DH Currents: The Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection

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DH Currents” is a blog series conceived in the summer of 2020 by the members of the Office of Digital Research and Scholarship at Florida State University Libraries. The goal of the series is to identify and highlight digital scholarship projects that take-up anti-racist and decolonial causes as part of their methodologies, content, and intentions. These initiatives foreground the principles of inclusion, truth telling, and dismantling the often oppressive practices of academic and cultural heritage preservation work. Each post will include a project description in addition to input gathered from its principal investigators, maintainers, and other participants. This series aspires to provide both a platform to share information about these scholars’ important contributions to the field of digital scholarship and to spark dialogue on topics related to ways academic libraries and other memory institutions can engage in this urgent, necessary labor. 

The Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection is a trove of digital materials related to the contributions and experiences of Black Women in the women’s suffrage movement specifically and civic activism more generally from 1850 to 1960. This national digital collection arose from partnerships between the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) and several eminent libraries and archives with funding from Pivotal Ventures, a Melinda Gates Company dedicated to advancing social progress in the U.S. 

The collection includes approximately 200,000 digital objects with rich metadata including rights statements that make it easy for users to determine the copyright status of objects and attendant reuse rights. The collection also includes curated subcollections on a variety of important historical figures such as Sojourner Truth and Fanny Lou Hamer, providing users with descriptions of these figures’ lives and contributions to the suffrage movement. Similarly, the collection also connects users to related Primary Source Sets – expertly curated sets of materials that are intended for use in the classroom and cover topics such as The American Abolitionist Movement and the Black Power Movement

The materials in this collection are perhaps especially important in the present moment, when unprecedented numbers of scholars, teachers, learners, and interested citizens are seeking out opportunities to educate themselves about Black History and the lived experience of Black people in America. As the collection’s curators state, the stories told by the materials in this collection “add new shades of context to related topics in our nation today, from the suppression of voting rights based on race and gender to the increasing number of women of color running for—and winning—elected office.”

To provide more information about the collection, we are pleased to welcome Shaneé Yvette Murrain, Director of Community Engagement at the Digital Public Library of America and Head of Curation and Partnerships for the Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection. 

What are the main goals of the project? What outcomes do you hope to achieve through the curation and dissemination of these materials?

Mary Church Terrell. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Anna Julia Cooper. Ida B. Wells-Barnett. These women played significant leadership roles leading up to and during the United States Women’s Suffrage Movement and beyond, yet their stories and contributions are not widely known and the critical roles Black women played at the forefront of the campaign for women’s rights are too often forgotten. This gap in America’s public consciousness is rooted in the history of racism and exclusion within the Suffrage Movement, which resulted in white women emerging as the movement’s primary protagonists, while black women were effectively wiped from the narrative.

The Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection is a collaborative project to provide digital access to materials documenting the roles and experiences of Black women in the Women’s Suffrage Movement and, more broadly, of women’s rights, voting rights, and civic activism between the 1850s and 1960. The materials in this collection include photographs, correspondence, speeches, event programs, publications, oral histories, and other artifacts.

The collection explores both the roots of women’s activism in Black communities; the ongoing struggle to secure, protect, and use the right to vote, beyond the Suffrage Movement; and the intersections between voting rights and other civil rights. By combining archival materials from DPLA’s network of over 4,000 institutions, newly digitized content, and partnerships, the collection seeks to engage students, educators, and researchers in exploration and dialogue around this important, yet overlooked chapter in our nation’s history.

The Digital Public Library of America amplifies the value of libraries and cultural organizations as Americans’ most trusted sources of shared knowledge. We do this by collaborating with partners to accelerate innovative tools and ideas that empower and equip libraries to make information more accessible. For more about DPLA, visit dp.la.

How do you envision this project being used? What concrete actions do you hope it will enable on the part of scholars, students, and other interested parties?

Our society’s narratives about powerful and influential figures throughout history and largely still to this day systematically omit women. Less than 3% of the words in history textbooks are specifically about women and only 5% of all images of historic figures are women of color. Strong evidence indicates these biased narratives are a powerful barrier to women’s power and influence and negatively impact women’s ambitions. Through this collection we hope to bring to life artifacts from the women’s suffrage movement and beyond to restore Black women’s rightful place in the narrative.

Additionally, DPLA’s network of librarians and archivists is committed to working with its partners to assess and update descriptions and metadata that are harmful as well as help users

better understand difficult content. During our query clean-up for the Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection, we thought about a process for approval of a harmful language disclaimer for topical DPLA collections like Black Women’s Suffrage and the larger network. Florida International University and University of Missouri Kansas City Libraries have since used the Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection’s Statement on Potentially Harmful Language as a template for their own statements.

As part of what we called a “noise cancellation” process DPLA staff dedicated time to gather together to search, collect and analyze subject terms or keywords related to Black Women’s suffrage from looking through results to further ensure the most relevant results. We developed a methodology for distinguishing desirable content, which included the intellectual and contextual work of:

  1. Searching for women’s names in controlled vocabulary for people, places, organizations including terms no longer used
  2. Taking brief notes about characters and relationship information for context about who they are and why they are important to the collection
  3. Identifying reliable info about under-researched women

Do you have plans to expand the project in the future – e.g., through new partnerships?

The Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection is an exciting opportunity for DPLA to work with cultural heritage organizations outside of our traditional network of partners.Our partners at the Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library; Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture in Charleston, South Carolina; Tuskegee University; the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University; and Southern California Library received subawards up to $25,000 to support new digitization, metadata creation, and remediation for project partners.

We are expanding the project to include the publication of a new ebook, tentatively titled By the Quill of Her Pen: Black Suffragists in Their Own Words. This new DPLA-published ebook will be a collection of 20-30 letters, diary entries, and accompanying photographs and biographical information that help bring to life the stories of Black women suffragists through their own writings.

For more information about the Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection or By the Quill of Her Pen ebook project contact Shaneé Yvette Murrain, DPLA Director of Community Engagement.

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