity of everyone involved in this project and I’m proud of what we are building together. So far, Karida Brown has recorded several hundred oral history interviews with members of the community and we have archived these recordings alongside collections of photographs, organizational records, and family papers. We hope you’ll follow our progress on the EKAAMP project website (ekaamp.web.unc.edu).

I am glad I could take a few moments to introduce myself and share some of the work that I have been doing with the Southern Historical Collection. I’m looking forward to writing more about the new collections that we acquire, the projects and programs that we develop, and the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead as we seek to broaden the understanding of the history and culture of the American South.