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Visualizing Injustice: Early NAACP Cartographers and Racial Inequality in America

No good result can come from any investigation which refuses to consider the facts. A conclusion that is based upon a presumption, instead of the best evidence, is unworthy of a moments consideration.                       –Ida B. Wells, 1901

The use of cartography to highlight economic and racial injustice has a long history, not only among professional cartographers and geographers, but also as part of the toolbox of activists looking to make the complexity of their issues understandable to the population at-large.

Cover of the Red Record by Ida B. Wells. Library of Congress.

Cover of A Red Record : tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892-1893-1894 by Ida B. Wells, 1895. Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Wells’ data has been tabulated by the Indiana University and is available in digital format for modern researchers.

An important moment in the use of the medium for this purpose, and in the history of cartography, came from a small group of Black intellectuals, who began to use spatially relevant demographic data to create maps, in order to visualize both the contributions of former slaves and African Americans to American culture, and also to highlight the persistence of racial injustice in the decades after emancipation.

Perhaps the first of these intellectuals to collect and make use of geographically rectified data was the former slave and reporter Ida B. Wells (1862-1931). After being emancipated, she, in 1889, became editor of The Free Speech and Headlight, a Black-owned newspaper established by the Reverend Taylor Nightingale (1844–1922) and published out of the Beale Street Baptist Church in Memphis, TN.

One of her most important contributions however was statistical, not editorial, and came in the form of a series of publications including A Red Record. The work was a 100-page pamphlet describing lynching in the United States from 1864 to 1894.

A Red Record used geographic and statistical data, which Wells collected, mostly from newspapers around the United States, to document not only the high rates of unjustified lynchings of Black men that had occurred in the previous years, but also to show how the data could be mapped and how these events were distributed in various regions of the country. Wells found that between 1864 and the final years of her study in 1894 that more than 10,000 African Americans had been killed by lynching.

Wells’ work was highly influential and became the inspiration for the use of this kind of data by Black cartographers who mapped and visualized racial inequalities over the next several decades.

Perhaps the most well known of the intellectuals and activists who began to use and to create cartography in order to bring attention to racial disparities was the historian and civil-rights pioneer, W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963).

Maps made by W.E.B. Du Bois for the 1900 Universal Exposition showing the migration of Blacks in 1890  and the ownership of land in Georgia from 1870-1900. Library of Congress.

Born in Massachusetts, Du Bois did graduate work at the University of Berlin and Harvard University, and in 1890 was the first African American to earn a doctorate. He was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and later a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University. His collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903, redefined the discussion of race in America, with the introduction recognizing that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.”

Demographic map showing the Black population of Georgia by county, W.E.B Du Bois, 1890. Library of Congress.

Demographic map showing the Black population of Georgia by county, W.E.B Du Bois, 1890. Library of Congress.

Du Bois was the main organizer of one of the exhibits from the US at the Exposition Universelle called, The Exhibit of American Negroes, held in Paris between April and November 1900. Working with demographic data for both the United States as a whole, and the state of Georgia, he put together a collection of photographs, maps, and created stylized data visualizations, in an effort to challenge racist stereotypes and to make clear the inequality that still existed in the US decades after emancipation.

A schematic map of the slave trade prepared by Du Bois (left)  and a chart showing the value of property owned by African Americans in Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia prepared by Atlanta University students (right). Diagram shows value of property owned by African Americans in Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. Library of Congress.

After the formation and founding of the NAACP by Du Bois, Wells, and others, the group continued to use cartography and geospatial statistics to illustrate the continued racial inequalities that remained across the country. One of the most influential publications by the organization in its early years, called Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, employed maps to show the wide regional differences that existed, in much the same way as Ida B. Wells had earlier sought to highlight.

Cover and map from Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, published in 1919 by the NAACP. Library of Congress.

Cover and map from Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, published in 1919 by the NAACP. Library of Congress.

Although the maps in the book are hand drawn and simple, their use of shading, which grows more dramatic as the cases of lynching increase, shows more than any narrative possibly could, the regional concentration of such horrific events. Here we see how the power of an image can show immediately what words cannot say.

Maps when done well are actually images of events or snapshots, at least in their analog and historic form, of how humans interact with each other and with the geographic space we inhabit. They tell the tale of how we are behaving, treating each other, and interacting with our environment. They find their power and authority by abstracting from the complicated reality of human life and by centering our gaze upon the essentials. 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.

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