say their names: ida b. wells and the humanizing of data

The following is a guest post by Allen Hillery.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett was an American investigative journalist, educator and early leader in the civil rights movement. Born July 16, 1862 she dedicated most of her life combating prejudice and violence with the goal of achieving African-American equality. She researched and documented lynching in the United States in an attempt to bring awareness across the country and the world. Using data, she exposed the increasing use of lynching of African American men following the emancipation proclamation. 

In the 1890’s, Wells-Barnett documented lynching in the United States in various articles and two notable pamphlets titled “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its phases” (1892) and “The Red Record” (1895). In these works she exposed lynching as a barbaric practice of White Southerners used to intimidate and oppress African Americans who created economic and political competition. Her theory had been White Southerners feared a loss of power.

Her second pamphlet, The Red Record, had far-reaching influence in the debate about lynching. Wells-Barnett took a deep dive into the staggering rates of lynchings taking place in the United States. The pamphlet was 100 pages in length with 14 of those pages containing statistics related to lynching cases committed from 1892 to 1895. She researched the names of lynching victims using articles written by White correspondents and press bureaus. These stats included the names, date of execution and charges that resulted in lynching. I believe seeing this information in print had a profound effect on the audience. As you read Wells-Barnett’s report, you begin to tie these heinous acts to a person. You also begin to read the accusations that cost someone their life. These lives were taken without due process or a formal trial. Here is a snippet of how she presented the data below:

In her account, Wells-Barnett outlines her findings establishing that her source comes from a widely known publication, The Chicago Tribune, whose facts had not been disputed. She begins to categorize the lynchings that took place in 1893 categorizing them by the charges committed. As you look at each section, the date of the lynching as well as the name and location of the victim is listed. The section goes on to have 28 categories of charges with 159 lynchings in total. 

Is 500,000 dots too many?

In Francis Gagnon’s post, 500,000 dots is too many, he discusses the limitations of data visualization to convey tragedies. He references the 02/21/21 NYT’s article – US Virus Deaths nearing 500K in just one year when he explains that while data visualization is good for showing aggregates and revealing collective trends, you lose insight on the individual points. In the NYT visualization, they use dots to measure the American lives lost due to covid-19. In just one year, we saw nearly 500,000 deaths. Gagnon argues that more could have been done to connect us with the victims of the pandemic beyond a dot. Unlike Wells-Barnett’s Red Record, we don’t get to know the victim’s names.

When looking at Ida B. Wells’ work, we should recognize her use of names and places as a way to humanize her work. Her documentation on lynchings in the American South showed the rise of lynchings and the reasonings behind it. She shared that from slavery through the time of her publication, 10,000 African Americans had been the victims of lynching. This had been done to primarily maintain power and privilege. Including the data begins to put a name with the injustice. We know that Paul and William Archer were lynched on Sept 15,1893 in Carrollton, Alabama for arson. Were they related? Were they brothers? What about William Brooks of Galesine, Arkansas? On May 23,1894 he was lynched for “asking a White woman to marry him”. Was that an actual infraction on the law books? Was he in love? These are some of the questions one might ask themselves. They also might be taken aback on what charges constituted such a heinous act. Especially acts that did not get tried by a judge and jury of their peers.

What if we added visuals?

Wells-Barnett’s work, and its impact on public debates, can inform current conversations on data visualization and tragic events. Using data to tell a story or narrative is all about striking the right balance between facts, emotions and integrity. I believe that The NY Times data visualization did its job in evoking a feeling of somberness. The use of dots to portray individualism and being overwhelmed by the number of US casualties to Covid-19 will stop most of us in our tracks and may spark most of us to explore further. We may search for other articles or records to learn more about who these victims were and their stories.

Wells-Barnett listing the names of the lynching victims in the Red Record definitely begins to humanize her findings on a deeper level. I’m left wondering, however, if that made enough of an impact. I understand the limitations of the time period and possibly the limited real estate of her pamphlet not lending itself to charts. Although the writing in the report is very thorough and descriptive, a few visualizations of the data she collected would have taken the work up a notch and potentially drew the attention of more audiences.

There were 159 recorded lynchings in 1893. The above tree map groups them by the offenses the victims were charged with. We can see at first glance that rape and murder were the top two charges.  Wells-Barnett outlined in her report how African Americans have historically been painted as a threat to society even more post emancipation due to the end of slavery. Having African Americans being accused and executed as murderers and rapists would amplify and cause society to subscribe to the threat narrative. Having this visual summary of the lynching cases is no doubt impactful to the audience as they read “The Red Record” and leaves a lasting impression in their minds.

As we look over the number of lynchings over the year of 1893, we can see they peaked in September. I wasn’t able to find any major events that might have triggered the rise. The bar chart breaks down the victims by gender across each month. As expected, more African American men were lynched vs African American women. What leaves you wondering is the number of unknown individuals encoded in blue above. Seeing the visualization makes that pronounced and almost haunting. You begin to wonder who they were. What if readers were possibly looking for a loved one in Wells-Barnett’s account and came to a seemingly dead end?

Based on my research of W.E.B. Du Bois and the making of his data visualizations for the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, Georgia had the highest concentration of African Americans. This could account for why we are seeing the highest amounts of lynchings in Georgia. This view also allows us to see that murder and rape were the top charges that resulted in lynching from another view. What’s interesting with the rape charges is that the majority are coming from South Carolina followed by Alabama. These are both neighboring states of Georgia.

Ida B Wells-Barnett’s pamphlets ended up catching the attention of many audiences. She wrote an impassioned account of the horrors of lynching and her hypothesis of where it originates. Her use of statistics begins to quantify the number of victims but also humanizes this atrocity. I believe this to be her intent. Americans in the North who knew little about lynching or had accepted the common explanation that Black men deserved their fate gained new insights on the practice. She garnered sympathy and outrage from across the pond with nations such as Britain. This led to two speaking tours across the country. While she drew great attention to lynching practices, she was unable to get legislation passed to criminalize it. To this day attempts to implement anti-lynching laws in America still eludes us. Over a 100 years later, the 2020 Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act was passed by the House of Representatives by a vote of 410-4. As for the Senate, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky has held the bill from passage by unanimous consent. As of January 2021, the Senate has yet to take any action with the Bill.

Allen Hillery is a freelance writer and data literacy advocate. He tweets at @ALDataVizGuy.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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