The Digital Road Ahead

“Simply put, everything that can be digitized will be digitized.”

Kara Swisher, New York Times, Opinion, 3/22/19

Ten years ago, lastroadtofreedom was zealously published to create new conversations around Black experiences of America’s Civil War. Fresh conversations would include awareness of contraband (refugee) camps and the registers (logs) produced at the camps.

Beginning in 2009 and continuing into the present, more than a dozen logs of African Americans living behind Union lines within occupied areas of the American South were transcribed from their original documents and published on the site.

Thousands of users have accessed the site over a decade, and meaningful interactions between the site organizer and users have occurred. While the site has been devoted to publishing records of African Americans as they entered the public record during the war, a diversity of people have found the records useful as camp experiences and experiences of soldiers tied to them through family relations have pointed to peoples–white and black– who filled out the personnel of war departments.

In short, the registers–many of which inform users of the pre-war residence of formerly enslaved persons–have proven invaluable to family historians and others seeking to discover and create untold narratives of America’s past. LastRoad intends to continue researching, transcribing, and digitizing this critical information.

Memory and Morality in the Digital Age

records constitute the collective memory of individuals and societies and …this memory is essential to those societies and the people in them.

James O’Toole, “Archives and Historical Accountability, Toward a Moral Theology”

As of 2019, we have joined with other researchers, digital humanists working in Civil War and emancipation histories, to make many more registers available to the public. As a part of the expansion, made possible by an NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) grant, the registers will eventually shift to a new dedicated site while LastRoad will continue to exist as a place for further research into African Americans in transition to freedom and as a place to advocate for expansion of digital histories and public access to them.

We are committed to the idea that records within the public domain, documents that help tell of journeys to freedom, should not only be published but interpreted and discussed as acts of “digital justice”–policies and practices that increase public access to information directly related to the histories of peoples.

We believe also that new narratives and new voices will continually emerge from the public’s interaction with primary, historical documents. In turn, fresh new conversations will inform ways in which identity is able to be constructed. Such digital justice or what James O’Toole has referred to as “a theology of the archives” is an answer to a moral question–of who gets to shape memory through privileged possession and interpretation of historical records. And, as O’Toole tweaks us: what relationship between digital information and historical accountability.

If tech journalist Kara Swisher is correct in her projection that “everything that can be digitized will be digitized,” then LastRoad considers it sound practice to anticipate and consider fully the relationship between access and personal historical information. Who will benefit from access to the names of former slaves and former slave owners for instance in the public record? What are the analogical implications, material conditions, to which access to digital information will give order? Will museums and museum professionals, public historians, university historians continue as purveyors of historical narrative, or will social media play a growing role in creating new discourses around slavery and war? In a site blog, we will take up these questions in various ways and from different perspectives.

Finally, the nuts and bolts.

LastRoad users will have access to several camp registers, highlighted soldiers’ service records, and pension files while links will be provided to a dedicated site offering access to larger bodies of data. LastRoad is focused on interpretation of African American wartime experience–what the records tell us.

We hope that you will visit our pages here to explore the lives of our many ancestors as they envisioned life after enslavement.