A review of Mapping Memphis, a geospatial project using funeral ledger data, directed by Abigail Norris
Abigail Norris, University of Mississippi
Rebekah Aycock, University of Kansas
Mapping Memphis is a geospatial digital humanities project that seeks to critically engage the interplay between landscape, urban redevelopment, and racial and social history. It does so using a primary source largely underrepresented in digital humanities research: funeral home ledgers. The project engages with data from the ledgers of the T. H. Hayes and Sons Funeral Home, the oldest African-American owned business in Memphis, Tennessee. From 1904-1922, T. H. Hayes and Sons recorded demographic and funeral information for over 4,000 African American individuals in Memphis. These records include information such as a person’s age, cause of death, and occupation. However, this project focuses on a specific set of demographics in the ledgers: the physical locations recorded in each entry. These key pieces of information for each individual include “Place of Death,” “Funeral Services At,” “Physician’s Residence,” “Internment At,” and “Residence.” When combined, they offer a glimpse into African Americans’ homes, offices, social spaces, and places of worship in early 20th-century Memphis.
Mapping Memphis aims to provide research opportunities for Memphis-area historians and scholars of African American studies. When plotting individual locations onto a digital map, a visual representation of Memphis’ social and physical layout a century ago emerges. Scholars can use the map to question the relationship between past and present. How has Memphis changed socially and geographically over the last century? What challenges exist when tracking historic data in modern systems, and how can it be used to accurately reflect a century of progress and place-building? Analysis of funeral home data not only provides a previously unexplored perspective on turn-of-the-century Memphis; it also uncovers ways in which documents designed to capture an individual’s death end up celebrating and preserving aspects of their life.
Built on a deep history of Southern character, racial tensions, and social activism, Memphis’ urban landscape is firmly rooted in its past. At the same time, developments over the last century inflicted drastic changes on that landscape. These redevelopments speak to the social and racial issues woven deeply into the city’s history, and all continue to affect the race relations and historical perception of Memphis today. Mapping Memphis’ analysis of place-building and change reveals the often-problematic ways urban transformation fails to reflect historical context and how reclaiming lost urban heritage brings a fuller understanding of the present’s relationship with its past.
Mapping Memphis is a dynamic and creative digital humanities project that maps locations significant to thousands of African Americans who lived in early 20th century Memphis, Tennessee. This project was developed using geographic data identified in demographic and funeral information found in T.H. Hayes and Sons Funeral Home ledgers. By visualizing this data, this project speaks to some of the experiences of African Americans in Memphis and how the urban landscape has changed over a century.
One major accomplishment of this project is its documentation of the T.H. Hayes and Sons Funeral Home, an African-American owned business. A background of the funeral home is available on the “About” page. It describes how white funeral home owners refused service to African Americans, thus this business provided a vital service to the Memphis community. Today there is only a historical marker in the empty lot where the funeral home used to stand, so this project helps to preserve its memory. Moreover, by turning to funeral home records to access details about the lives of African Americans in Memphis, this project employs a brilliant method for accessing information about marginalized communities who historically have been left out or erased from other records.
Upon opening the map, the ledger data layer is placed over a 1915 map of Memphis. By clicking a button in the map key, users can remove and replace the historical map and view the ledger data layer over the OpenStreetMap layer (a contemporary street view map of Memphis). Having these two map options — and the ease with which users can switch between the two — is helpful to researchers and encourages all users to reflect on the connections between Memphis past and present.
One overarching quality of this project is that the platform itself helps tell a story and encourages learning. In spite of the significant amount of data included, the website and map are simple to navigate. This project would be a great example of digital humanities to show students as it demonstrates the possibilities of digital projects to not only contain a lot of information and be visually beautiful but ultimately to make the data more useful, accessible, and informative by means of the chosen format and features.
A few adjustments could make the map more accessible for people with vision disabilities. For example, while some of the location markers are distinguished by qualities like shape and size, several are quite similar except for their color. By having these points distinguished more clearly without relying on color, the map would be more accessible, particularly for those with color blindness. This would build on the map’s excellent design choice in which different types of locations (e.g. workplace, place of death) have different markers. As well as being practical for users actively exploring the map, this choice allows the visualization to tell a more nuanced initial story. Small changes to ensure the points are distinguishable would ensure this nuance is more legible for users.
As noted in the project description, Mapping Memphis is an integral resource for researchers in history and African American studies, but researchers in many other fields, including cultural studies, American studies, and urban studies, will also benefit from this project. Additionally, as the project is an example of the importance of examining history in a way that makes apparent its relationship with our present world, this would be a great project to share in undergraduate and graduate classrooms.