Below are the beginnings of a proposal for a grant to fund my final project.

Abstract

This project will involve the creation of an open access website which will aim to juxtapose the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River region with historical mapping data, land use data as well as archival material on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border in order to create a richer and deeper understanding and appreciation of the Underground Railroad. In so doing, it will also bring to the fore local and community organizations and archives, as well as work with museums such as the Charles Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit.

Statement of Innovation

This project integrates two pedagogical resources and techniques to pilot a new approach to community history through the creation of a new website. These are: use of community resources (including archival material); use of methods to spatialize the Underground Railroad i.e. GIS and georeferencing of historical maps and land parcels. In so doing, the object is to innovatively reinterpret and represent the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River region to accentuate the longer connections and disconnections between urbanization, borderlands, and the Underground Railroad.

Statement of Humanities Significance

The humanities play a seminal role in helping us understand, engage, and remember our historical heritage, especially in today’s face paced world where reliable information is just as easily available as unreliable information. A website that brings together different strands of knowledge and information, in order to re-present the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River region will combine elements most relevant to humanities concerns.

Narrative

Enhancing the Humanities Through Innovation

We will design and create a pilot website that showcases the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River region, integrating different digital humanities techniques and pedagogies. The methodology will integrate various humanities and social sciences approaches. This work is urgently needed because there is little work highlighting transnational, regional, and local connections in abolition activism in the Detroit river region. In juxtaposing maps with archival material as well as land use data, this website will represent not only novel techniques but also novel interpretative approaches.

         The website will visualize the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River region with three aims in mind: one, to map the Underground Railroad for itself on both sides of the river and political border between the United States and Canada; two, relate the growth and routes of the railroad to urbanization and bordering processes on both sides of the border and; three, use the website as a means to think about the longer connections that the railroad represents but showing the routes, points of origin and final destination (when available) of enslaved people using the Underground Railroad. As an interactive map that will use GIS data on land parcels, along with maps, georectification techniques, and archival data sources, the website will allow users to click on individual routes, individual travelers, as well as important stops to get information in the form of blurbs and links to external sources and websites. The website will also use interviews with archivists, conservation professionals from the Charles Wright Museum of African American History, as well as local community archives. In so doing, it will also give visibility to local community organizations and archives. As an open access website, we hope to collaborate with community organizations on both sides of the river to showcase artifacts, historical newspaper and archival resources, and anecdotal stories. An important element of the website will be users’ ability to get in touch with community resources and organizations to get more information. When possible, the website will also host online interactive sessions.

Environmental Scan

Emergent scholarship has sought to contextualize the impetus for the transnational nature of abolitionist activism along the Detroit River frontier[1] exposing the importance of the ‘permeable border’ in the Great Lakes region.[2] Daniel J. Broyld’s work, although centered around Rochester,

New York has placed the city in the ‘larger borderlands framework of the Niagara Region.’[3]  In specific, Broyld’s work seeks to highlight the passing over of escapees and continual cross-border interactions that occurred (and continue to) occur in the region. Much like Rochester, Detroit was a focal point in transnational abolitionist activism. Its proximity to Canada, and ease of crossing the narrow Detroit River made it an ideal terminal of the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad offers an important vantage point in understanding the permeable nature of the international border while also highlighting how the maintenance of that border marked the difference between freedom and slavery. Recent scholarship has sought to draw together “together two aspects of the U.S. past that are often narrated separately: the fur trade of the great West (often imagined as involving whites and blacks) and chattel slavery (often imagined as involving whites and blacks).”[4]

         The urban and environmental history of the US Canada border along the Detroit River are critically under-researched. Through an exploration of the relationship between urban history and the political border,  this website will explore a more bottom up way of envisioning and analyzing the border. Extant work on the US Canada border has analyzed the changing relationship of the two countries (especially post 9/11). However, there is little or no work on the Detroit Windsor border linking city growth with the formation of the US-Canada border.

History of the project

The project began as an idea during a graduate seminar and has grown since. The basic idea has remained the same—juxtaposing historical maps and land parcels with urbanization processes and the Underground Railroad to reveal a deeper, richer analysis of the railroad network and its connections. Archival collections at the Detroit Public Library, Toronto Public Library, and the Library of Congress will be seminal to the project, in addition to the relatively unexplored collections in Windsor, Amherstburg, and Lansing. Thus far, scholarly work on the Underground Railroad has been focused on important actors and events. In relating growing urban areas on both sides of the Detroit River with the Underground Railroad through the 19th century, the aim is to spatialize the operation of the Underground Railroad. By tracing the relationship of infrastructure (i.e. technology, people and places) of the Underground Railroad to the growth of urban areas on both sides of the Detroit River, this project aims to move beyond traditional scholarship on the subject.


[1] Karolyn Smardz Frost, Veta Smith Tucker, and David W. Blight, eds., A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance, and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderland, Great Lakes Books (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016).

[2] John J. Buckowczyk et al., Permeable Border: The Great Lakes Basin as Transnational Region, 1650 – 1990 (Pittsburgh PA: University of Pittsburgh Press; University of Calgary Press, 2005).

[3] Daniel J. Broyld, “Rochester, New York: A Transnational Community for Blacks Prior to the Civil War,” Rochester History 72, no. 2 (Fall 2010): 1–23.

[4] Tiya Miles, The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits (New York ; London: The New Press, 2017), 15.A

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