Sunday, February 21, 2016

Mapping Commemorations of Black Historical Figures

How are Black historical figures commemorated within a white power structure? A study by Eliot Tretter used GIS to map places in the United States named after Black historical figures. What he found shows patterns of how our society fits black historical figures into our historical memory.

Tretter focused on "mundane" features, such as streets and parks, rather than museums and monuments. He found that Martin Luther King makes up the majority of commemorations - roughly two thirds. Commemorations other than MLK are few and far between. Very few of these commemorations were of women. Tretter explains that this reflects our perception of the Civil Rights movement as a movement led by a single powerful man, ignoring many of the local and powerful women leaders. This effective erasure of female leaders in the movement, explains Tretter, risks "stifling how we understand women's roles in present-day political and social life" (44). 
By quantity (1st map), the commemorations show up most in the South, in New York, and in California. When distributed by capita (2nd map), the South has by far the most commemorations. Over 20% (44% excluding King) are in large cities. Almost all figures were commemorated in their birth states (not all). Not all were commemorated in states they lived a long time in or died in. One example is Harriet Tubman, who spent much of her life in Pennsylvania and Delaware, but is not commemorated in either state. Hers and other examples show a Northern bias - African Americans were less likely to be commemorated in Northern states than Southern ones, even when they spent a significant portion of their lives there. This is problematic, explains Tretter. Combined with Martin Luther King as the single representative of Blacks in history, this portrays African Americans as only being part of history during the Civil Rights Movement, and absent from all other spheres of history. 

Tretter argues that monuments and commemorations help to create collective memory of the past. When Black historical figures are only represented when it comes to the Civil Rights Movement, white becomes a default to use in any other area of history, which is not a true or just portrayal at all.

Eliot M. Tretter (2011): The Power of Naming: The Toponymic Geographies of Commemorated African-Americans, The Professional Geographer, 63:1, 34-54

I have acted with honesty and integrity in producing this work and am unaware of anyone who has not. 
Anja Thomsen


  1. interesting to note the larger numbers of commemorations in the prominent slave holding states of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Could this be a way of forcing a once controlling race to remember the past? Very cool maps.

  2. It would be interesting to see who lives in the neighborhoods that contain these commemorations, whether those neighborhoods are predominantly white or black, it would also be interesting to do this study with commemorations for historical figures of other races, and to see whether or not those races gravitate to neighborhoods containing their own commemorations. Is this just a way of (almost) tricking people into segregating themselves.