This project will develop a website that traces the history and mythology of the famous Underground Railroad (UGRR). The project focuses on a fairly restricted geographic region, Western Illinois. This design will enhance the project’s ability to offer some depth to various facts and stories about the region’s involvement in the UGRR. The project has four principal parts. First, it seeks to make available to users additional information about evidence-based UGRR sites and individuals, including four kinds of historical figures: fugitive slaves, free African Americans, white antislavery activists, and white proslavery opponents of the UGRR. The project will seek to present the region’s history of the UGRR through providing depth, drama, and context to the peoples on whom it focuses. Second, rather than seeking to squash “myths” about the UGRR, from its locations to codes to personas, the project will explore their origins and circulation in the region, querying reasons for their longevity. Third, the project will locate UGRR sites, both factual and mythological, on an interactive map. Fourth, the project will encourage users to provide input to the project, including contributions of their own oral histories and images about the UGRR in the area, and tagging sources that the project accumulates and makes available. The project’s administrator’s contact information will be made available for this purpose.
The project will use an Omeka platform to create an exhibit of artifacts. The exhibit will be organized into galleries, each pertaining to a geographic location. This arrangement will encourage users to learn about the history through the interactions, collaborations, and conflicts of different individuals and groups. And each gallery will include both artifacts that illuminate both factual and mythological aspects of the UGRR in the area. A geolocation plugin is available to allow mapping of latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates relevant to the artifacts.
The project primarily targets people who live in Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri, who are interested in the region’s history and the role of history in shaping current-day society. These are principally college educated, middle-class adults, of different cultural backgrounds. Some members of this audience read history books that focus on the drama of ordinary people’s lives. Other members of this audience have little time to read, and are interested in history presented through visual media. A few members of this target audience actively promote historic sites in the region, and may be interested to link associated websites they manage or contribute to to this project.
The project considers a secondary audience people who may travel to the region to visit family or to see parts of Illinois that can claim association with the Civil War and/or Abraham Lincoln.
The project considers a tertiary audience individuals who study digital history who find the site useful for its integration of digital artifacts and geographic locations, and for its treatment of both “fact” and “fiction” UGRR sites as worthy of study and community discussion.
The project draws on literature pertaining to several prior public history projects. Sheila Brennan, et al., Building Histories of the National Mall: A Guide to Creating a Digital Public History Project (Fairfax: RRCHNM, October 2015) is a blueprint for building an accessible open-access website that both allows users to explore virtually, and enhances the experience of actual visitors to, a sort of mythological national space. In its invitation to users to contribute their personal or family anecdotes about the UGRR, the project draws on methodologies and principles in Katharine Corbett and Howard Miller, “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry,” Public Historian 28 (2006) 15-38. And in consideration of its presentation of “factual” and “fictitious” UGRR sites in the region, the project takes inspiration from two analogous digital projects. One is Appalachian Trail Histories: Ghost Shelters (https://appalachiantrailhistory.org/exhibits/show/shelters/ghostshelters), which maps the “ghost shelters” of the Appalachian Trail — those that were once on the Trail, but no longer exist. The other is Sherman’s March and America: Mapping Memory (http://shermansmarch.org/), which presents variously themed digital maps of the famous 1864 march through Georgia of the Army of the Tennessee, including a map showing basic facts; a map highlighting events involving African Americans and southern civilians; a map revealing soldiers’ perspectives; and a “fiction map,” identifying real and imagined places that have appeared in fictitious works about the March.