Looking Forward to Look Back: The Value of Digital Technology in Historical Study

If someone told me when I came to Messiah that my history degree would center around technology and graphic design, I would have told them they were crazy. Looking back on my four years at Messiah University and my tenure with Digital Harrisburg, I have been exposed to so many technological innovations that helped create astounding exhibits on Harrisburg history. Whether it was querying enormous census records in Microsoft Access or designing website logos in Adobe Illustrator, I have seen just how integral the digital is to modern public history. The most influential tool, however, has been ArcGIS mapping systems. Connecting historical figures and events to a physical space makes them real; it creates a connection between their experience and that of the modern population rooted in the streets they walk on. History is becoming modern; it’s bridging the gap between the past and the present through digital media.

My time at Messiah has culminated in my senior thesis. Entitled “Tracing the Lines of Racism”, it discusses housing inequality in relation to racially restrictive housing deeds in Harrisburg, PA and a process known as redlining from 1900 to 1968. Having worked on problems with race and space for the past three years, I wanted to unpack the racial divides that exist in the city by focusing on the availability (or lack there of) of housing for Blacks and Whites. After discovering over 60 racially restrictive covenants and comparing them to the Home Owners Loan Corporation Map of the city from 1935, I have concluded that pre-existing racial divisions at the turn of the century were codified by local realtors. The HOLC map made these divisions tangible and led to other individuals and realty companies reinforcing them through housing deeds that barred African Americans from purchasing a property. These restrictions created distinct areas for Blacks and Whites, associating the former with danger and instability and the later with modernity and safety.

As I worked through my research, it became more complicated. Yes, I had a hypothesis when I began and a general direction to go in, but because of COVID the normal methods of archival research were closed. I couldn’t go and visit an archive, so I had to rely on what I could access over the internet. Through zoom calls with professors and professionals like Dr. Albert Sarvis at Harrisburg University, hours of combing through the Digital Harrisburg online archives, and even more hours spent looking through individual housing covenants on the Dauphin County Recorder of Deeds website, I was able to start building a narrative.

Since I’m a public history major, I wanted to create an exhibit that would reach a large audience. Messiah, unfortunately, does not have a physical history museum. What better way, then, to reach a wide group of people than with an online exhibit. This project by nature is visual; it represents the relationship between race and space in Harrisburg through pictures, maps, and letters. Without the website, these elements would have been lost. If it weren’t for the digital, no one would have ever seen it.

To show the space was my top priority: the colors on the map and the lines they drew, the pictures of streets that no longer exist teeming with people, and the places that covenants made impossible to enter. I wanted people to be able to see how the streets of the city were divided and the challenges that African Americans would have faced. Digital mapping technology like ArcGIS made it possible to place the restrictive covenants within their environment. It allowed me to place the history in a real context; one can see Harrisburg from a birds’ eye view while also connecting to those who occupied its streets.

There were a lot of reasons why I chose this topic, but they accumulated over time. After working on the Commonwealth Monument Project in 2019 and 2020 I became invested in the stories of African American experience in Harrisburg. I had researched and wrote biographies of reformers like William Howard Day and Francis Harper who worked through countless adversities to fight for civil rights. Then, about three months after I submitted my abstract, George Floyd was killed. The amount of racial injustice that came to light during the summer of 2020 was a wake up call; I knew then that my work could truly have some impact and it was more important then ever to get it right.

History has bearing on our present. It forms our identity and connects many of us through shared experience. With these new technologies we can re-examine issues of the past in a new light, drawing new connections and discovering reasons for trends inexplicable until now. This research scratches the surface of a systemic divide in Harrisburg that still holds sway today. By continuing to incorporate new technologies in our historical research and unpacking our suppositions, we can expose and hopefully repair these divisions. We are becoming self-reflective and now have the ability to interrogate these narratives handed down to us by generations before.

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