I recently built a new professional website on squarespace. The website is a place for me to share details about upcoming talks that I’m giving, and a place for visitors to find information about my research and teaching than I cannot easily display on my standard history department faculty profile page. The squarespace site has been live since August 2017 and, according to its back-end analytics functions, is not exactly inundated with web traffic. It receives, on average, one visitor per day. On its busiest day, May 12, 2018, twelve people checked it out—and that was on a day when one of my lectures at the Smithsonian was being broadcast on CSPAN. As one of this year’s class of AADHum Scholars, my goal this summer is to overhaul this easily overlooked website to equip it with the sorts of black digital humanities tools that could improve its functionality and visibility, as well as to support the rollout of my new book.
That book, The Lost Boys: A Story of Slavery and Justice on the Reverse Underground Railroad, is due for release by Simon & Schuster in February 2019. It’s a fast-paced, adventure narrative that tells the little-known but true story of five free black boys who fell into the clutches of this country’s most fearsome gang of kidnappers and enslavers in 1825. That summer, a spate of brazen abductions in Philadelphia perpetrated by a professional kidnapping crew led by Patty Cannon and her son-in-law Joseph Johnson sent these boys—Sam Scomp, Enos Tilghman, Alex Manlove, Cornelius Sinclair, and a six-year-old sweep known to us only as ‘Joe’—on an odyssey across America.
The Lost Boys is a history book aimed at a general audience. It is plot-driven and character-focused, and aspires to build on the unprecedented attention to the abduction, enslavement, and sale of free African Americans stirred by director Steve McQueen’s recent Oscar-winning film treatment of Solomon Northup’s memoir, Twelve Years a Slave (1853). At the same time, I hope it will furnish a revisionist new account of the role of kidnapping in the domestic slave trade that will persuade readers that the kidnapping of free black children into slavery in the decades before the Civil War was vastly more frequent, pernicious, and politically significant than we have previously supposed.
But to reach and engage these readers, The Lost Boys is going to need a supporting website that can foreground its historical Black actors and spotlight its arguments. During a workshop this spring, I sought feedback from the AADHum community and MITH staff. We critiqued some existing author websites that support comparable popular history books like Never Caught and Barons of the Sea and talked frankly about how my existing website might transform to showcase new content, tools, and functionality—in short, to become a black digital humanities project.
It was an energetic discussion and it left me eager to get cracking. I spent the next few weeks identifying web content that I think readers (or prospective readers) of The Lost Boys might find appealing and trying to figure out the functionality the site will need if it is to live on as a stand-alone black digital humanities resource after the book’s rollout has come and gone.
Here are the results. I’ll spend these next few months overhauling my squarespace site in five key ways:
- I’ll use it to introduce and humanize my book’s protagonists following the models I’ve identified on some TV series websites, like those for PBS’s Civil War.
- I’ll post high-resolution and interactive versions of the three custom-built maps that folks at Maryland’s GIS lab are building for the book.
- I’ll create a user-friendly timeline that spotlights important milestones and sources.
- I’ll create reading guides and discussion questions to help readers in schools and book groups get the most from the project.
- I’ll add some ‘take action’ tabs to connect this historical story about kidnapping and enslavement to the modern campaign against human trafficking. I might even design and shoot a book trailer, a promotional medium that is becoming increasingly common.
There’s still time to add a few more things to my digital to-do list. So if you have ideas or can send me links to other projects that might give me inspiration please comment below or send me an email. I’d love to learn what you think.
—Richard Bell, AADHum Scholar and Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland, College Park