Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, and the Maps of American Racism

Head and shoulders portrait of Ida B. Wells, based on a photograph. She's facing right, hair swept up in a bun, a stern expression on her face

Ida B. Wells, the investigative journalist and activist from Mississippi. Illustration from “The Afro-American Press and Its Editors,” 1891. Prints and Photographs Division.

Ida B. Wells was 30 years old in 1892, living in Memphis and working as a newspaper editor, when a mob lynched one of her friends.

Distraught, the pioneering journalist set out to document the stories of lynching victims and disprove a commonly asserted justification — that the murders were a response to rape. Wells’ own friend was killed after a dispute over a marble game.

Wells is renowned for her fiery writing and for her precise reporting that now is recognized as trailblazing: She won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for destroying the myth about rape and lynching and for her reporting generally on racist violence. She is not known, however, for her contributions to demographics.

Yet, she compiled extensive place-based statistics on lynching deaths, mostly from newspaper reports. This summer, two interns injunior fellows progmam  in the Geography and Map Division mined Wells’ numbers using geospatial tools and combined them in a StoryMap with historical cartography, 20th-century redlining maps and census data to offer insights of racial injustice, from the legally systemic to incidents of violent terrorism.

“Often, maps reflect our history in deep and profound ways, allowing us to grasp what they have to communicate immediately, as if we are looking into a mirror and seeing ourselves,” said John Hessler of G&M, who directed the work.

The project was inspired by a discussion Hessler had last year with Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, chair of the House Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth. For a committee report, Himes asked Hessler how the Library’s GIS (geographic information system) data visualization capabilities might make the committee’s findings come alive for readers.

Himes also wanted to bring to light “some of the missing history of how we got to where we are today and how inequality developed, especially in the post-Civil War period,” Hessler said.

Himes’ inquiry led Hessler to search through historical maps he knew were relevant and to discover additional sources.

The civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois is perhaps the most well-known Black intellectual and activist to use cartography to bring attention to racial disparities. Du Bois also mapped African American land ownership and wealth in the late 19th century.

The Library has held a selection of  Wells’ and Du Bois’ work for many years, but the resources are not heavily used. Likewise for related but more ephemeral maps in the collections, including those published in The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, of which both Wells and Du Bois were founders.

“Much of this material is completely unknown,” Hessler said.

He concluded it warranted a deep dive, and he organized a junior fellows project as an initial step. The result is “The Mapping of Race in America: Visualizing the Legacy of Slavery and Redlining, 1860 to the Present,” a StoryMap by junior fellows Catherine Discenza and Anika Fenn Gilman.

It pulls together Wells’ lynching statistics, Du Bois’ maps and much more — the project expanded as the fellows discovered new resources and information.

A map of the eastern half of the United States, with orange dots showing the locations of lynchings

The list of lynchings in Wells’ “A Red Record” was used to create this map, showing how widespread the killings were.

Some historical maps appear as they were published, but Discenza and Gilman also used GIS to create their own visualizations from data. All the data in the StoryMap is downloadable, and links take researchers to sources used. About 75% of the content originates from Library collections — population and census data from the nation’s earliest years, images from digitized statistical atlases, county-by-county maps of the enslaved population.

Also included are redlining maps from the 1930s to ’60s from the University of Virginia’s Richmond Center. Redlining maps “are something that came up right away” in discussions with Himes and his committee, Hessler said.

The cover of "A Red Record." Light brown paper, with the title in red ink

Cover of “A Red Record,” Ida B. Wells groundbreaking research into lynching. Image: New York Public Library

Unlike Wells’ data tracking racial injustice and Du Bois’ maps visualizing African Americans’ economic contributions, redlining maps served an entirely different purpose. Banks used them to deny loans to homeowners and would-be homeowners in neighborhoods deemed undesirable, leading to neighborhood decline. Red shading marked these neighborhoods, in which people of color had been forced to live, hence the maps’ name.

Combining redlining maps with the other data from the project highlights important questions: What does the history of mapping of race look like in the United States? Who was doing it? Who was using it? What were they using it for?

The redlining maps in the StoryMap focus on three cities: Baltimore; Tampa, Florida; and New Orleans. Baltimore served as an initial case study. Hessler and the fellows combined redlining data from the city with more recent spatial data, including modern median income, health insurance coverage and housing occupancy.

“The correlations between redlining and economic development and growth was very clear in Baltimore,” Hessler said.

Next, he invited Discenza and Gilman to each elect a city. A senior at the University of Florida, Discenza majors in medical geography and minors in health disparities. Originally from Tampa, she chose that city.

Gilman is a senior at Tulane University double majoring in mathematics and international relations, and she has a certificate in GIS. She selected New Orleans, home to Tulane.

Both found inspiration in the project. “I’m really happy to be getting this specific experience. It’s the sort of thing that I’m genuinely interested in pursuing,” Discenza said.

“Seeing how what I’m interested in can play out in a public arena definitely gives me a lot of ideas about how I can use the skills I’m developing now,” said Gilman, who plans a career in geopolitical analysis.

The StoryMap builds on a growing body of research and documentation about the nation’s history of white supremacist violence and policies that have created the physical landscape we live in today.

Historian Richard Rothstein, for example, wrote about redlining in the bestselling 2017 book “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,” showing that boundaries of urban slums were often created by white-run governments, monetized by banks, legalized by courts and enforced by police. The history of lynching is also well documented, and in 2018 the Equal Justice Initiative opened the nation’s first memorial documenting the nation’s centuries of violence targeting Black Americans: the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

The project points to how other complex issues might be examined, too — one need only look at its treatment of Wells’ data to understand the power of the approach.

“GIS and a StoryMap application can bring this data back and show that these were real people, not just old lifeless statistics.”

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