Uncovering Black Voices in Civil War Era Digital Archives: The Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi Project

Uncovering Black Voices in Civil War Era Digital Archives: The Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi Project

While pondering the future of digital history, historian Edward L. Ayers argues the field should not only replicate archives and build new tools. It must also feature interpretation, explanation, and explication, and when it accomplishes these things, it can contribute original knowledge and perform a democratic service in meaningful and enduring ways.[1]Digital history, therefore, presents a unique opportunity and responsibility to preserve, interpret, and disseminate historical resources to scholars and the public alike, an especially important goal to the recovery work of Black voices during the Civil War era.

Launched in 2019, the Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi project (CWRGM) aims to do just that. Co-directed by Dr. Susannah J. Ural (The Frank & Virginia Williams Chair for Abraham Lincoln & Civil War Studies at Mississippi State University) and myself (Digital Humanities Assistant Librarian at the University of South Dakota), CWRGM is making the state’s Civil War- and Reconstruction-era governors’ records freely available online at CWRGM.org. With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Historical Publications & Records Commission, CWRGM is digitizing, transcribing, subject tagging, and annotating over 20,000 of the letters, telegrams, and petitions sent to the state’s governors between 1859–1882. Presently, we offer over 11,500 of these diverse records to genealogists, educators, students, scholars, and others at the site.

The CWRGM collection is far less about Mississippi’s governors than readers may assume. Rather, it allows us to listen to the concerns, frustrations, and fears of thousands during one of the most pivotal periods in U.S. history. While the majority of the authors are white men, the collection is rich with African American history. For instance, we can see Lambert Moore, a freedman from Holly Springs, challenge a tax on the earnings he made from hiring himself out during the war.[2] Users can hear Albert Snowden’s pleas to Governor James Lusk Alcorn for protection from the white supremacist violence erupting in the state in the early 1870s.[3] Letters about Permilia Finley, the matron of Vicksburg’s City Hospital, highlight challenges to her leadership by disgruntled whites in 1871.[4] Others, like a letter supporting the pardon of Franklin Dunn, a white man who was convicted of killing the white employer of a biracial freedwoman named Eliza Row, reveal postwar tensions over Black women’s labor.[5]

By editing a collection full of resources authored by and about African Americans it became our responsibility to increase its public access in a responsible manner. Information management scholar Purdom Lindblad reminds us of this ethical imperative, “There is an inherent violence in archival work, silencing and obscuring…people and sources….”[6] These concerns are magnified when working with materials pertaining to the histories of impoverished people, indigenous peoples, people of color, women, and members of the queer community, among others. While CWRGM employs a number of strategies to combat this, we also launched an expansive effort to subject tag the collection with the goal of ensuring the discoverability of its marginalized voices.

One of the most dynamic solutions to document discoverability has been the ability to explore the collection by topic, in addition to keyword and advanced search mechanisms. When CWRGM researchers review transcriptions, they add subject tags from internally controlled vocabularies in the following nine categories: people, places, organizations, businesses, events, occupations, military units, vital statistics, and social identifiers. For example, references to enslaved people (such as servants, slave, servile population, etc.) are tagged with the subject term “African Americans–Enslaved People.” Users can then use this tag to access all documents in the collection that contain this subject tag.

The vocabulary for subject tags is internally created by CWRGM editors who attempt to mimic LOC Subject Headings wherever possible but eschew them when their terminology is outdated or minimizes discoverability, or does not exist, which is the case for most named people in the collection.[7] While the LOC Authorities are expansive and offer a vocabulary shared by numerous other projects, their terms frequently fail to capture the experiences of historically disempowered people, especially enslaved and freed people, so it became necessary to create a new vocabulary. And, as the “African Americans–Enslaved Peoples” subject tag demonstrates, creating our own controlled vocabulary allows us to engage in reparative metadata practices by adopting more appropriate, contemporary terminology.[8]

Our subject tagging features serve as the backbone of CWRGM, ensuring content discoverability and accessibility. Keyword searching limits user access to documents that include terminology verbatim in the transcriptions. For example, at CWRGM keyword searching the transcriptions yields 56 results when using the term “Negros,” 343 for “Negroes,” 248 for “Negro,” and 239 for “Black.” “African American” never appears in the transcriptions. Applying the subject tag “African Americans” within transcriptions allows users to find 1,495 documents, significantly improving user access to the collection regardless of the authors’ variable terminology and spellings.

Screen capture of the “Crimes (alleged)–Cadaver Procurement and Sales” subject tag

The vastness and diversity of the collection presents numerous challenges, however. Deciding what to tag, for instance, was no easy task and required an expansive review of the historical literature. For example, we turned to Tera Hunter’s Bound in Wedlock to identify, tag, and explain unlawful cohabitation laws, and Daina Ramey Berry’s The Price for Their Pound of Flesh was critical to our efforts to tag illegal cadaver sales.[9] Adding subject tags to these topics increases their discoverability, but their connections to a white supremacist legal system also risk depicting Black actors in the collection as inherently criminal. Adding annotations to subject tags, therefore, is key to contextualizing the term for users. Consequently, CWRGM is indebted to the experts whose research recovers the histories of slavery, colonialism, and racial, gendered, and sexual violence because their critical theories in race, gender, sexuality, class, and anti-colonialism drive our tagging and annotation mechanisms.

Screen capture of the pop-up annotation associated with the subject tag, “Crimes (alleged)–Unlawful Cohabitation” in “Letter from Major C. C. Shackleford to Mississippi Governor Adelbert Ames; July 20, 1868.” See the fill subject list here.

Our desire to create interoperability within and between our project and others, also threatened overregularization as one subject term may encompass many different meanings of experiences, depending on its context. For example, subject tags do not capture the intersectional nature of people’s identities found in the collection. The “African Americans” tag captures one identity but cannot account for factors like gender or class, and fails to highlight multi-racial identities, which are rarely straightforward in the text regardless.

These concerns drove CWRGM’s adoption of nested tags and faceted search. We began to nest subject tags, moving from the more general to the more specific, “African Americans–Enslaved People” and “African Americans–Enslaved People. Contraband of War,” for instance. Users can now find all references to African Americans regardless of their labor status under the more general subject tag “African Americans,” but they can also parse their research by specific labor and military identities. We realized early on we could not apply nested subject tags in intersectional ways, however. The tag “African Americans–Historically Free and Newly Freed. Women,” for instance, would help users find documents specifically referring to freed women, but they would no longer be findable under the “Women” subject tag. The limitations of subject tagging in this format meant we had to focus on a single group identity per subject tag and instead, create more access points to the collection.

Screen capture of the facet options available for the Social Identifiers category.

The introduction of advanced and faceted search to the website, however, allows users to select multiple facets to customize their search. For example, the Social Identifiers page organizes documents by family structure, sex and gender, and legal status, among other facets. Other subject categories pages, such as Events, offer even more facets. Users can even narrow down results to those documents that include more than one subject tag, such as documents containing the “African Americans” and “Women” tags, in some ways rectifying our inability to apply single intersection subject tags. They can also be placed into more than one facet category, highlighting the multidimensional aspect of a term. For example, the “Emancipation & Self Emancipation” tag is discoverable under the legal, military, and political facets on the Events page.

Scholars invested in the recovery of African American histories, especially Black women’s voices, work under some of the most difficult archival conditions. Historian Ula Taylor asserts Black women’s efforts at self-protection shaped their representation in the public record, which therefore requires innovative strategies when researching African American women’s histories. Those untrained in African American studies are therefore at risk of misinterpreting Black women’s lives. Prolific scholars Saidiya Hartman and Thavolia Glymph offer models for “retrieving minor lives from oblivion” in their scholarship. Scholars like Taylor, Hartman, Glymph, and many others, therefore, have had to rely on some of the most creative and rigorous historical methods and theoretical ideas to uncover the lives of Black women in the archive.[10] By rooting CWRGM’s collection and its subject tagging in their critical histories, however, digital history can help users with diverse backgrounds and interests access an equally diverse and rich collection.

Lindsey R. Peterson, Ph.D. is the Digital Humanities Librarian at the University of South Dakota (Vermillion), co-director of the Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi project, and incoming Managing Director of the Society of Civil War Historians. You can learn more about her work at lindseyraepeterson.com.


[1] Edward L. Ayers, “Does Digital Scholarship Have a Future?” Educause Review (July/August 2013): 24–34, accessed March 5, 2024, https://er.educause.edu/articles/2013/8/does-digital-scholarship-have-a-future. See also Julian C. Chambliss and Scot A. French, “A Generative Praxis: Curation, Creation, and Black Counterpublics,” Scholarly Editing 39 (April 2022), accessed March 4, 2024, https://scholarlyediting.org/issues/39/a-generative-praxis/.

[2] “Petition from Lambert Moore to Mississippi Governor William L. Sharkey; September 28, 1865,” Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi, accessed April 22, 2024, https://cwrgm.org/item/mdah_771-956-10-16.

[3] “Letter from Albert Snowden to Mississippi Governor James L. Alcorn; March 19, 1871,” Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi, accessed April 22, 2024, https://cwrgm.org/item/mdah_786-972-11-15.

[4] “Letter from John R. Hicks to Mississippi Governor James L. Alcorn; January 3, 1871,” Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi, accessed April 22, 2024, https://cwrgm.org/item/mdah_786-972-01-01.

[5] “Letter from E. Jeffords to Mississippi Governor Ridgley C. Powers; January 6, 1872,” Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi, accessed April 22, 2024, https://cwrgm.org/item/mdah_794-979-03-03.

[6] Purdom Lindblad, “Archives in the Anthropocene,” Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, February 15, 2018, accessed April 25, 2021, https://mith.umd.edu/archives-in-the-anthropocene/. See also J. J. Ghaddar and Michelle Caswell, “‘To Go Beyond’: Towards a Decolonial Archival Praxis,” Archival Science 19 (2019): 71–85, accessed March 5, 2024, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10502-019-09311-1. See also Christina Boyles, Andy Boyles Petersen, Elisa Landaverde, and Robin Dean, “Postcusodial Praxis: Building Shared Context through Decolonial Archiving,” Scholarly Editing 39 (April 2022), accessed March 4, 2024, https://scholarlyediting.org/issues/39/a-generative-praxis/.

[7] For an explanation of the Library of Congress’s Subject Headings, see “How do subject headings work?” Library of Congress, accessed July 27, 2023, https://ask.loc.gov/faq/381064. For an analysis on the LOC Authorities’ limitations, see Celeste Brewer, “On Outdated and Harmful Language in the Library of Congress Subject Headings,” Columbia University Libraries: News from Columbia’s Rare Book  & Manuscript Library, September 19, 2021, https://blogs.cul.columbia.edu/rbml/2021/10/19/on-outdated-and-harmful-language-in-library-of-congress-subject-headings/ and River Freemont, “Exploring Bias and the Library of Congress Subject Headings,” Unbound: Smithsonian Libraries and Archives, August 4, 2021, https://blog.library.si.edu/blog/2021/08/04/exploring-bias-and-library-of-congress-subject-headings/.

[8] See Laura Coyle, “Right from the Start: The Digitization Program at the Smithsonian’s Nat. Museum of African American History and Culture, Public Historian 40, no. 3 (2018): 292–318, https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2018.40.3.292; Adwoa Adusei, “1619 Project: The Power of Naming,” Brooklyn Library, November 13, 2019, https://www.bklynlibrary.org/blog/2019/11/13/1619-project-power-naming; and “Guiding Principles for Reparative Description at NARA,” National Archives, accessed July 17, 2023, https://www.archives.gov/research/reparative-description/principles.

[9] Tera Hunter, Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2019) and Daina Ramey Berry, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation (Boston: Beacon Press, 2017).

[10] Ula Taylor, “Women in the Documents: Thoughts on Uncovering the Personal, Political, and Professional,” Journal of Women’s History, 20, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 187–196.

Lindsey R. Peterson

Lindsey R. Peterson, Ph.D. is the Digital Humanities Librarian at the University of South Dakota (Vermillion), co-director of the Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi project, and incoming Managing Director of the Society of Civil War Historians. You can learn more about her work at lindseyraepeterson.com.

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