Tag Archives: print media

Mapping Geography and Gender in ‘The Christian Recorder’

During my contributions to the Christian Recorder “Information Wanted” project, I began to wonder about the demographic information involved. So frequently with primary sources, the analysis done by researchers and historians becomes focused almost entirely along certain lines: facts, figures, and statistics, or the (typically) individualized narratives of the persons involved in the events themselves or else in their documentation.

There is no necessary or intentional divide, per se, between these two approaches to data. My hope was to keep this unified perspective in mind as I went forward with my own uses of our collected information. What emerged from my reading of the data sets was a picture of community, scattered and subdivided across various states and territories. They were separated – and indeed the entire notion of the “Information Wanted” columns was a deliberate response to the separation of individuals from their larger groups, typically families. But by using a rapidly-expanding system of communication – the printed periodical –  black Americans, now confronted with their potential roles as citizens and free members of a largely hostile society, could attempt to reach across great spaces to reunite with their fellows and families. As they did so, these communities would simultaneously be developing a system of gendered roles and expected norms for its members. These performances of accepted behaviors would in turn have an effect upon the readership and authorship of The Christian Recorder‘s “Information Wanted” advertisements.

To begin, then, I asked: How much of the geographical spread of interested persons demonstrated within these maps the result of the 19th century’s expansion of print mass media and travel technologies? As I discussed in a previous post, the potential audiences for newspapers, newsletters, and magazines had virtually exploded in scope and scale by the time of the advertisements I’ve sampled. Similarly, railroad networks underwent significant growth in both reach and density by the end of the Civil War, enabling goods, news, and people to travel further and faster than ever before. Consequently, and with the end of slavery now guaranteed by law, how many former slaves took advantage not only of their new freedoms but of these cultural and technological changes to seek out missing loved ones?

By writing in to The Christian Recorder and submitting “Information Wanted” notices, they could hope to tap into the readership of one of the most prominent and powerful black community groups in the country. This increasing connectivity between communities and among social and cultural groups prompted me to wonder what a random sampling of advertiser locations from the final months of the Civil War and its immediate aftermath would look like when mapped out according to the information given in their advertisements. To that end, I created my first map:

‘Christian Recorder’ Advertiser Locations

The sample size comes from all “Information Wanted” pieces published between March 1865 and December 1866, pared down to 197 individuals who provided direct contact information, including city and state. The results were intriguing in their concentrations. The density and frequency of advertisements placed by residents of non-slaveholding states is in fact nearly equal to those from states where slavery continued until the Thirteenth Amendment. Further, while dense population centers are well-represented, a significant number of the advertisements come from persons outside major cities. This would indicate that the extensive readership networks upon which these “Information Wanted” pieces hinged were not as centralized as they might at first appear.

Below is a breakdown of the data along state and territory lines. By far the largest state represented in the advertisements was Pennsylvania, which in itself is no great surprise, considering that The Christian Recorder was based in Philadelphia. This data chart, taken together were the map view above, will hopefully bring curious minds into the fold of understanding the connections between the places represented there and the people attempting to reach across the spaces between.

 

 

Obviously, this sample is not intended to be exhaustive, nor is it intended as a demonstration of the entire scope of the “Information Wanted” phenomenon, which ran continuously between 1861 and at least 1902. Rather, it represents a picture of the immediate post-emancipation era, and the geography of those in a position to seek out separated family and friends through a growing web of Christian Recorder readership and black church communities.

Geographic dispersion and the (typically) invisible strands of communication are all well and good, of course, and represent an area which remains more or less un-mined of its incredibly interesting and insightful biographic and demographic information. This approach to developing a more rounded understanding of life in the United States for freedpeople in the second half of the 19th century, one utilizing self-assessed data and very descriptive primary sources, could occupy the careers of countless historians and humanist academics. Ideally, it will. However, there is at least one other serious area worthy of intense study using these same sources: gender dynamics in African American communities.

While the 19th century is often (and rightly) described and understood as a period in which women struggled for authority and status within their social positions, personal relationships, and cultural paradigms, there were nonetheless some communities in which these exertions were less fractious. One of the groups was within African-American churches, within which scholars such as Elsa Barkley Brown[1] and Hannah Rosen[2] have argued that women in the immediate post-emancipation period and for some time afterward enjoyed relative gender equity within the communities. This changed over time for a number of reasons (and according to a number of competing theories), but nonetheless it must be understood that women were often allowed significant autonomy of conduct and organization for years within their churches. As the primary communication organ of the incredibly popular and influential African Methodist Episcopal Church, The Christian Recorder was no different. To that end, I created a second map from the same sampled data, this time broken down along gender lines.

‘Christian Recorder’ Advertiser Genders

Of the advertisers included in my sample, ninety-two were women. Compared to eighty-seven men and four advertisers with an indeterminate gender, this data seems to bear out the notion that women were more likely to attempt to reunite their families, arguably as an extension of the traditional authority of women over the domestic sphere.

What is surprising, then, is not the preponderance of female advertisers, but the comparative balance between men and women within this sample. I would be extremely interested to see the conclusions drawn by a more intensive and long-term research project which could analyze the “Information Wanted” advertisements through the end of the century and track the gender ratio over several decades.

The Tech Portion of the Show

So, having laid out the theoretical side of this project and my motivations in approaching it in the way I have, it seems a good idea to discuss the technical aspects. I used the immensely useful and easy-to-use BatchGeo program. A free service for relatively small projects, BatchGeo simply requires a user to input their collated data into the program, set the appropriate graphing options as desired, and then like glorious digital-humanist magic, a map is produced using GoogleMaps. This map is hosted by BatchGeo, with both public and private display options. I elected to host my information publically, in the hope that someone someday may find it interested, if not entirely useful.

I would recommend BatchGeo for the digital novice, or for those otherwise pressed for time or technical know-how. I found it immensely useful, even with its rather narrow data limits. The functionality is excellent, and for a free service with an approachable interface, this is absolutely nothing to sneeze at.

Conclusions

As I’ve hinted throughout this piece, my work is at best a brief introduction to the ideas I’ve put forth. There remains an enormous amount of data to process within the annals of The Christian Recorder. My hope in writing this is to spark interest in the roles of concepts such as geography and gender in the discussion of larger topics within social history of the 19th century. These two are not the only useful or intriguing lenses through which to view primary sources, of course, merely to two which struck me most definitively in my reading. There remains, as always, a great deal of difficult and rewarding work ahead of we historians, but armed with powerful new digital tools and a willingness to use them innovatively, our labors can at least be more stimulating than ever.

Endnotes

[1] Elsa Barkley Brown. “Negotiating and Transforming the Public Sphere: African American Political Life in the Transition from Slavery to Freedom.” Public Culture 7 (Fall 1994): 107-46.

[2] Hannah Rosen. Terror in the Heart of Freedom: Citizenship, Sexual Violence, and the Meaning of Race in the Postemancipation South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

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