(Dis)covering Race: Legal Records and the Fragmentary Histories of American Families
Saturday, January 3, 2015: 11:30 AM
Gramercy Suite B (New York Hilton)
(Disc)overing Race explores the intersections of digital history, geneaology, legal history, and computational technologies in uncovering the fragmentary histories of American families. Like oral histories and census records, legal records have long formed the archival substructure of the stories historians rely upon. Yet, legal records of the 19th century are often fragmentary---bits and pieces of the stories preserved in the official records---that must be supplemented with careful contextualization and related evidence. This paper explores the benefits and limitations of using computational approaches to categorizing, relating, and displaying these fragmentary records through an exploration of the O Say Can You See Project, an exploration of multigenerational black and white family networks in early Washington, D.C., that collects, digitizes, and analyzes over 4,000 case files from the D.C. court from 1808 to 1815. Attempting to document the relationships within and among black and white families in early D.C., the O Say Can You See Project offers novel ways to consider how we can interlink enslaved and free African Americans, as well as enslaved and white families through fragmentary records sources. This presentation focuses first on how digital tools allow us to tell multiplicities of histories that allow us to animate hidden, often fragmentary histories, of race, gender, and nineteenth century life and second on the multigenerational networks of families and their use of legal processes.
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