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.

KeckleyEngravingKeckley1870caElizabeth 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. Keckley1890sAnother 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).

from the Moorland-Springarn Research Center Collection, Howard University

from the Moorland-Springarn Research Center Collection, Howard University

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.


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This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on March 5, 2013, in historic sites and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I noticed the error in the picture about Sarah Goode, did a few minutes of web searching to confirm, and notified A&E. They’ve removed the photos.

    • Thanks, Brian. You had better luck getting through to them than I did. I sent email to them several weeks before the post went up and never received a response. Thanks for your role in the correction. That site should be more reliable, and thanks to your efforts, it now is a bit more.

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