Documenting racial violence

In the Racial Violence Archive, Geoff Ward creates a commemorative space for reckoning with histories and legacies of racist violence in the U.S.


Geoff Ward

The bus departed early for the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, a site documenting the United States' long history of racial violence. The group traveling southward from St. Louis included a diverse collection of retirees, young professionals, local high school and college students, and Geoff Ward, professor of African and African American studies and associate director of Washington University’s Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity & Equity (CRE2 ). Ward, whose research examines legacies of racial violence, had been invited by the St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council to be scholar-in-residence for the journey.

Before the trip began, Ward searched for a way to inform the group that Alabama is not unique in its experience of racial violence, that each of the towns they drove through on their way to Montgomery has its own history of racial injustice. Remembering the AAA “Trip Tik,” he turned to the digital tools he uses in his research and teaching, providing the tour group an interactive Storymap as a means of bringing attention to the hidden past along their route.

“It activated the landscape,” Ward said, “countering the silences and erasure, the not-knowing.”

That map is an example of what Ward calls reparative memory, a commemoration of violence as a strategy of redress and reckoning. Through digital archives and maps that invite the community to participate in the act of curation, Ward creates spaces for remembering violence and loss.

“Reparative memory projects seek to dismantle the structural racism of the commemorative landscape itself,” Ward said, “and introduce counter-memory and address the erasures by telling stories that are otherwise erased from the public record.”

These maps are hosted on the Racial Violence Archive, a growing database that documents race-related and anti-Black political violence in the United States, including lynchings, Black church bombings, bombings of civil rights movement sites, and numerous murders and assaults that were not classified as lynchings at the time.

“It activated the landscape, countering the silences and erasure, the not-knowing.”

The impetus for this record of atrocities stems from more than a desire to document or quantify the many incidents of race-related violence in American history. Studies show that histories of racial violence continue to shape current patterns of conflict, violence, and inequality. Along with David Cunningham, professor of sociology, Ward sought to develop a public history project to foster a greater understanding of those patterns and counteract them. A National Science Foundation grant enabled Ward and Cunningham to develop the database that would eventually become the Racial Violence Archive.

The history of racial violence is by its nature repressed. It does not generate the usual archive of police and court records, and media accounts are infrequent. The racism that fueled the violence also led to the active suppression of evidence.

To build the Racial Violence Archive, Ward’s team combined existing inventories and then turned to archival work in various states, as well as books written about racial violence in particular regions. For example, in 1951, the Civil Rights Congress submitted a petition to the United Nations called “We Charge Genocide.” That petition contains about 500 discrete events of racial violence. Ward worked with students to scrape those records as a subset of data, adding them to their growing database.

Looking beyond official records and media accounts, Ward also plans to include crowd-sourced data. Through family histories, communities often pass down stories of violence from one generation to the next. These acts are documented, but difficult to find without a tip. Family history can also point researchers to regional Black newspapers that might otherwise be difficult to find.

The Racial Violence Archive's current map of race-related and anti-Black political violence in the United States.

“One reason to create a digital archive was to create new ways to invite public participation in the research process," Ward said. “A more prominent motivation for me, though, was the idea that this record can be itself a useful resource in our reckoning with histories and legacies of racial violence, just by pushing out the data and related research and remedial effort.”

While at the University of California, Irvine, Ward worked with computer science students to begin developing a database that would map the location data for acts of violence, share a tailorable database with students and researchers, and also allow for site visitors to submit information to the archive. Since coming to Washington University, he has worked with Data Services in Olin Library to learn how to build and maintain project mapping applications himself.

Ward hopes to add the capability for community submissions, noting that submitting data to the archive could provide an opportunity for members of the public to engage with the history of violence that occurred in their own communities. He says that commemorative projects like the Racial Violence Archive counter racist strategies of misrepresentation embedded in commemorative objects like statues of Confederate generals.

“So much of the history of racial violence and its legacies relates to the violent enforcement of the idea that America is a white country, a national identity that is reinforced through our commemorative landscape,” Ward said.

Ward and his collaborators are also developing the research infrastructure to assemble a more complete and inclusive record. “We are interested in creating a more comprehensive archive, what Ida B. Wells called ‘The Red Record,’” Ward said, “pushing further beyond the South and the African American experience and capturing more of this American story so that we can deepen our understanding of this history, its legacies, and implications for redress.”

As the work of building and expanding the database continues, Ward has started to shift his focus away from basic research and toward questions about what should be done with the information to support redress. Can this data be useful in efforts to lower homicide rates or address other problems known to be correlated with histories of racial violence?

One study, published in 2017, suggests that the connection between legacies of lynching and current violence is moderated by what happens during the intervening years. “What the authors found is that in counties with histories of lynching, if whites didn’t support racist candidates in large numbers, the effect of lynching on homicides was lessened,” Ward said. “In a sociological sense, it invites a consideration of commemorative work as another context where there can be this disavowal of white supremacy.”

Ward believes that WashU has the potential to become a national leader in research into the legacies of racial violence in the U.S. He is currently co-editing a special issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science on this subject with Cunningham and Hedwig Lee, professor of sociology and co-director of CRE2. He was drawn to WashU because of the porous boundaries between research in related fields, citing the work that colleagues in Arts & Sciences, the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, and elsewhere are doing on historical trauma, memory studies, and racial justice. “A key attraction for me in coming to WashU was the apparent ability to do innovative things that are cross-disciplinary and hopefully more impactful,” Ward said.

The Racial Violence Archive represents one piece of Ward’s ongoing collaborative efforts to commemorate racial violence and advance racial justice. Additional work includes the first-year seminar and accompanying digital project Monumental Anti-Racism; a curated teaching gallery at the Kemper Art Museum titled Truths and Reckonings: The Art of Transformative Racial Justice; and helping organize the community-based Reparative Justice Coalition of St. Louis, which is beginning to work with Equal Justice Initiative to address legacies of racial terror in St. Louis and across Missouri. To hear more about Ward’s work, register for his upcoming MLA lecture “Monumental Anti-Racism,” hosted by University College.