Interpreting history: the iSchool symposium and History Day

Me at the 2nd iSchool symposium this past Wednesday, via Twitter

Last week, on May 9th, I presented my poster which visualized records from 1850 to 1870 of Black Marylanders, as part of the DCIC’s research cohort, in conjunction with the Maryland State Archives, at the 2nd iSchool Symposium, which took place from 4-6 PM in the Grand Ballroom of the Stamp Student Union. While I didn’t win an award, I was still glad to present what I had worked on with other people. There were so many interesting projects there and I didn’t get to see the posters of them all!

Via Twitter. Ben Shaw was one of those within my research cohort.
Poster in front of the Grand Ballroom in Stamp, pointing to where the symposium was taking place.

Other than my friend Jordan, who called my poster “so cool,” asking about access to Calvert County Census records, and the others who liked photos of me and my poster on Instagram, the title of my poster garnered some discussion. My friend, Layla, a digital media consultant, said that she seriously took “issue with the presumption of diversity in pre-1960s U.S. in terms of demographics or citizenship,” to which I pointed out errors of census takers, and she responded that the way I frame it is important, and that “the main issue is that *we weren’t permitted in the country as non-white people* whether or not census takers used flawed methods.” I responded to that further comment by noting that I gave it the title of “Diverse Connections: Making the 1850-1870 Calvert Census Come Alive!” because it was “one of the categories to pick and I hoped it would be catchy,” while acknowledging her valid points, noting that the category was “diversity, inclusion & accessibility.” She ended by saying that “it is catchy, for what that’s worth.” In another comment, she added that perhaps “talking about the lack thereof is a way to make our understanding more inclusive” and that she felt that “it’s just important to me that someone as smart as you know how exclusive this feels to some of us.” I responded to that by adding that she was “making sense, definitely” and that its “always good to have someone who is critical.” It is always good to have some individuals who are critical, rather than the default, which is often praise with nothing negative said. Thinking about the power of titles and their deeper meaning, with what they ultimately convey is something I’ll definitely think about more in the future.

Digital version of the poster I created

In beginning the poster, I wrote the following, which I think is worth reprinting in this post:

The notations, marks, and writings on U.S. Federal Censuses, from 1850-1870 not only have meaning for people today, whether family historians or researchers, but were meaningful to those living during that period, especially for under-represented people. This poster aims to

  • make those census documents come to life through a series of visualizations I created this semester, as part of a research cohort at the DCIC on campus with three wonderful fellow students from the University of Maryland (Ben Shaw, Ali Bhatti, and Chrissy Perry) with a faculty advisor of Prof. Fenlon and assistance from Noah Dilbert of the DCIC
  • Use the records of Black and Mixed-Race Marylanders gathered by the Maryland State Archives (MSA), for inclusion in their Legacy of Slavery project, and visualize the results

During this past spring 2019 semester, I have:

  • created 25 visualizations from Calvert County Census data from 1850-1870, 12 of which are shown on this poster
  • used tools such as Infogram to create a word cloud of surnames
  • used Paint.Net to hand-create representations of people to show gender distribution
  • drawn connections between census records and land records
  • used Datawrapper to create charts showing the age, race, and occupation of Black and Mixed-Race Marylanders
  • used Microsoft Excel and ChartGo to chart real and personal estate value

Other than some anomalies in the data, like an incomplete data set for Calvert County District 2, I did not visualize the hundreds of Black individuals whom the census taker listed with no occupation because I felt this categorization may have been racially motivated. This poster also does not display those whom had specific claimed mental deficiencies because it is similar in format to the other Excel charts or the two possible stories that involve connections with census, land, and genealogical records due to their limited scope.

With that, I hope you enjoy this poster, which is just the beginning to visualizing this data and creating diverse connections!

It is also worth reprinting the “lessons learned” section of the poster:

Looking back, there are some parts of this process I wish I had done differently:

  • Rather than hand-counting, with the help of tools like Microsoft Excel, of surnames, occupations, and race, it would have been more efficient to use OpenRefine.
  • Using Infogram to represent people, one of their free features, as would be more effective than trying to painstakingly draw the people myself, but I did not realize this feature was available until after I had completed the visualization in Paint.Net.

At the same time, I was:

  • only partially satisfied with the charts created about occupations, race, and average age, but I’m not sure how else to visualize the data at this time
  • a bit disappointed at how my visualizations connecting land and census records turned out, as I was unable to figure out how to add layers to an image using Recognito, so I stuck with Paint.Net.

Furthermore, I wish there was a way to connect to existing maps, apart from the 1870 map of Calvert County which displays districts, but I was unable to find any maps from 1850 and 1860. While I realize these shortcomings, the work I completed this semester is vitally important, allowing the census data to fully come alive rather than be static.

Now, I’d like to share the visualizations I created this semester, only 12 of which were included on my poster, to promote further access to what I worked on. I said 25 visualizations, but recounting these again, I realize I actually created 30! Anyway, the visualizations are shown below:

Connecting land records and census records:


Surname word clouds:

See the original on Infogram.
See the original on Infogram.
See the original on Infogram.
See original on Infogram.
See original on Infogram.
See the original on Infogram.

Representations of gender among Mixed-Race Marylanders:


Average age and racial classification:

See the original on Datawrapper.
See the original on Datawrapper.
See the original on Datawrapper.
See the original on Datawrapper.
 See the original on Datawrapper.
See the original on Datawrapper.


See the original on Datawrapper.
See the original on Datawrapper.
See the original on Datawrapper.
See the original on Datawrapper.
See the original on Datawrapper.
See the original on Datawrapper.

Other charts [1]:

Values are in $
Values are in $
Values are in $

Followed by an 1870 map which shows the districts in Calvert County:

Raw Data Download

If you would like to use the data that I came up with and used, I recommend you not download the data associated with my visualizations, as it is distorted, but rather download the following .xlsx documents, with the cleaned data:

There was also data which I did not use, which you can find in the footnotes. [2]

Also see this file of text documents I used when visualizing my data, which include a breakdown of surnames, occupation, estate value, and much more!

Thoughts on Maryland History Day

I’ll just end this post with some thoughts on Maryland History Day, for which I judged this past weekend, including as a chief judge in the morning for senior individual websites. They included topics ranging from, as I noted on Twitter, the Apollo Missions to the Atomic Bomb. I also did runoffs for documentaries, with topics including “Cocoanut Grove, Stonewall Riot, Thalidomide tragedy, ACT-UP, the Osage indigenous people (and oil), and the Triangle Shirtwaste Fire,” some of which I had not heard of before. As I awaited the winners, I already knew that the group documentaries I had reviewed had won, documentaries like “Last Dance at the Cocoanut Grove” (by Aidan Goldenberg-Hart, Daniel Greigg, Eli Protas, Joey Huang, and Charles Shi) which got first place, and “From Inefficient to Inspiring: How the Stonewall Riots Changed LGBT Activism” (by Pallavi Battina and Amulya Puttaraju) which got second place. However, when it came to individual websites, one of the ones I reviewed got first place! It was titled “Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington: How Their Investment in People Led from Tragedy to Triumph” and it was by Matthew Palatnik. None of the websites my group had nominated for special prizes won. So that was positive.

History Day made it clear to me that even the topics often written about can be talked about in a new way, with a new interpretation, with these students entering the process of historical research, so I wish them the best in the days going forward. In June, I will serve as a judge on the national level of History Day at College Park, which should be fun!

In closing, there is a strain that connects the visualizations I made this semester and Maryland History Day: the importance of history and interpretations of what happened, allowing for new insights and thoughts, enriching how our collective past is understood.


[1] Most of these charts were made with Microsoft Excel, but others were made with ChartGo and Paint.NET.

[2] Data not used included: District 3 [1850] Those classified as “Dark” – a 11-year-old female named Sarah Mitchell, born in Maryland. In one of the 1860 districts  one entry weirdly gives the number “42737” which distorted the data, so this was not counted. Those Black Marylanders without any listed occupations were not counted: 295 in Dist 1 in 1850, 411 in Dist 2 in 1850, 541 in Dist 3 in 1850; 292 in Dist 1 in 1860, 432 in Dist 2 in 1860, 432 in Dist 3 in 1860; 912 in Dist 1 in 1870, 161 in Dist 2 in 1870, 779 in Dist 3 in 1870.

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