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Mapping the Long Women’s Movement

Bumpus Cove, TN

Mapping the Long Women’s Movement is an experiment with indexing, using, and ultimately understanding oral history in new ways. The project began with the Southern Oral History Program’s work on the “long civil rights movement,” an approach to civil rights scholarship that posits the movement as longer, broader, deeper, and more diverse than it is conventionally understood. That approach took researchers to eastern Tennessee, where over three years they conducted interviews with dozens of people who became grassroots and labor activists, , blazed new trails for women, or simply took charge of their own lives in dramatic ways. As they worked in their communities—forming consciousness-raising groups, establishing health centers, opposing environmental degradation, and working for civil rights and gender equality—they joined networks of activists and created new spaces where women (and some men) could work for change.

Their work was deeply inflected by space. These activists created new spaces where none existed; forged connections between urban and rural communities; and joined older spaces, transforming them with their presence. Activists traveled the Appalachian migration trail with their families seeking work, traveled internationally to learn organizing skills, or left home in search of new opportunities and education. Often, they took what they learned back home with them, creating or transforming one space with knowledge gained in another. The importance of space in these interviews inspired this effort to visualize them on a map.

This is a mapping project in two senses of the word. First, it is an indexing project. Oral histories are dense, layered objects that occupy the uncomfortable space between primary and secondary sources. Keyword searching can let users into the text, but human speech is full of complexity—and obscurity—that goes beyond that text.

To bring that meaning to the surface, SOHP historians carefully read a select group of fifty interviews and indexed them with reference to location, identifying key passages that dealt with space and place. Each of those passages was tagged with a variety of metadata elements, including a date range, key concepts, and a location. After the interview text was processed using DocSoft AV, those selections  were assigned timestamps that allow our audio player to identify and stream them, either in the map environment or in a separate transcript display.

Geographic data allowed the team to accomplish the second mapping task: placing each significant passage on an online map. Selected passages appear on a Google map as markers categorized by color. The map is the primary navigation environment, but users can browse by interviewee or concept, too, or listen to interview passages via a timeline. By adding or removing concepts from the map display, users create their own dynamic visual narrative of the women’s movement in the South, visualize previously invisible connections between interviews, and experience oral history in new ways.

Mapping the Movement is a joint undertaking of the Southern Oral History Program in UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South and the Digital Innovation Lab. At the SOHP, the project was conceived and executed by Seth Kotch, Elizabeth Lundeen, and Jessica Wilkerson, with substantial contributions from Hudson Vaughan. Pamella Lach led the DIL team, which included Joe Hope, Bryan Gaston, and Chien-Yi Hou.