Faculty Focus: On the Map
Alisha Knight’s collaboration with the College’s GIS Lab created a digital humanities project—using Story Maps—that explores the history and breadth of one of the country’s earliest and most influential African American publishing companies.
So many times, whether in science or literature, asking one question often leads to another. Such was the case for Alisha Knight, associate professor of English and American Studies, when she was writing her book on Pauline Hopkins, a prolific African American writer at the turn of the 20th century. Curious about the publication history of Hopkins’s first novel, Contending Forces, Knight started asking questions about the book’s publisher, the Colored Co-Operative Publishing Company.
A unique and influential business that briefly flourished in the early 1900s, the Colored Co-operative promoted “the higher culture of Religion, Literature, Science, Music and Art of the Negro, universally.” It employed over time some 240 agents who sold the Colored American Magazine—which Hopkins wrote for—as far west as Seattle and as far south as San Antonio, Texas.
In these agents, Knight has discovered an unsung treasure of literary and social history. Thanks to a collaboration with the College’s GIS Lab and several students, most recently Julia Portman ’18, it’s now a Story Maps project called “Putting Them on the Map”—a digital humanities project using data analytics to create a data visualization of the Colored Co-operative’s network of subscription agents.
Knight felt that understanding how and where the Co-Operative’s sales agents worked would help her better understand the business, the magazine, and the historical period. At first, she hand-drew a map of states which had agents, but it was hard for her to visualize how they were spreading across the country.
“I could see the end result, but I wanted to be able to notice the change over time,” she says. So she conferred with Stew Bruce, then head of the GIS Lab, and he suggested using Story Maps. Brad Janocha ’16, Daniel Benton ’17, and Shannon Preen ’19 helped her get started, although GIS Project Manager Luis Machado ’13 and Portman continued the most recent work and really brought the map to life.
“What’s been exciting has been to partner with the GIS Lab and say, ‘I have this idea, what do you think I can do with it?’ And they say, ‘Here are some ideas and tools you can use,’ ’’ she says. “Julia has been really responsive, and she works so fast!”
Portman, a double major in biology and environmental science with a minor in German, says this was her first digital humanities project at the GIS Lab, and she had not worked much with Story Maps up to that point.
“Figuring out how to build the story was a lot of trial and error, but it was a lot of fun!” she says. “The project was definitely interesting, despite being far outside of my fields of study. I really enjoyed learning about the history of the Colored American Magazine, seeing (and inputting) the spread of agents throughout the country, and just learning how to use Story Maps, which has been a useful tool many times since then.”
The digital maps let the viewer see how the Colored Co-Operative’s agents slowly but surely spread throughout the country. Within each tab, Knight provides background and narrative about the Colored Co-Operative’s history as well as its agents. Clicking on a location dot on the maps opens up information about the agent who worked there. Knight spent hours on ancestry.com, poring through census records, newspapers, and every other historical source she could access to learn more about individual agents.
For instance, when she ran across the agent Cabel Calloway in Baltimore listed in the June 1900 issue, she wondered if he could be related to Cab Calloway, the famous jazz musician. Figuring that Cab Calloway must have written a memoir, she tracked it down and learned that Cabel was his father. W.M. Hutton became the westernmost agent in November 1900, based in Anaconda, Montana, where he worked in a hotel. Lena Paul of Buffalo, New York, was the longest serving female agent, working for 40 months, while Gillespie Anderson served the longest of any, 41 months. Knight’s research found that he was a Pullman porter working on a train from Washington, D.C., to New York City, and was well-known to congressmen who traveled on the train.
Knight’s work on the agents is ongoing and will be integral to a book she is developing on the history of the Colored Co-Operative Publishing Company. “When you think about what publishing companies were doing, they were producing information, giving authors a voice, disseminating information, educating readers,” Knight says. “So to have this company in existence at a time when you have a lot of violence against African Americans, and you have a lot of debates about whether blacks can contribute to the wealth and growth of the country, what they were doing was really monumental.”
In June, Knight delivered a presentation on the Story Map at the annual conference of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP) in Victoria, British Columbia. She also was invited to write a commentary on the June 1900 (Vol. 1, No. 2) issue of the magazine for coloredamerican.org, the site of the digitized versions of the Colored American Magazine.
“It’s recovery work,” she says of the time-consuming research. “What I envision is for scholars or undergraduates looking at African American life at the turn of the century to be able to come in here and understand what this company wanted to accomplish, and to recognize the idea of African Americans reading in the South, in the West, to think about a literary culture in 1901. Raising the level of consciousness is also important. That’s what I want to accomplish with this project.”