A three-year digital humanities project is underway at The University of Southern Mississippi, supported by a National Science Foundation-Research Experience for Undergraduates grant, that examines the pathways to freedom and citizenship taken by emancipated slaves during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.
Titled “Mapping Freedom,” the project is a collaborative effort between digital humanities and science, technology, engineering, and math and using mapping technology, including geographic information system. The NSF-REU site grant initiative features a paid, eight-week research experience that includes housing and dining, for 10 undergraduate humanities students from across the country, starting this summer and repeating for the summers of 2024 and 2025.
To goal of the project is to offer opportunities to undergraduates, particularly those from underrepresented and underserved populations in the state, to conduct research showing how STEM disciplines can be effectively employed in humanities projects. The program is underway and will continue through July 28; participants will present their work July 26 on the Hattiesburg campus.
USM faculty members Elizabeth La Beaud in University Libraries and Dr. Aleise McGowan in the School of Computing Sciences and Computer Engineering are co-principal investigators leading the program, with USM Geography program professor Dr. Kayla Stan and USM Professor of History Dr. Susannah Ural serving as affiliated personnel. Dr. Andrew Haley will serve as interim director of USM Digital Humanities in 2023-24.
Mapping Freedom is an extension of Dr. Ural’s “Civil War and Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi” digital documentary project that is digitizing more than 20,000 letters written to Mississippi governors during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. The records of emancipation used in “Mapping Freedom” will be taken from the available documents in the CWRGM project as students create a visual project for their own research using these letters.
Simeon Gates, a rising senior at USM double-majoring in history and digital journalism, says she learned about Mapping Freedom after Maeve Losen, manager for the USM Center for Digital Humanities, came to one of her history classes to give a presentation on the project and encourage people to consider participation.
“I decided to apply because I thought the topic was really important,” Gates said. “The Civil War is one of the most popular topics in history. But there are so many aspects and nuances to it that many important details get overlooked, so my goal is to find a topic that is underdiscussed and explore it further.
“My hope is that someone can use the product of our research as a steppingstone for more work,” she continued, further noting that she hopes to gain greater confidence as a researcher from the project and apply its lessons to her work in school and as a journalist.
Jaylin Jones, a Presidential Honors Scholar who is a rising junior at USM majoring in English with a minor in Black Studies minor, says he also got involved in the project after hearing it promoted by the USM Center for Digital Humanities in several of his classes.
Jones’ research within Mapping Freedom focuses on how the Confederacy impressed the usage of slave labor to build fortifications, roads, and other infrastructure in Mississippi during the Civil War. In doing this, he will use letters and records found within the Civil War Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi archive.
“My goal is to produce a research paper and accompanying data visualization that represents how this system was used to benefit the Confederacy, as well as where and how much of this labor took place,” he explained.
Jones believes the Civil War/Reconstruction era is one of the most overlooked or purposefully misrepresented points in American history, and it’s for these reasons he believes the project is so meaningful for him and his fellow students in doing the work of uncovering the story of this era through examination of primary sources.
“It really interested me because it pertained to the history of Mississippi and emancipation, and as a Black Studies minor, I was excited by the prospect of doing unique research in that field,” he said. “It’s one of the best ways to know what was going on and what the reality of people back then looked like, and it’s empowering us as students to be able to help share that history with people.
“I’m excited to see the diverse range of work that will result from our work with this data, and especially the applications that work will have even beyond the project.”
Mapping Freedom has also given Jones even more interdisciplinary research opportunities.
“It delves not only into history, but the usage of digital tools, GiS systems, and a variety of other skills that are making me a more versatile academic,” he further noted. “I’m also hoping to create strong material that I could use as the foundation of further undergrad and graduate research, possibly through the USM Honors College or the McNair program.
“I’m very happy to be a part of this kind of collaboration between the STEM and Humanities fields, and hope this kind of collaboration continues.”
For more information about the USM Center for Digital Humanities, visit https://www.usm.edu/digital-humanities/.