Building the Archive of the Black Social World in Central Florida

With a post on Oscar Mack not long ago, I’m reminded how much the intersection around digital humanities and black history for my work in Florida was generative. One project often built on another to create a fuller picture of the black experience. Reflecting back now, 2013 was a pivotal year. I conducted the Oscar Mack project in my African American History class during the spring semester. I came out of the project with a sense of things left undone and honestly… failure.

At the time, I did my end of the semester diagnostic and decided a few things. First, learning outcome were met and that was good. Students in my modern African-American history class were able to move from a single newspaper headline talking about a lynching, to telling a story about who, what, where, how and why. Second, from a scholarly perspective, a lot of questions were left unanswered. Where was his body? Who killed him? What other incidents of antiblack violence where lurking under the surface?

Plenty of gray and at some level my sense of failure was based on the reality that the resources (in every sense of the word) to do more were clear to me. I came to the end of the semester with a sense that I need to build some structures to document the black experience. I turned to the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida. Working with them, we were able to do some oral histories in the summer. While I think there was an intent to use these to learn about Mack, in organized the actual interview talking with people about region through their community lens was enough. What do we know about Hannibal Square on the ground? What is the relationship to Eatonville? Talking to black residents and getting their stories into the archive was meaningful (I hoped). Many things have changed since 2013, but the basic idea of using the process of building an archive as a benchmark was a solid choice. These archival documents can serve as the foundation for a more holistic narrative of the black experience in Central Florida. There was I came to realize a nuanced black social world I needed to document. Now you know where the “BLACK SOCIAL WORLD” name comes from. No straight lines, but you get places.

Townie Tourist

Public scholarship, community-based research, or generative scholarship are all labels that have been applied to me.  My narrative about my work has evolved as I've sought to balance academic modes with community expectations.  What the community is seeking is to have their narratives understood and validated in official spaces. Academics are often offered the opportunity to be the conduit for community voices if they can balance that responsibility with the demands of tenure and promotion.  This balance is not easy to achieve.  As I move into the position as full professor (basically I can't be promoted anymore), I'm thinking about ways to help make this process easier for my junior colleagues. Identifying the peer-reviewed publications that support public scholarship in each discipline is an important first step.  These institutional discussions play in the background as I share the video below. As a historian of the urban history and development, I see the transformation of the African-American community in Winter Park as a wider framework.  By sharing that framework, I can clarify the frustration articulated by the black community and perhaps aide in the creation of a context that fosters better policy that honors the cultural significance of the black community.  This is the always the long term goal, but first historians always want to tell stories.