Metadata as restorative justice: a case study of the Sanders-Bullitt digital collection—Part I

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Louisiana Taylor, an older Black woman with gray hair, around the age of seventy-five. Louisiana is holding a young Helen Stites, a white infant dressed in white, who is a descendant of the Bullitt family that previously enslaved Louisiana, her husband, and her children. Louisiana wears a buttoned shirt and a plaid scarf around her neck. The photograph is in sepia-tone with no background behind the two of them. The back of the item is captioned: “’Louisiana’ with Helen Stites (Father of mammy was an Indian)

Photograph of Louisiana Taylor holding a young Helen Stites, 1879. Image credit: The Filson Historical Society, Special Collections

Editor’s note: This is the first of two posts about the Sanders-Bullitt Digital Collection at the Filson Historical Society.

The core component of The Filson Historical Society’s latest digital collection featured a reworking of the Bullitt Family Papers to highlight the people they enslaved, including the Sanders, Green, and Taylor families, among others.

Consider the title and description of the following item:

Title: Contract hiring Joshua Bernard to catch Phil, Len, and Hope, three enslaved men who ran away from their enslavers, May 18th, 1825.

Description: A contract between Joshua Bernard, Richard Phillips, Alexander Veech, and William C. Bullitt, dated May 18th, 1825. Bullitt, Winchester, and Veech hired Bernard to catch three runaway enslaved men: Phil, Len, and Hope. Phil’s enslaver was named Benjamin Winchester, who was represented by Richard Phillips in this contract. Len’s enslaver was named Peter Veech, who was represented by Alexander Veech. Hope’s enslaver was named William Christian Bullitt.

A more typical description would be arranged in a way that centered the enslavers while simultaneously reducing enslaved people to their captivity. A traditional passage might have used this language:

Title: Contract between Joshua Bernard, Richard Phillips, Alexander Veech, and William C. Bullitt, May 18th, 1825.

Description: A contract between Joshua Bernard, Richard Phillips (representative to Benjamin Winchester), Alexander Veech (representative to Peter Veech), and William C. Bullitt, dated May 18th, 1825. Bullitt, Winchester, and Veech hired Bernard to catch their three runaway slaves. Richard Phillips’s slave was named Phil. Peter Veech’s slave was named Len. William Christian Bullitt’s slave was named Hope.

Even though both descriptions give the researcher equal amounts of information, the first passage challenges the language typically used when describing enslavement. By updating our metadata and cataloguing practices, historical institutions can subvert the anti-Black power dynamics present in these documents and, instead, highlight the agency that people fought to secure for themselves and their families while in bondage. 

Using the term “enslaver” instead of “slave-owner” recognizes enslavement as a verb—a continuous choice by the enslaver to “own” other people and profit from their labor. “Slave-owner” is a static term, one that implies a passive ownership akin to how one would own a car or a home. “Enslaver” highlights the fact that these affluent families actively chose to subjugate and persecute other people their entire lives, despite constant resistance from the people they enslaved. Similarly, by using person-first language such as “enslaved person” rather than “slave,” we aim to emphasize the humanity of the people who were consistently treated like property during their lifetime.

The Bullitt family, who owned the Cottonwood and Oxmoor plantations in Kentucky from the early colonization of Kentucky until the twentieth century, enslaved over two hundred people. In a project funded by the Kentucky Genealogical Society, we at the Filson Historical Society have fully digitized records related to over six generations of enslaved people. While creating the Sanders-Bullitt digital collectionI learned that archival practices have stripped away the agency of enslaved people, whether intentionally or not. Many libraries, museums, and archives have perpetuated white supremacy by failing to question the language of the enslaver and by using cataloguing as a tool to make white supremacist ideas appear natural. Even in death, the people enslaved by the Bullitt family have been pushed to the sidelines of the narrative. Therefore, it was necessary for this initiative to put their voices at the forefront of each item, so that the Filson can begin to make amends for the ways we have excluded Black people in our archival practices.

Projects like this one, in which we question our past archival practices and adapt our work to be more helpful to researchers, prove the abundance of marginalized histories in our collections. It is not enough to digitize these collections and put them online, however. We must take care in our language and be aware of how we implicitly represent peoples that have been historically silenced in the archive. We must use digitization as an opportunity to re-evaluate our collections and ask ourselves what, or who, we’ve excluded in our previous interpretive works.

Changing our metadata practices to be more inclusive, compassionate, and respectful to marginalized peoples can ensure long-lasting cultural healing. Remembering and documenting marginalized communities can even be an act of restorative justice, a practice in which those affected by a crime (such as victim, perpetrator, etc.) collaborate on solutions that get to the root of an injustice and fully address the hurts and needs of a community. Re-working and re-evaluating our collections is a way to stop perpetuating anti-Black violence in the archives. This practice also ensures that the names of enslaved people are more accessible to descendants and other researchers. By being direct, straightforward, and honest in interpretive work, historical institutions can acknowledge the harm they have done by neglecting and erasing Black history in their collections.

We’ve created new standards for our cataloguing language that are summarized in the following google document, but the metadata of this work is by no means perfect. There are still obstacles to perfecting our language and truly placing the people enslaved by the Bullitt family at the forefront of this collection. All these sources come from a white, colonist, enslaving perspective. Furthermore, all members involved with this project are white. While we consulted the Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia Anti-Racist Description Resources document while writing metadata, we lack feedback from the communities this collection aims to serve. While we still have many more letters to uncover, we greatly appreciate any feedback fellow public historians wish to give.

The second post of this series will discuss the obstacles to digitizing collections that document enslavement and ways we’re working with the Oxmoor Farm and Historic Site for their permanent exhibit on enslaved people at Oxmoor.

~Emma Johansen is collections assistant at the Filson Historical Society. They graduated in May 2021 from the University of Louisville with their bachelor’s in history and have been working with the Filson since January 2020. They specialize in LGBTQ+ history, digitization, and metadata creation.

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