On June 19, 1865, Texas announced the abolition of slavery. That decision essentially emancipated African-American slaves throughout the Confederate states. Though a day of celebration, Juneteenth is also a day to reflect on the history of slavery.
The public’s understanding of slavery’s impact has been greatly improved by students who are assigned to create or improve Wikipedia articles that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Students in Dr. Daina Ramey Berry’s “Black Women in America” course at the University of Texas, Austin, were asked to contribute articles on that topic to Wikipedia.
One of those students created the article on The Great Slave Auction. The article describes the largest sale of enslaved people that took place before the US Civil War. 436 men, women, and children were sold over the course of two days just outside of Savannah, Georgia. The sale netted $303,850.
Though this event is a historic moral catastrophe, it wasn’t marked for inclusion in Wikipedia until a student took the project on. It’s also one of the only articles on Wikipedia that describes a specific slave auction.
Another student created the article for Sylvia Dubois, a woman born into slavery. She escaped to the North in 1808, and lived to be about 100 years old. Her life story was documented by a physician in the book, “Silvia Dubois (Now 116 Yers Old) A Biografy of the Slav who Whipt Her Mistres and Gand Her Fredom.”
Another woman, Grace Douglass, worked from the other side. An abolitionist born to a prominent free black family, she helped to create the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society after being forbidden to enter the existing, and exclusively male, Anti-Slavery Society.
Students also created articles on Cherry Turner, the wife of Nat Turner. She was beaten and tortured by authorities seeking plans and maps for Nat Turner’s slave revolt. A student created the article about Lear Green, who fled slavery in Baltimore by hiding in a box en route to Philadelphia. A student expanded the article on Jenny Slew, one of the first black Americans to establish their freedom through a juried trial.
Students who contribute to Wikipedia have an opportunity to correct the historical record. Though the site aims to present “the sum of all knowledge,” it often reflects history through a lens that blurs out underrepresented groups. By using academic resources to find historical records that others can’t, under the guidance of an expert in these subjects, students can make meaningful contributions that help Wikipedia reflect the sum of all history.
If you’re an instructor who is interested in exploring the possibilities a Wikipedia writing assignment makes possible, we’d love to start a conversation. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: Emancipation Proclamation Engraving by W. Roberts. – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID pga.04067. Public Domain.