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How black cartographers put racism on the map of America
An early 20th century NAACP map showing lynchings between 1909 and 1918. The maps were sent to politicians and newspapers to encourage legislation to protect black Americans. Library of Congress

How can cards fight racism and inequality?

The work of the Black Panther Party, a black political group from the 1960s and 1970s featured in a new film and documentary, helps illustrate how cartography – the practice of creating and using maps – can illuminate injustice.

As these films show, the Black Panthers have focused on empowering African Americans and community survival, running a wide range of programs from free school breakfasts to armed self-defense.

Mapping is a less documented aspect of Panthers activism, but the group used maps to reinvent the cities where African Americans lived and fought.

In 1971, the Panthers collected 15,000 signatures on a petition to create new police districts in Berkeley, Calif. – districts that would be governed by local citizens’ committees and require officers to live in the neighborhoods they served. . The proposal was put to the ballot but was rejected.

In a similar effort to make law enforcement more sensitive to communities of color, the Panthers in the late 1960s also created a map proposing to divide the police districts of San Francisco, largely on racial lines. .

Black and white drawing of San Francisco with designated neighborhoods around some neighborhoods

The Black Panthers are just one chapter in a long history of African-American “counter-mapping”, which our geography research explores. Counter-mapping refers to how groups normally excluded from political decision-making deploy maps and other geographic data to communicate complex information about inequalities in an easy-to-understand visual format.

The power of cards

The maps are not ideologically neutral location guides. Mappers choose what to include and exclude, and how to display information to users.

These decisions can have far-reaching consequences. When the Home Owners Loan Corporation in the 1930s set out to map the risk associated with banks lending money to individuals for homes in different neighborhoods, for example, it classified minority neighborhoods as high risk and coded them in red.

The result, known as “redlining,” contributed to housing discrimination for three decades, until federal law banned these cards in 1968. Redlining’s legacy is still evident in the diagrams. segregation of many American cities.

Colonial explorers who chart their journeys and urban planners and promoters of urban renewal have also used cartography to represent the world in ways that promote their own priorities. Often, the resulting maps exclude, distort or harm minority groups. Academics and government officials are doing it too.

Counter cards produce another public understanding of the facts by highlighting the experiences of oppressed people.

Blacks are not the only marginalized group to do this. Indigenous communities, women, refugees and LGBTQ communities have also redrawn maps to reflect their existence and rights.

But black Americans were among the earliest providers of counter-mapping, deploying this alternative mapping to meet a variety of needs a century ago.

Black counter-mapping

Mapping is part of the larger black creative tradition and political struggle.

Over the centuries, African Americans developed path finding aids, including a Jim Crow-era travel guide, to help them navigate a racially hostile landscape and created visual works that affirmed the value of black life.

Black sociologist and civil rights leader WEB Du Bois produced maps for the 1900 Paris Exposition to inform international society of the gains African Americans made in income, education and land ownership since slavery and in the face of continued racism.

Likewise, in 1946, Friendship Press cartographer and illustrator Louise Jefferson published an illustrated map celebrating the contributions of African Americans – from famous writers and athletes to unnamed black workers – in building the United States.

In the early part of the 20th century, the anti-lynching crusaders of the NAACP and Tuskegee Institute sparked public outcry by producing statistical reports that informed original hand-drawn maps showing the location and frequency of Afro- Americans murdered by mobs of white lynchs.

A map, published in 1922 in the NAACP magazine “Crisis,” placed dots on a standard map to document 3,456 lynchings over 32 years. The southeast had the greatest concentration. But the “stains of shame,” as cartographer Madeline Allison called them, covered the country from east to west and even to the north.

These visualizations, along with the underlying data, have been sent to allied organizations such as the Citizens’ Commission on Interracial Cooperation, newspapers across the country and elected officials from all parties and regions. Activists hoped to press Congress to pass federal anti-lynching legislation – something that remains to this day an unfinished business.

How black cartographers put racism on the map of America

Black and white image of Rustin at a desk holding a large map and smiling, with papers all over that desk

Much of the anti-lynching mapping was inspired by famous activist and journalist Ida B. Wells, who in the early 1880s made some of the first paintings of the prevalence and geographic distribution of racial terror. Her work refuted dominant white claims that lynched black men sexually assaulted white women.

Modern maps

The precariousness of black life – and the exclusion of black stories from American history – remains an unresolved issue today.

Working alone and with white allies, black activists and academics continue to use mapping to tell a fuller story about the United States, to challenge racial segregation, and to combat violence.

Today, the maps they create are often digital.

For example, Equal Justice Initiative, the Alabama-based legal advocacy group led by Bryan Stevenson, produced a modern map of the historic lynching. This is an interactive update to the anti-lynching mapping done 100 years ago – although a full reconstruction of the lynching terror remains impossible due to incomplete data and the veil of silence that lingers around. of these murders.

How black cartographers put racism on the map of America

Red-tinted map of the United States with an intrigue point at Illionois highlighted to show that there were 56 murders there between 1877 and 1950

Another modern mapping project, called Mapping Police Violence, was started by data activists after the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. It tracks police use of force using ‘an animated map of time series. Deaths and injuries appear on the screen and pile up on the map of the United States, visually communicating the national scale and urgency of this issue.

Counter-mapping is based on the theory that communities and governments cannot solve problems they do not understand. When black counter-mapping exposes the how and where of racism, in visually accessible form, this information gains new power to spur social change.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Derek H. Alderman, University of Tennessee and Joshua FJ Inwood, Penn State.

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Derek H. Alderman receives funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Joshua FJ Inwood receives funding from the National Science Foundation.



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