African American Soldiers: Visualizing Their Role During World War I (post by Alexis Hill)

Alexis HILL, Archives Specialist at U.S. National Archives and Records Administration  (NARA) in Still Picture Holdings — UMD MLIS Graduate in May 2022 — Advanced Information Collaboratory (AIC) Research Fellow

When we view archival records, such as manuscripts, photographs, architectural drawings etc., we discover information about them.  What if we wanted to dive deeper into these archival records to open up other possibilities?  This question is what drove my interest in archives and digital curation during graduate school at the University of Maryland College of Information Studies.  During my last year of graduate school in 2022, I worked on an independent study with Dr. Richard Marciano in which I used several different digital curation tools culminating in three interface visualizations highlighting the role African American soldiers played during World War I through photographs.

More notably, the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the “The Harlem Hellfighters,” served on the front lines for 191 days during World War I, longer than any other American unit in the war, and was the first unit to cross the Rhine into Germany.

American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs, 1917-1918 (165-WW) contains many photographs of World War I activities in the US and overseas within the holdings of the Still Picture Branch.  One file that was of particular interest to me was entitled “Colored Troops”, which contains 152 photographs.  While going through these 152 photographs as well as ones from Photographs of American Military Activities, ca. 1918 – ca. 1981 (111-SC), I decided to curate them by subject matter.  The subjects were: (1) “Europe”, (2) “NY Parade”, (3) “Recruitment”, (4) “Returning Home”, (5) “Training Camp”, and (6) “War Activities”.  I selected photographs from both series based on these subject matters, and created a unified virtual collection to elevate the illustrious role of African American soldiers during World War I.

Photo 1: Taken Feb. 7, 2019 — Colored Officers of 366th Infantry Back on Aquitania.
Photo 2: Taken April 27, 2019 — First Negro Detachment, Agricultural and Technical College, Greensboro, N. C.

Using tools I learned in a digital curation class (INST 742: Implementing Digital Curation), I extracted data from caption text on the mounted photographs in ABBYFineReader, an optical character recognition (OCR) application.  The data was then exported into OpenRefine, an open-source desktop application for data cleanup and transformation to other formats.  The cleanup involved separating the data by “Description”, “Folder”, “Photographer”, “Date Taken”, and “Location”.  Once the cleanup was complete, the data was then exported as an Excel CSV spreadsheet.  

The next step was to create a visualization of this data using Tableau, an interactive data visualization platform that can help anyone understand their data.  I created various visualizations by importing the Excel CSV spreadsheet, selecting two columns and linking the data together in a visualization.  After a preliminary review, it was clear more data could be added, including figuring out how to include the photographs themselves in the visualization.   Another column in the spreadsheet with links to the photographs’ catalog entry.  Once I did that, the new spreadsheet was imported back into Tableau using the Story feature to integrate three thematic dashboards and exported to Tableau Public:

Fig. 1: Tableau Public — Country / State view
Fig. 2: Tableau Public — Date / Photographer view
Fig. 3: Tableau Public — Subject view

Users can interact with these dashboards by clicking on one of three tabs: (1) a Country/State, (2) Date/Photographer, or (3) Subject, where the URLs box will narrow down a number of photographs they are linked up to, and connect directly to images from NARA’s catalog.  Users can then click on one of the URLs and will be able to view the photograph. 

With these three thematic dashboards,  we can see a story of where African American soldiers served, mostly in France, the welcoming they received when they returned home, the parade for the 369th Infantry in New York City,  etc.  

If you would like to test drive the application, try the following LINK. An interactive Jupyter Notebook is also under preparation and will be linked to the CASES portal (Computational Archival Science Education System) at CASES.  CASES supports the IMLS-funded TALENT Network to encourage the use, re-use, and creation of computational Notebooks based on archival collections for use by Teachers, Learners (undergraduate and graduate students), and Practitioners.

-Alexis HILL

(1) Archives Specialist at U.S. National Archives and Records Administration with Still Picture holdings — (2) UMD MLIS Graduate in May 2022 — (3) Advanced Information Collaboratory (AIC) Research Fellow