Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Letter from the Director for September 2020

By David Ware, director and state historian

Last fall saw the release of an important new work of historical scholarship and interpretation: Fugitivism: Escaping Slavery in the Lower Mississippi Valley, 1820-1860 by S. Charles Bolton, UA-Little Rock emeritus professor of history. Published by the University of Arkansas Press, this densely-researched work tells the stories of the more than 750,000 enslaved people taken, in the antebellum decades, to the Lower Mississippi Valley plantations.

Some may assume that those belonging to a particular plantation were figuratively, if not literally, chained to it, but Bolton reveals a more complicated, more interesting story: Like their brethren across the South, these workers frequently “left home” at night for social or religious meetings, sometimes staying away for a few days or longer. Some tried to flee to the cities, to blend in there with the resident Black populations made up of slaves and free Blacks; some remained close to their former homes, close by their families and former co-workers. Still others headed for freedom, or aimed to, north of the Ohio River or across the Mexican border. Penalties were usually harsh for captured fugitives but the incentives were great: the enslaved desperately wanted the freedom that the white population could and did take for granted.

A few weeks ago, I spoke with Bolton about how he had compiled the research for this volume, which is based on information taken from advertisements, newspaper accounts and court records. He was amazed, he observed, at how much of the primary and contemporary-source research could be done from his home office. Astounding amounts of original material are now accessible online through free-access sites: Newspapers he would once have had to travel across the state or nation to read, or for which he would have had to order microfilm for loan or purchase, could now be read on his computer, marking a big change, maybe even a revolution, in the way he — and we — can visit our source materials.
v   v   v

Dr. David Ware, ASA director and state historian,
keeps a working typewriter in his office.
For nearly two decades, the Arkansas State Archives has been an active participant in that revolution. In 2000, access to our collections was closely supervised and old school, even by the standards of the day. The research room was dominated by looming microfilm readers, and patrons were not allowed to load film onto those readers or remove it; staff did the work. A pair of reader-printers allowed copies to be made, but patrons were required to insert paper slips into the microfilm rolls, marking the frames from which staff would make copies. The room was quiet, apart from the squeaks and groans of the reader mechanisms and the quiet voices of the expert staff. And this was how research was done.

The research room carried on this way for a few more years, but in 2001 the History Commission launched its first web site, offering access to materials through its Stage One Digitization (SOD) project. From that point, there was no looking back. Over the past 19 years, increasing numbers of documents, images, finding aids and other materials have been made available on successive iterations of our web site and digital collections platform. During the last six months, we have migrated to both a new web site and a new digital collections platform, one with space for vastly expanded digital offerings. Not everything in our collections is online, nor will everything end up online—but we have big plans, and space to grow them.

In addition to our own digital collections, our web site provides a link to an exciting and powerful tool for researchers of all levels of interest. In 2003, the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities forged an alliance with an ambitious goal: to create an Internet-based, searchable database of U.S. newspapers with descriptive information and select digitization of historic pages. This has grown into the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP), which will host extensive runs of digitized, OCR-processed (thus, searchable) newspapers from each state, digitized in most cases from microfilm. In this project, antique (print), mature (microphotography) and up-to-the-minute digital technologies are combined.

The ASA is an enthusiastic participant in this. We are in the middle of our second grant-funded cycle, selecting and preparing newspapers from our unequaled microfilm collection of Arkansas imprints for digitizing, processing and uploading to the NDNP’s Chronicling America web site, hosted by the Library of Congress (and accessible via a link from our “About Collections” web page). To date, Arkansas titles on the site include the Paragould Weekly Soliphone, the Ozark Spectator, the Brinkley Argus and the Mena Daily Star, with many more to come. The earliest Arkansas paper available on the site at this time is from 1854, and at this writing, 82,751 pages are available and searchable. Add this to the great bulk of materials available from other online sources, and one might become a little shell-shocked of the wealth of what’s there: This is a revolution indeed.

v   v   v

A few paragraphs ago, I was speaking of Fugitivism, the latest work from (full disclosure) my friend and neighbor Charles Bolton. This is not a review as such, but it is an appreciation and a recommendation. This book shows that fugitivism was not only a protest of or reaction to the condition of enslavement, but also a volitional act, taken in pursuit of self-actualization and even happiness. It is impressively researched, informative and, at the same time, readable: it is full of individual characters and stories that compel attention and invite reflection.