Understanding the complexities of today’s world often starts with acknowledging our past – both the good and bad. But for individuals who look online to broaden their knowledge of local, state and national history, what if the information available does not always tell the most accurate story?
IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI’s Rebecca Shrum and University Library’s Jere Odell are engaging with graduate students in IUPUI’s Public History Program to document Indiana’s history of anti-Black violence using Wikipedia, one of the most popular websites in the United States. The work expands on the research of previous graduate students in Shrum’s program and is supported by IU’s Racial Justice Research Fund.
“The history of anti-Black violence in Indiana has not been marked on the landscape or talked about much,” said Shrum, an associate professor of history and director of IUPUI’s Public History Program. “Having an understanding of the way in which white oppression of Black citizens created and reinforced power structures that oppressed Blacks is necessary if we are to begin the process of building towards racial reconciliation in the United States.”
This project began in the fall of 2020, shortly after the murder of George Floyd and as the country struggled with its racial history. Shrum wanted to work with her students to understand the history of racism and anti-Black violence in Indiana but also how it was talked about in public, at places like museums and historic sites. Looking for a project that could make a difference at a time when many public institutions were closed due to the pandemic, Shrum turned to how the history of anti-Black violence in Indiana was told on Wikipedia. At the time, the only information readily available on Wikipedia was about the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana, an event widely known after being captured in an infamous photograph.
Shrum began working with graduate students to document the cases of anti-Black violence throughout Indiana history. While several were documented, few were well known or widely acknowledged. Shrum believed it was important for her students to tell these stories to help bring them back into everyone’s consciousness.
“When my colleagues and I found that most of Indiana’s events of anti-Black violence were not on Wikipedia, we set out to change that because these events matter,” said IUPUI public history graduate student Madeline Hellmich, who has worked on the project for over two years. “More importantly, the victims of anti-Black violence, their lives matter. We want the public historical record to reflect that. Hoosiers need to be able to find this critical piece of our history in the places they go to learn history, like Wikipedia.”
Part of Hellmich’s work has focused on the 1902 lynching of George Ward in Terre Haute. Through this project, and particularly from working with Ward’s descendant Terry Ward, she realized that researching the history of anti-Black violence is important but not enough to create change.
“If Hoosiers really want to admit to injustices and commit to not perpetuating anti-Black violence in the present and future, people from all different religious, racial and political backgrounds have to be willing to come together to acknowledge and memorialize the events and persons affected by anti-Black violence,” Hellmich said. “It is difficult and uncomfortable but acknowledging the history of anti-Black violence is the first step Hoosiers can take to understand our truth. Then, we can experience the reconciliation and healing that can come from acknowledging it.”
Currently, 21 students in Shrum’s Historic Site Interpretation class are using results of work graduate students completed in summer 2021 to develop Wikipedia pages about these events. These students will likely go on to be employed by museums, historic sites or nonprofits, so the knowledge they’re gaining through this project may play a critical role in their future careers as they think about the way history is portrayed to future visitors of their institutions.
“We’re introducing a cohort of future knowledge professionals who are learning how to disseminate knowledge about racial justice, and we’re laying the groundwork so that community can nurture this kind of knowledge in the future,” said Odell, a scholarly communication librarian who is working to develop a sustained community of users at IUPUI engaged in Wikipedia. “We want to get more students, more future professionals, to feel like they own the knowledge about their community in some way and to feel a responsibility of caretaking that knowledge.”
Shrum also works closely with community partners to bring awareness to Indiana’s history of anti-Black violence. In 2021, she and public history graduate student Haley Brinker joined the Indiana Remembrance Coalition, a group who has worked to bring public awareness to the March 1922 lynching of George Tompkins in Indianapolis. The coalition was already working closely with IUPUI Chancellor’s Professor and historical archaeologist Paul Mullins, who first uncovered Tompkins’ story.
Tompkins’ death was ruled a suicide in 1922, and he was buried in an unmarked grave in Indianapolis’ Floral Park Cemetery. On March 12, 2022, the Indiana Remembrance Coalition held a remembrance event for him at the cemetery and dedicated a headstone for Tompkins. At the event, the Marion County Coroner’s office revealed they were changing the cause of death from suicide to homicide in order to acknowledge the manner of his death.
Shrum has often engaged her students in multi-year projects that allow them to think about different ways to make historical events relevant in today’s society and with current issues. Previous work was focused on LGBTQ history in Indiana, a project that will conclude later this year with the installation of a historical marker commemorating the first public celebration of Pride in Indiana in 1990. The state historical marker will be installed on Monument Circle in downtown Indianapolis.
“Public history as a field is geared toward how we use history in today’s society to bring about more equity and justice in our current landscape,” Shrum said. “It’s about using the past to help us make sense of the present and to make the present a better place. Through this work, I hope we are planting a seed in our students that they will carry through their entire professional lives.”