GIS & History: What can historians do with GIS?

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Mural under a Bridge in Hyde Park (Chicago, IL) (Photo by me, 2012)

Before I transferred to a Geography PhD program, I did not give much thought to GIS. I used it in my various roles within NGOs to map African states’ legislation as well as the locations of NGOs serving communities in Sudan, South Sudan, Egypt, and the Dominican Republic. Still, I was mostly a consumer of GIS, rather than a producer.

The fact is, we all use GIS in some form in our daily lives. If we have smart phones, they are likely equipped with GPS (Global Positioning System) apps that help us navigate new places. Those same phones might prompt us to turn on location services to allow the service provider to better ascertain our whereabouts.

The term “GIS” means both “Geographic Information Systems” and “Geographic Information Science.” The systems themselves are information systems that bridge and visualize spatially-referenced data (geo-referenced) and non-spatial attribute data. Aspatial or non-spatial attribute data includes place names, population counts, the number of businesses in an area… and so on. In a nutshell, georeferencing links non-spatial data with spatial data (e.g. specific XY or XYZ coordinates), and those coordinates are a reference to an approximation of earth itself. That approximated earth may be a geoid (based on earth’s shape) or a spheroid (based on a sphere).

Geographic Information Science refers to the discipline that studies the data, data management and computational structures and technologies that enable us to “capture, represent, process, and analyze geographic information.” This includes spatial analysis and cyberGIS (the computing side of GIS- pertinent to the future directions of GIS- cloud-based services and so on). ESRI has a brief explanation of GIS here.

Because GIS is so embedded in our daily lives, those outside of Geographers and GIS specialists may not ask, “what can GIS be used for? Why does it matter to me?”

If you’re interested in history, GIS is useful for placing historical events and texts in spatial contexts. Spatio-temporal visualization is particularly relevant here. Below, I highlight resources pertaining to Black American history, because that was my focus as a history undergraduate.

  • On, one can see a thematic (chloropleth) map of the spread of slavery in the U.S. between 1790 and 1860. This spatio-temporal visualization is useful for thinking of how the expansion of slavery was co-intensive with the expansion of settler colonialism in what became the United States. In the drop-down menu, you can select “enslaved population %” to see the extent to which enslaved Africans comprised the population of a region (note the highest concentrations at the coasts, which might reflect slave port activity when the U.S. was still a major importer.)
  • The University of Richmond’s “Visualizing Emancipation” features a GIS-based spatio-temporal visualization (animation!) of Emancipation during the U.S. Civil War. It is useful for thinking through the social and economic transformations that came about as the Civil War came to a head- beyond the staid High School Civics framing of “industrial North vs. slave South” narratives.
  • The University of Richmond’s mapping of the forcible movement of enslaved Africans in the U.S. between 1810 and 1860 is instructive.
  • Relatedly, the maps of slave rebellions in this period foreground enslaved Africans as agents in history who fought for their freedom. Freedom was not simply conferred upon them.
  • Hearkening to GIS’s roots, this Tuskegee Institute county-level map of lynching events between 1900-1931 challenges the notion of a “tolerant” North and West. Lynchings occurred in all 50 states between 1900-1930.
  • Virginia Commonwealth University’s library website hosts a map of Ku Klux Klan activity in the U.S. between 1915 and 1940. Not one of the contiguous 48 states was exempted from Klan activity. Some people might find the Klan activity on the West Coast surprising, but it makes sense, considering that Oregon was a forerunner in states writing constitutions with exclusionary clauses that barred specific racial groups from residing in their state. Dr. Walidah Imarisha discusses this history in this video.
  • The University of Richmond (yes, again) has a nice mapping of residential redlining in Richmond, VA that provides historical context for residential segregation. On the topic of redlining, my go-to book may be James Loewen’s “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism” [Loewen, (2005) Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, (New York City: The New Press)]
  • The University of South Carolina’s digital collections includes an OpenStreetMap-based map of listings in the Spring 1936 edition of the Negro Travelers’ Green Book, which was a key resource for Black travelers who wished to travel safely across segregated America.

Though I have reservations about GIS’s utility in representing space and non-spatial attribute data (what can it capture best? What is prioritized in the selective creation of data? How do we choose how to classify data, and how does it change the narrative of the map?), I recognize that it is immensely important in making information accessible and available. Really, presenting information such as historical narratives based on primary sources in a manner that spatializes it and makes it more immediately relevant to the spaces and places that a casual reader inhabits in their daily lives is one way of making that knowledge more “real.” Used with care and technical mastery, GIS can be an indispensable tool for storytelling. In fact, I’m a big fan of ESRI’s StoryMaps.




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