We are a team of historians, archivists, and information managers dedicated to uncovering a side of American history that is not told. Utilizing archival practices and digital curation techniques, we aim to transform historical documents into accessible digital records and display their content in new, innovative ways.
Over the past 4 years, teams of archivists have digitized portions of National Archives RG195: General Records of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation [HOLC]. The records include surveys, memoramemorandums, and maps of American neighborhoods in the 1930’s.
Now that the records are available digitally, students and faculty members are working to curate the collection and “data-fy” the information contained within. This involves extracting text from digitized 75 year old records, designing queryable databases to house the information, and disseminating the information so it is publically accessible. With partners from the University of Richmond, John Hopkins University, and Virginia Tech, the Digital Curation Innovation Center plans to georeference the historical maps and display them on Google Maps, an innovative digital curation technique to visualize changing American neighborhoods.
The History Behind Mapping Inequality
The 1929 stock market crash devastated America’s economy and triggered the beginning of a 10 year economic depression. During this time, American families were at risk of losing homes to foreclosure. To tackle the mortgage crises and restart the Great Depression economy, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created federal loan programs to refinance troubled residential homes.
The United States government established the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) to determine potential refinance investments by assessing housing and neighborhood conditions. HOLC created maps and area descriptions to describe the features and threats to a particular area; neighborhoods were graded based on the racial/ethnic presence, high and low-income families, and environmental problems. Referring to map shading, grading, and area descriptions, financial institutions made decisions on loan sizes, refinancing opportunities, etc.. Unbeknownst to HOLC and the federal government, the 1939 surveys would have major effects on American cities, especially during Urban Renewal in the 1950’s. In short, HOLC orchestrated the denial of financial services based on race and ethnic background, better known as redlining.
The Area Descriptions and Maps
The Area Descriptions and Maps follow a four color-coded category : green, blue, yellow, and red. Areas shaded green predominately contained wealthy, white families who lived in nice houses Blue shading indicates middle class white and European families where neighborhood conditions are static. Yellow shading indicates areas at risk for decline, due to “subversive” racial elements. Areas shaded red predominately contained poor, black/hispanic families who lived in deteriorating buildings.
The coloring and area number relate directly to the area description for that neighborhood. The descriptions contain rich economic data about housing and neighborhoods in the 1930’s. More importantly, it contains evidence that the federal government orchestrated economic divide between people of color and white families. Neighborhoods associated with poor housing conditions and black/Hispanic/working class families were declared slums, unfit for loans and finance opportunities. These neighbors deteriorated further, while white and wealthy neighborhoods improved due to the financial opportunities offered to them.
Why is digitally treating the HOLC Area Descriptions and Maps important?
As noted before, the HOLC documents are housed at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland. These records are only accessible to those who visit the center and physically view the records. Due to the records’ importance to American history and modern racial tensions, it is the right for every American to access these records. By digitizing the collection, the Mapping Inequality project has increased accessibility to these records; the documents and maps are available free online for anyone’s viewing pleasure.
After accessibility, the next step is curating the records and presenting the information in a manner that enables greater meaning and thought. Place a HOLC Map on a modern city, one will notice that highways were built through the red “slum” neighborhoods. Compare the area descriptions to Urban Renewal documents in the 1950’s and one discovers that neighborhoods denied financial assistance were torn down. Read the surveys for Baltimore, Maryland and Ferguson, Missouri, and understand how modern racial tensions and riots are fueled by economic inequality stemming from federal loan programs.
The Mapping Inequality project specifically plans to develop one queryable database to house the economic and descriptive data for all American cities. The database will allow individuals to explore different neighborhoods and cities simultaneously. Furthermore, researchers and organizations can utilize the data to make new discoveries.
How can I help?
Share the information with your family. Explore the documents from your city or a city nearby. Investigate a map and compare it to modern structures or neighborhoods. Meet with your organizations, groups, or friends, and discuss the records and their relation to modern racial and economic issues.
The possibilities are endless when the information is accessible to everyone.