Written by Elijah Gaddis, GRC and graduate student in the Department of American Studies
One hundred and twenty three years ago this month, Carter Burnett was abducted from his jail cell in Oxford, North Carolina and hanged from a nearby tree. The men responsible for his murder were never caught. His death was a lynching–one instance of the extralegal mob violence that plagued North Carolina for decades, especially in the years during North Carolina’s gradual transition into the 20th century. Carter Burnett’s story is one of the roughly one hundred and fifty stories featured in Locating Lynching. This digital humanities project was born out of a collaboration between myself, Dr. Seth Kotch, and a class of first year students. It maps every reported lynching that took place in North Carolina between 1865-1941 in an attempt to show how widespread this form of racial terror was and how close our connection to many of these landscapes still is.
While serving as a Graduate Research Consultant for Seth Kotch’s first year class, Digital Humanities: The Rural South, I came to class initially to help the students with digital research tools and strategies. Early on in the class, the Equal Justice Initiative and its project to place historical markers on the sites of every lynching in the South was profiled in a New York Times article. Dr. Kotch brought this article and an accompanying map to the students and discussed its implications for the study of the rural South and for the digital humanities methods that the students were learning. Afterward, when he polled the students, they unanimously agreed to forego their individual projects in favor of working on a larger scale digital map that would show the lynchings in North Carolina and reveal details of the lives of some of its victims.
The ability to change direction here was important. It allowed the students to be invested in a project that they’d help outline and that they wanted to learn more about. It suggested to them the possibilities of digital research and digital humanities tools which would allow them to collaborate with one another. And most importantly, it showed them that research–original research that they conducted–could be responsive, important, and timely.
To start the project, we paired students up and assigned them lynchings to research. They used digitized newspapers, city directories, and census data to find out about each lynching and each victim. Their data went into a database that I had designed in consultation with Dr. Kotch. As the students continued research, fuller stories of these events and the people at their center started to emerge. We saw, in what those of us working in digital humanities often think of simply as “data,” sketches of the lives of people made marginal by their race or social class and whose lives each ended amid the indignity and terror of a communal practice that left great wounds on the history and landscape of North Carolina. For the students, this was a lesson both in how to do research and why research matters. Like me, many of them were struck to discover how close many of these lynching sites were to places they’d been many times before. They helped uncover and make visible hidden histories that we all live with and among.
We published a version of Locating Lynching in October, 2015. We hope to continue and expand the project in the future, but you can see our interactive map of North Carolina Lynchings, as well as explanations of our process and further details at lynching.web.unc.edu