Public History Pitfall
The internet has opened up millions of avenues for historical research, and instant access to important documents like the U.S. Census on subscription sites such as Ancestry is tremendously valuable. With separate websites for each organization and the proliferation of social media (like this blog), however, content is often uploaded with neither peer review nor fact checking. The sharing capabilities inherent in the media can also create a snowball effect, where one site makes a claim without proper verification, and then other sources, such as Wikipedia, repeat that claim. As long as the author cites the published source (i.e. often another webpage), (s)he has complied with Wikipedia’s rules, regardless of whether the source was properly vetted initially.
Several biographical discussions of 19th-century women of African descent, who were often poorly documented in their own lifetimes, expose the proliferation of factual errors. The popular impulse to discover black history, as well as student projects in February, motivate content creators to dig up images and information. Like the game of telephone, claims perpetuate and proliferate that may not hold up under thoughtful scrutiny.
Elizabeth Keckley, although she documented herself well in her own day, has become a historical figure with questionably associated images. Keckley, who lived in Hillsborough, NC as a teenager, wrote an autobiographical account of her relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln, Behind the Scenes. This engraving (left) was published as part of her book in 1868. The Ostendorf collection contains a photographic portrait (right) of Keckley dating to circa 1870. Another portrait (left), an 1890s cabinet card photograph, came from the Jefferson Fine Art Gallery in Richmond, VA (from the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection). Hallie Q. Brown, a friendly acquaintance of Keckley’s, verified the subject’s identity in her book, Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction (pp. 147-149).
Curiously, the subject of this 1860s carte-de-visite (right) has been identified as Keckley and published on a number of reputable sites, although the reason for its attribution, or provenance, is obscure. Do the features match the known portraits of Keckley? Other Keckley-related web pages include even more period photographs of women of color whose features do not match Keckley’s. View this blog post showing an image identified as Keckley at an auction and expressing the current owner’s skepticism at the attribution. Despite this content, later bloggers have copied the image, proclaiming it to be Keckley.
Another example of the same research pitfall involves inventor and furniture saleswoman Sarah E. Goode of Chicago, who received a patent for her design of a bed that could collapse into a desk in 1885. Listed as “Mu” (mulatto) in the 1880 Census, Sarah claimed she was born in Spain to Spanish parents and went by the name “Selina E. Goode” for a time. (See the 1882 Chicago City directory.) According to earlier and later census documents, however, Goode was born in Ohio in the early 1850s. Even a source that would seem trustworthy like the A&E Network’s Biography site perpetuates factual errors and attributes a photograph of a much older English-born Sarah Goode Marshall Chadwick as Goode, the Chicago inventor of African descent. [As of 5/1/2013 the A&E website has removed the photo.]
How can public historians avoid this kind of pitfall? One way is to verify the source of each image and fact we find on the internet. Original documents, cross-referenced against each other, and peer-reviewed secondary sources can usually be trusted.