Hilary Green and Transformative Digital History

Dr. Hilary Green is an Associate Professor of History in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama. Her research and teaching interests explore the intersections of race, class, and gender in African-American history. Her first book, Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham University Press, 2016), explored how African Americans and their white allies created, developed, and sustained a system of African American schools during the transition from slavery to freedom. Green has captured attention for her Digital Humanities project, Hallowed Ground. She began this project in the Spring of 2015. While she has described it as her “side project,” it has grown into a unique example of a digital humanities project that engages students and the public around questions of race and memory. It is also a startling example of how a scholar working alone can build an engaging and transformative digital experience. Green has led thousands of walking tours highlighting the impact of slave labor in creating the University of Alabama and linked that to an impressive digital humanities database of records, maps, and other sources.


Slavery, Education History, University of Alabama, Black Digital Humanities, Critical Race Studies

The Conversation

Chambliss: So, the first question I ask everybody is: how do you define Digital Humanities?

Green: Oh, this is a good question. So, for me,…I’m a humanist by training, so I’m concerned about highlighting the human and their experiences. So, for me, digital humanities helps to explain the human using digital tools in very creative and innovative ways that traditional humanists, like myself, who rely on the archives, can’t do. So, instead, how can I get spatial analysis? How can I do different types of things, but also photography, and expand? And what is the archives? What is the human experience without relying on just traditional texts and traditional sources and physical archives?

Chambliss: Okay. That’s a really interesting answer in part because you put a lot of emphasis on the human, which I think is one of those tension points to doing humanities. I want to follow up that question by asking you specifically about the project that brought you to MSU, Hallowed Grounds, which I really see is sort of at the intersection of pedagogy and digital humanities practice and research. I’m also really inspired and [it] really resonates with me, your origin story for the project because I have a similar kind of origin story. Can you talk a little bit about that project and the context?

Green: Yeah. For me, my project Hallowed Grounds started off with a student question and a comment that slavery did not exist at the University of Alabama. And it made me think about the myths, the narratives, and the power of that. The student who walked on a campus that was built by enslaved people as a legacy of that history could not see and recognize that legacy and the university and universities like [the] University of Alabama (UA) have been part of this myth telling [them] to not tell their past. And what happens is the people they were highlighting were the ones who enslaved and [were] the big men of society, instead of the everyday folks who were viewed as moveable property, who worked at the university, [were] children born at the university, people [who] died at the university. And these people [walked] the same land.

Digital Humanities and looking at this work allowed me to talk about race, the institution of slavery, the lives of the enslaved, and those who were hidden in plain sight [on] the same grounds I’m walking [now]. That student walked every day and changed [the] narrative of that long history of African Americans there. For me, I brought back the enslaved people to the narrative that were being excluded. And with this digital humanities project, starting with a movable walking tour and trying to get people to walk the campus and not just read about it—to then have documents or fill up a bibliography [with] images of reconstruction and the postwar line, you can follow the whole person from life to death. And then, also [as] to the life and death of slavery, but also [as to] their actual life and what they contributed. And so [I’m] de-centering the narrative of enslavers and the institutions and focusing on the people who are not being talked about.

Chambliss: Right. One of the things that’s really interesting about your project is your ability to bridge this sort of virtual world and the real world, right? [Like the] public history element of the project. And I’m struck by the fact that your project is really inflected by some of the literature around Digital Humanities and Black studies people like Kim Gallon and Jessica Marie Johnson, which is a really important part of this whole ideological framework that sort of distinguishes, I think, some of the post-colonial elements of Digital Humanities versus what people might think of. And I know that’s something that, when you talk about the project, when you gave your presentation and as you talked about the literature, really shaped that narrative. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Green: Yeah, I’m a self-taught DH person and, for me, like any scholar, I always read. Like, what’s the practice? Other than using digital humanities projects, what are some of the projects and the literature [that] helped inform the decisions that connect what I traditionally do [as] a social historian [around] the experiences of African Americans before 1920. But three articles really convinced me, and I was like, “This is my ‘aha!’ moment.” The first one was Tara McPherson’s about DH being so white because the DH projects I was using and having my students use in class couldn’t answer the questions about the everyday African American experience and Black women’s experience. [They] focused on great white men and the enslavers, [so] it wasn’t possible to ask the questions they wanted to answer. And so, for me, by having Tara McPherson as my first entree into that piece in Digital Humanities…which I learned it at that camp through the AHA, so really it became a crash course in digital humanities practice.

She (McPherson) said to be intentional; bring that critical feminist and critical race theory into the practice and build and get out of your comfort zone. And I just took them like, “I will get out of my comfort zone. I will do this, and if I’m going to do this project, I will build it alongside doing the research and not be selfish and just maintain it as an article without showing the process behind the scene, the transcription and the sources.” Then, I looked at Moya Bailey’s work about DH being white, STEM, and gender. But also, some of us must be brave, and [embrace] that idea [that] we need to go outside the disciplinary issues and the tools and the gender dynamics tied to a lot of coding and things like that.

And then Jessica Marie Johnson as well as other scholars of slavery and what they have been able to do and using the traces of people and making them into full people. And to recognize and use my own literature like, “Oh, this is possible!” But I can also incorporate and make this richer and understand what I’m seeing in that UA. It’s the Black Digital Humanities work [of] those who are called for ethics and how to use and view people and historical subjects. But [it] also [speaks] to this intentionality and being creative but rigorous that [has] really drawn [me]. And so, they bring that in. That has always been how I intentionally have built this site, with that always in mind and wanting to contribute to that rather than [to] a project. I didn’t take those concerns [to] heart from the beginning.

Chambliss: Right. And I think that’s one of the things that’s really interesting about your project because I think, a lot of the time, when we talked about Digital Humanities we often think about it as a team of people. And [for] a lot of the Digital Humanities, that is the story in the public sphere (a team of people). But the reality is a lot of scholars doing digital are doing [it] alone, and they often have a very similar pathway in terms of “I have a project or an intellectual idea.” And they start using digital tools and eventually someone says, “You’re a digital humanities person,” which is exactly what happened to me, right? Like, if you would have asked me in 2007, “are you a digital humanities person,” I would’ve said, “I don’t know what you mean, I’m doing an oral history project but I’m not doing digital humanities work.” But, after a certain point, the label sort of sits with you.

Green: Yes. Yeah.

Chambliss: I really admire the vibe that you [say]—I say this too—”I don’t code.”

Green: Right.

Chambliss: This brings [up] one of the hidden issues of the humanities that I think it’s really important for us to bring to light, which is the hidden labor of creating a project and the fact that a lot of people are doing projects alone. What has been your experience of being [the] sort of lone DH practitioner at an institution? . . . You’re talking about the history of slavery and the University of Alabama, which can be a quite emotionally charged thing. Talk a little bit about that. What does it mean to be a digital humanities practitioner without a team?

Green: Yeah, for me, one of the biggest challenges—and why I operate this project alone—really was the early skeptics of the project. My research initially [was] this idea of like, “Oh, we’ve written about this person, we know about Manley’s diaries that are digitized through the university and its digital collections,” but it’s not tagged and it’s not transcribed. And we have these diaries that had been used because they’re digital but not accessible. [That and] early skeptics were like, “We already know about slavery. We don’t need to know anymore.” And for me, I had to say “We don’t know a lot. I will dig it, start building. So what?” And over time, as I was building and communicating now, I was also realizing the labor because I would do this project when I had a spare hour or two that I could go to the archives and build my databases.

When I get a spare hour to go to the archives or [had] the time on everything else. The labor, it became a labor of love that was not my traditional work. And then, in terms of resources I had to overcome, how do I go beyond what has been digitized and [what] people know to have in the archives? And [how can the] archivists give me access and help me find the other sources that were there? So, I’ve been building relationships with folks in the archives, in the museums, in other institutions where I knew…had that work. But it wasn’t till a year and a half into doing this hidden labor and slow labor of time—plus writing a book, plus doing everything else in the process [like] going for tenure—that I was able to convince others that slavery existed and [that] more people [were] wanting to know more. But the institution [was] not willing to pay to have students and pay to expand the team.

[There were] also the ethical concerns of doing that. [That] was when I was offered, like, “Oh, we can have students doing the tours and doing this labor, but they won’t be paid,” and be like, “I’m sorry, we’re talking about slavery and we’re talking about exploitation of African American people, and we’re talking about the legacy. They had to be paid.” For me, as a paid employee of the university, I’m like, “As long as I’m getting paid and doing this work and getting recognized on the service side, I’m okay, but we can’t expand without this.” So, one of the limitations was funding and [the] ethical practices of building a project with people who are volunteers versus paid laborers, and then also the limitations of not having some digital tools that are common to everyone else, like Omeka and other things, so using the technological side to help build it. But, over time, using the website that UA provides for faculty as the early pilot site for the Hallowed Grounds information and building that way. For me, it’s slow, it’s scalable, but also, too, it’s been over for, let’s see, I started this in 2015 around February. It’s a lot of labor that went in. So, now it looks like it’s seamless, but it’s still that extra labor and getting people through my classes to build content—. [Like], network building, doing that labor, and realizing if I don’t increase my stakeholders it will be a one-person team.

But I’m at the point now where it can become a team because I built the legitimacy of it at my institution. For me, that groundwork, that labor, is paying off now. I tell people, “Sometimes you start off by yourself or you don’t know and you make mistakes along the way, but you can still [do it] if you keep on thinking, ‘what is that grounding point?’” And for me it’s that student who said slavery did not exist at the university. And then also the names of the people who I have recovered. But for me, it’s whenever I have a spare moment, I’m doing more on top of everything else. And that hidden labor, I think one of the things with digital humanists, we need to recognize what’s being done.

Chambliss: Right. So, you know, that’s one of the things that your profile reflects that’s very common. You got tenure, but not on a digital project. You were doing that parallel to your book project. I think a lot more people know about Hallowed Grounds than about your book project on African American education because it’s digital and you know exactly how many people visit the site. You got statistics, and I point this out to people on my own work. I do comics research, but when I do podcasts, I know exactly how many people listen. In the academic world we still struggle with how to discern the impact of the digital narrative.

Green: Yeah. I know for me why I find [certain things] striking. I keep those statistics and I track them, and I started to put it in my faculty activity report. So, I do screenshots and I do the reporting based on the website. One of the most common documents on my website through Hallowed Ground has nothing to do with UA. It has everything to do with my Alma mater, UNC chapel Hill, and its connections to UA in terms of teaching. I had the dedication speech of Julian Carr for Silence Sam in 1913, and in that speech, he boasts about horsewhip a “negro wench.” People have come to my website for that document and then they go, “Okay, this is at UNC, but what’s going on at UA?” And then they’re looking from the UNC document and the University of Virginia documents to the UA documents and having conversations and teach-ins.

When Silent Sam was taken down in August of 2018, I had 60,000 unique visitors to my website. It was linked to all these media, international and national media. But it drove people to my website. Now, because of Hallow Grounds and having that project where I was aiming [for] about a thousand unique visitors a week, now I am getting (after that boost) about three the 5,000 a week and they’re going from Carr’s speech to the bill of sales for the enslaved people owned by the university to the legacy at the university. And I can track that movement but, at the same time, to get my university to recognize it, I started making reports on it. Like here’s all the screenshots, here’s all the statistics because impacts. It’s hard to get that with books. It’s hard to get that with articles. But with digital products, you can tell [what] your impact is and then justify worth and legitimacy elsewhere. It’s because of that I’m able to expand.

Chambliss: Right, and because your institution says, “Oh, this is a project that brings us this kind of engagement.”

Green: And it adds to their prestige and reputation as R1 school. This is where, for me, even though I talk about the human, it’s that computation aspect and numbers that actually help us show this matters. And…one of the things is I also hear back from folks. Some of the most common users to my website are homeschool parents, in particular African-American homeschool parents.

Chambliss: Right. Oh wow. Okay. Yeah, that makes a lot sense.

Green: And I also have other college campuses—largely in the South but also [in] the middle Atlantic—who are grappling with this history of campus slavery, linking back to UA and using it as a comparison point and then [figuring out] how to bring that history back to their campus and do similar projects. I’m actually learning and hearing, and [I’m] part of this DH community [across] other institutions because it’s virtual and because it’s online that I wasn’t in before. My work on African American education after the Civil War, it’s connected me to one set of networks…and it’s the Hallowed Grounds project that I’m more known with K-12 teachers. It’s this weird feedback loop, but I could actually measure content and impact better with the website in the Hallowed Grounds project than I can with other work.

Chambliss: And I know you’ve spoken about your desire to expand the project. One of the things we talked about [regarding] DH is how you institutionalize the project with awards and grants and things like that. It’s not just that the institution starts to recognize you, it is also those pathways that support it. As you think about moving forward with Hallowed Grounds and how it sort of fits very neatly in that framework we spoke about before (Ed Ayers and digital scholarship), now you have all these things online. You generate all these conversations. But you also generate other paths of inquiry for students to do projects, visualizations, or research projects, and they suggest ways to use the material. Like you show some really graceful, artistic things that you’ve done [and] suggested. When you think about a program moving forward the next two years [or] four years, what are some of the things you’re envisioning for the project?

Green: One of the things I know for sure I want [is] to have a teaching resource center with possible lesson plans that are scalable based on grade content [and that] can be used for the source, because I want to make sure it’s in the hands of teachers and homeschool parents who are using the site. The other thing I want to do, honestly, is unique visualization through augmented reality mapping and GIS mapping of migrations of some of the individuals who came to the university. [I also want to look at] the university’s impact on not only the state, but the region, and after the Civil War with Reconstruction [and] Black communities—[like], trace that in a more conscious way and link in some of the data that I know on campus, sites like the Last Seen Project [and] some of the information on wanted ads. And knowing that some of the former enslaved people went as far away as California and Indiana—[to have] that visualized on a map and have that location so people could see the impact economically, [that] the university and institutions are usually these economic generators and these intellectual generators.

What happens when you look at the economy of slavery and slavery and capitalism, [and] the economic and intellectual endeavors of those who were formerly enslaved, who tended to be educated because they’re on a college campus? How did they impact Black freedom and Reconstruction? Some of the things I think [I can] map and can do that. Can we link the documents we have on that person to that site? If you click on Indianapolis, you will find the obituary of one of the enslaved people who dies in 19-teens. And, like, who made it to Indianapolis? What happened to them? How did they get from Alabama today?

[Basically], you have this interactive map in a way. So, I think that is one the other issues I want to see with augmented reality, the largest category [of] people I find in the sources is unknown. We won’t know their names, but we know the type of labor that they did. We know that they carried water. We know they carried wood, and we know they hand-cut the lard. Augmented reality with parsley, interpretive dance, and to get [the] labor that was done in a visual way that’s not documented because we don’t know their name, but we can acknowledge their presence. And so, for me, teaching tools, other types of spatial analysis, and really make it multi-dimensional to then have people write engaged scholarship that can have new possibilities instead of just looking at a number and looking at an enslaved person thinking about other questions we couldn’t ask before.

And for me, [there is] the growth in possibilities that DH, even in my own work. I can now trace people who were separated during the Civil War and track their reunification. I couldn’t have done that 10 years ago. But if I can do that now, what can we do with these college campuses? The digital mapping tool and visualizations will be a part of this new iteration of it. And then, the other is [to] get every single document we know published and digitized, transcribed and tagged, but also to create biographies of the enslaved people that worked at the university and [how], after freedom, [they] created full lives. If they come to the University of Alabama, they learn about Basil Manly. They learn about the presidents, but they also learn about William. You also learn about Moses. They learn about the women who were there and having content. Contextualization. Publications. Short essays. People can use this tool comprehensively. And then also to recognize the labor of those people who are using it and giving them an outlet for publications.

Chambliss: Alright, that’s awesome. I want to thank you again for taking the time and talking to me about your project. If people want to find you on the web, how would they do it?

Green: All right, so this is one of the challenges. I have a UAA website. It’s long and cumbersome. If you Google Hallowed Grounds and University of Alabama, it comes right up.



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Reframing Digital Humanities: Conversations with Digital Humanists Copyright © 2021 by Julian Chambliss is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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