Mapping Ida B. Wells's Lynching Data Curation

A Red Record Map

The data behind this data is available on either GitHub and IUPUI DataWorks.

Analysis and Critique

*This is an excerpt, including the bibliography below, from an article that I am currently working on.


For roughly a decade from 1890 to 1900, Wells investigated, documented, described, and tabulated well over 300 lynchings in her three pamphlets, Southern Horrors (1892), A Red Record (1895), and Mob Rule in New Orleans (1900). Wells's second pamphlet, A Red Record, was the pinnacle her anti-lynching campaigns. The pamphlet is a departure from Southern Horrors and Mob Rule in New Orleans which both rely heavily on narrative and lightly on data. A Red Record, on the other hand, is a blend of tabulations and narratives. Wells uses both quantitative data in the form of tables and qualitative data sourced from white newspapers, in the form of narrative chapters, in tandem to support her arguments. In the pamphlet, the narrative chapters are book-ended by two chapters containing the lynching tabulations for 1893 and 1894.


In her lynching tabulations, Wells uses commas to separate values but separates each lynching events by a semi-colon as seen in chapter two of A Red Record, "Lynch Law Statistics."

June 29, Samuel Thorp, Savannah, Ga.; June 29, George S.Riechen, Waynesboro, Ga.; June 30, Joseph Bird, Wilberton, I. T.;"

Her use of semicolons better separates each lynching event because it is not as ubiquitous as a period or a comma. Her formatting limns the individual deaths from a text block of names and dates. Looking at how Wells structured her data, the datasets are well-suited with occasional small manipulations that would facilitate computer analysis. And while it is, perhaps, too far-reaching to believe that Wells had prophetic awareness about the coming technology of modern computers, nevertheless her ordering of the information allows for a computer to easily parse and translate her data curation into lightweight data formats like JavaScript Object Notifications (JSON). Comparing the transformed lynching data into JSON objects, very little of the data formatting has changed:

{"Name":"Samuel Thorp","Location":"Savannah, Ga.","Date":"June 29, 1893","Alleged Crime":"Murder"};

Each JSON object is concluded using a semicolon and each value within in an object is separated by value. When I transformed the large block of text into JSON using TEI XML and OpenRefine, I pulled in the alleged crime and the year of the statistics from contextual information provided in the chapters "Lynch Law Statistics and "Lynching Record for 1894."


Here, I want to problematize my earlier work, from five years ago, attempting to transform A Red Record as a digital resource to translate this nineteenth-century database into a twenty-first century database. Critical cartography tells us that maps create and define reality, assigning cities, capitals, and peoples to geo-political regions. I originally attempted to create a map of Wells's lynching investigations, using the geographic data she collected and printed. However, in my naïveté and sophomoric belief in techno-solutions with no critical intervention, technology obscured the leading principles of Wells's works. In mapping the geographic data, prioritizing uniformity and modern GIS applications, victim names are hidden behind blue map markers and the qualitative narratives were abandoned. Each lynching event was grouped under one marker because LeafletJS and OpenLayers would not allow multiple markers for the same longitude and latitude. Each marker then marks a certain day rather than individual victims.

Often, lynching mobs murdered several Black Americans at one lynching event. Thus, my map of the tabulations in A Red Record constructs a reality that misrepresents the number and viciousness of the lynchings of Black Americans. Katherine McKittrick warns against the enumeration of Black victims of violence, writing that "the cyclical and death-dealing numeration of the condemned remains intact, at least in part, through analytical pathways that are beholden to a system of knowledge that descriptively rehearses anti-black violences and in this necessarily refuses decolonial thinking." The abandonment of the narratives was really an abandonment of the struggle of how to encode and parse anguish, rage, and white supremacy. However, it was also my avoidance, as a Black woman, of the burden of the same emotional labor that contributed to Wells's premature death. The map, unintentionally, also (re)constructs a spectacle and enumeration of Black death without the added contextuality of the narratives. How researchers organize and categorize data affects how it is understood and displayed. The change of focus from crime to geography, and obscuring of victim's names betrays Wells's directive to "tell the world the facts."


Thank you to Shelley P. Haley, Jennifer Guiliano, and the two peer reviewers for their guidance and suggestions in strengthening this article. Much of this article came to fruition after enlightening conversations with Sarah Patterson, Katie Rawson, Trevor Muñoz, and Jim Casey. Also thank you to the participants of REAADS workshop at Columbia University on January 6 2018, especially Marisa Parham, for their insightful comments. And thank you to Kim Gallon for inviting me to my first Black Digital Humanities conference in 2014, which set me down this path.


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