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

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A photographic tintype of an unidentified Black woman holding an unidentified white child. The woman is in a floor-length polka dot dress and a straw hat. She is also wearing a white apron. She holds a white infant wrapped in a white blanket that looks up at her. The woman is looking right at the camera with an emotionless expression, and she could be anywhere from 20 to 35 years old. They sit together on a chair indoors, next to a small table and sunlight coming in from the window.

Tintype of an unidentified Black woman holding an unidentified white child. Image credit: Manuscript Collection, Bullitt Family Papers, The Filson Historical Society

This is the second of two posts about the Sanders-Bullitt Digital Collection at the Filson Historical Society. Part 1 was published on December 30, 2021.

The Bullitt family enslaved over two hundred people at the Oxmoor plantation in Jefferson County, Kentucky, and the Cottonwood plantation in Henderson County, Kentucky. The Bullitt’s manuscript collection is notorious for its size: it is one of the largest collections at the Filson Historical Society. The Sanders-Bullitt digital collection brings new perspectives to the Bullitt Family Papers that wouldn’t be possible without previous digital humanities projects.

A crucial component of the Sanders-Bullitt digital collection was our tagging system in Omeka, an online exhibit and collections platform created by and for public historians. Over two hundred entries are already digitized and online and we have tagged the names of every enslaved person we were able to identify. When clicking on the tag, viewers can travel an invisible thread that puts items across the collection into conversation with one another. While the original purpose of these materials was for correspondence, our tagging system transforms the Bullitt Family Papers into a more powerful, inclusive, and accurate collection.

While the tagging system is incredibly useful, it comes with obstacles that are well known to those researching Black history and genealogy. In many cases, it’s difficult to track specific people when there are a number of Henrys, Toms, Elizabeths, and Johns in both the Bullitt family and the families they enslaved. Furthermore, because of the omission or non-existence of surnames, it’s even more difficult to differentiate among enslaved people in documents. It’s unknown which Jim is being discussed in a specific letter when there are six recorded Jims with three different last names.

Nicknames and shortened names also complicate the tagging system: Little Jimmy, James, Jim, and Old Jimmy could all be the same person through different stages of life or four separate individuals. Likewise, if someone’s name is only mentioned once in passing, it’s difficult to confirm their race, age, gender, or enslavement status. None of these problems are unique to the Filson, or this collection in particular, but our goal is to overcome these hurdles as much as possible through research and interpretation.

Our tagging system will be most useful to the Oxmoor Advisory Group, a group of public historians and Black activists working together to curate a permanent exhibit honoring enslaved people at the Oxmoor Farm and Historic Site. Members include Hannah Drake, author, poet, and founder of The (Un)known Project, and Dan Gediman, founder of The Reckoning, a podcast that connected descendants of Louisiana Taylor and the Sanders Family with their genealogy at Oxmoor. The physical, permanent exhibit at Oxmoor will follow the lives of three enslaved people and the Filson’s collections will form the backbone of their research.

The Filson is planning a digital exhibit of our own to complement the digital collection and further weave items and stories together, revealing what we know and admitting what we don’t. It will further contextualize these items and hold designated pages for as many enslaved persons as possible. This portion was heavily inspired by The Naming Project at Montpelier. Montpelier also created the Engaging Descendant Communities Rubric that was incredibly influential when reflecting on ways we have mishandled Black collections in the past. We’re also drafting a family tree of the Sanders, Green, and Taylor families, as well as a family tree of the Bullitt family, to aid researchers in grasping the connections between one generation and the next. With these resources, researchers can track the ways enslaved persons were transferred to other family members through marriages, last wills and testaments, and estate inventories.

As I begin to wrap up this project, I’m left with a sense of grief and frustration I fear I’ll never shake. We know so much about the Bullitt family. Their genealogy stretches generations. Their history didn’t begin with Oxmoor; it began much earlier, in their migration from Virginia to the Kentucky frontier in the 1790s. We have letters addressed to John C. Bullitt that fill boxes upon boxes. We have locks of Mildred Ann Bullitt’s hair. We have receipts and bills and ledger books. We know so much of the Bullitt family, yet we know so little of the people they enslaved.

There is one photograph of a woman we don’t know, and her eyes haunt me. The photograph is a tintype dated from between the 1860s and the 1880s. We don’t know exactly when. The cloth label that accompanies the photograph refers to the woman as “Mammie,” alongside a name that could be Patsy, Betsy, or Becky. The label also continues, “One of Tom Bullitt’s,” but it’s unclear if this statement refers to the woman or the white baby she holds. This ambiguity is yet another example of the dehumanization at the core of slavery and white supremacy. The photographs we have of enslaved women weren’t meant to picture them as people, but only as literal “carriers” of the white children they were forced to nurse. At the beginning of this project, I desperately wished for some missing link that would reveal who she was—that would give me answers. I never found it, and I’m starting to believe I never will.

I think this is what reckoning with slavery means. I think it means that we sit, uncomfortably, in this silence. I think it means that we mourn the stories we will never know because people failed to see them as valuable enough to record. This digital collection was first proposed as a launchpad for future projects both in and out of our institution, but more than anything, it’s meant to aid the descendants of enslaved people in taking back their history and finding their way out of the silence. We hope that this resource does them justice.

~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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