‘On the Books’: University Libraries’ research project digitizes NC Jim Crow laws


More than two years ago, a North Carolina high school social studies teacher asked the librarians at the Wilson Library for a list of Jim Crow laws in the state. When librarians responded to the request, they discovered that such a list did not exist.

Since 2019, the University Libraries’ On the Books: Jim Crow and Algorithms of Resistance project has used machine learning technology to digitize all laws passed in North Carolina during the Jim Crow era and identified a comprehensive list of laws Jim Crow.

UNC’s multidisciplinary team of legal experts, historians, and library specialists used text mining to discern and compile legislation passed between the Reconstruction era and the civil rights movement.

Now the team is expanding the initiative with the support of a $400,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

“That kind of digging into the classic approach of a librarian – trying to find this resource that existed and finding that there really weren’t a lot of comprehensive resources out there,” said project co-principal investigator Matt Jansen. and data analysis. librarian. “And ask the question, ‘Is this a gap that we can help fill?'”

Jim Crow laws refer to laws that enacted or authorized segregation and white supremacist legislation. Primarily based in the American South, these laws were important instigators of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

The project is the first of its kind, said Amanda Henley, project manager and principal investigator.

“We put together a bunch of laws and labeled them ‘Jim Crow’ or ‘not Jim Crow,'” said Henley, who also serves as digital research services manager for university libraries. “And we did that by using existing research and also by academics who looked at and decided on a case-by-case basis whether or not it was Jim Crow law, for a random selection of laws.”

The team then used the data from this random selection to generate an algorithm that computers will use to qualify each Jim Crow law. The team completed the full list for North Carolina and found nearly 2,000 laws.

“Other parts of the project have been putting these laws into perspective and providing educational resources,” Henley said. “And to put the laws on a website so people can go through them.”

The project honors lawyer and activist Pauli Murray, who was denied admission to UNC graduate school in 1938 because she was a black candidate. Murray wrote “State Race and Color Laws” (1951), a book listing race-based laws across the country.

“I want to call out and acknowledge the work that Pauli Murray did in the 1950s – manually browsing and using indexes and looking at physical volumes, and doing what was state of the art, the best you could could do at the time,” Jansen said. “We’re extending that into a computer form, and we can really go law by law.”

On campus, the History Department, along with the Departments of Sociology, Political Science, and Peace, War, and Defence, also began the process of renaming Hamilton Hall after Murray. The departments sent their proposal for Pauli Murray Hall to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz in July 2020.

With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant, the On the Books team plans to share its machine learning resources with other research teams and expand to two more states. The grant will also support research and teaching fellowships for work surrounding Jim Crow in higher education.

“One of the things that’s going to be really interesting, when other states do the same thing, is that we can now see how the states talk to each other,” said William Sturkey, project scientist and associate professor at the Department of History. Sturkey’s research specializes in the history of the breed in the southern United States.

The On the Books team has issued a request for proposals to other states, but has not yet selected the two teams it will fund to expand the project in other states.

Sturkey said the implications for the project are endless.

“What’s innovative here isn’t just that we’re the first to come up with this list of laws,” he said. “But it’s really innovative in its methodology, in that it doesn’t just have to be about Jim Crow laws and it doesn’t have to be about race laws. But the way they designed this machine learning technology, you can apply it to a number of different states and study a number of types of laws.


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