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.

Hannibal Square in the Suburban Erasure

I had a great opportunity to speak about my research at Monmouth University. This was a great chance to engage with scholars that are concerned about property and race. I frame my work as generative digital scholarship that supports the recovery of black community narratives. This presentation put that assertion to the test on a panel with Mary Corbin Sies, a guiding light planning history. It was a great event and I'm starting to think about how I can build on it.

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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.    

Along the Spectrum: Reflections on "Humanizing Data"

I was lucky of enough to present at the Humanizing Data: Data, Humanities and the City Symposium organized by the NYU Urban Democracy Lab. My thanks to Rebecca Amato (@urbandemos) for asking me to attend. It was great to see how the work I've been doing in Hannibal Square aligns with methods and theory guiding projects around the country. The one thing that linked all the project was a focus on communities of various types. The struggle all the communities shared was to have their stories heard. The reality that the chasm between academic narratives and public understanding continues was made clear at this event.

I know this problem well, but I don't believe I have solved it. To be sure, I think of engagement along a spectrum that incorporates many kinds of narrative. I often think about how I can pursue ideas across platform with the goal of increasing understanding around important urban issues linked to community and development.  I emphasize community engagement and classroom as platform to create outcomes that promote greater engagement with partner organizations that have articulated specific needs. I see it as a process, but I refine and engage as much as possible. 

The requirement to give back to the community is something I keep at the forefront of my thinking.  At the same time, creating, sustaining and evolving these community partnership to not easily translate directly into scholarly outputs. If you are on the tenure track, that is a problem. Over the years, I have tried to focus on having a distinct "recognizable" academic objects in the project cycle.  I say "recognizable" because I operate in an interdisciplinary space and that make my narrative complicated for any reviewer expecting disciplinary specific outcomes.  The last three years have been very much about producing articles, case studies, and book chapters that align with my narrative that "I study the real and imagined city." I did it. Some would argue I did it spectacularly well :-) On the other hand, I'm pretty sure others would disagree.  As I check in with scholars in various network, most emphasize that the complicated researcher must explain themselves. If you don't you risk misinterpretations and distortions.  I think people in other professions think this is obvious, but it is not easy in academia. Still, I have accepted this is a part of my practice (hence the blog). 

Early this semester, I spoke at UF about the hybrid nature of my practice and emphasize that range of engagement types was one path for modern academic working in digital landscape could pursue. This path toward public scholarship that is developed and evolved in the context of community concerns is one filled with layers of complexity. The conversation about the best manner to produce community engaged scholarship is one that I have reflected on as I reach the apparent zenith of academic status. As a full professor I have, from an institutional standpoint, accomplished enough to be reached the highest professorial rank. Tenure and promotion creates a good amount of emotional turmoil so I'm not likely to dance in the street anytime soon. However, reaching full professor, like getting tenure, does force me to assess what is the best path forward. When I got tenure I made a decision that I would engage in a kind of public scholarship. This decision led me pattern of academic and public engagement that took cues from various arenas. Everything from art practice to public history influenced my thinking. I was not trying to be them, I was trying to create a space where I could utilize those frameworks to create an engaged praxis. Did it work?  Well, the answer is more complex than yes or no.

Classroom as Platform and Community Engagement

Since coming to Rollins College in 2003, I've been deeply engaged in community history. When I began this process, I was not thinking about it in terms of Community Engagement, instead I was thinking about it in the framework of public history. In particular, I was especially concerned with collect community stories through oral history projects linked with community partners such as the Winter Park Historical Association. Over the years my partners have expanded to include the Winter Park Public Library, Hannibal Square Heritage Center and the Hannibal Square Community Land Trust. These links allow me to align the course content with the community in way that bolster student learning.  This is no simple task, but it is an important process.