When local historians Mara Cherkasky and Sarah Shoenfeld decided they wanted to map segregation in the District, they had their work cut out for them.
Since January 2014, they’ve been combing through all sorts of documents — some digitized, but many in the paper form — in order to visualize the history of segregation in D.C., neighborhood by neighborhood.
They parsed through the records of Charles Hamilton Houston, a black lawyer who fought against the Jim Crow laws and whose papers are archived at Howard University, where he served as a dean.
They skimmed newspaper archives, oral histories, city directories, Census samples and D.C. court records held at the National Archives.
Then, there were the deeds. Those dated earlier than 1921 are cataloged in 85 big volumes — over 500 pages thick — per year.
“So we literally have to page through each volume looking for racial covenants,” explained Shoenfeld in an email to Technical.ly DC. (Racial covenants, which were barred by the Supreme Court in 1948, excluded minorities from settling in certain sections of U.S. cities.)
The duo meticulously recorded their data in Excel spreadsheets. Then, they had to match each discrete incident to location data.
So they enlisted GIS specialist Brian Kraft to create a system “for pulling sets of records from an existing database of historic D.C. building permits … into our spreadsheets, and then checking off the ones for which we found deed covenants,” Shoenfeld said.
And the difficulties didn’t end there: they still had to match all their data to current GIS open source data.
So they found historic maps through the Library of Congress and compared them with the building footprints found in contemporary maps.