Statement on Working on Black History

This is a brief statement about working on Black history. The basic premise is that historically people like me (white cis-gendered men) have mistreated Black History- either ignoring it completely and pretending as if Black people had no history or portraying it as a side note to white history. What is oft taught as American history frequently excludes Black history (and Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, etc. history). That is, it’s not actually American history. So, I think it’s important to say a few words here about my identity and it’s connection to my current work.

Bear with me for a bit of background… I’m trained as an archaeologist with specialization in Pre-Columbian South America (specifically the coast of Ecuador and the exchange of the shellfish known as Spondylus). But, I have always maintained that the best way to teach archaeology is to do it. In that vein, I have developed a few small local projects (local as in close to Muhlenberg College where I teach). Since about 2015, I have been working on the historic modification of vast landscapes in Pennsylvania through the production of charcoal for the iron industry. I primarily use LiDAR- a tool that has changed the way we work in archaeology- and field survey (with students). This type of archaeology is “low impact,” which basically means we don’t dig. This reduces costs greatly and keeps artifacts in the ground. But, it also allows us to focus on the landscape scale. We have identified thousands of relict charcoal hearths (RCHs; where trees were converted into charcoal),  the remains of hundreds of collier huts (small conical structures built to temporarily house charcoal burners, a.k.a. colliers, for the up to 8 months they lived in the forest making charcoal), paths and roads connecting these along with the remains of associated structures and other modifications of the landscape.

Early in this research, I began noticing a connection between rural Black communities (which tend to be small) and these charcoal “fields” (tracts are thousands of acres and the RCHs are spaced out rather evenly hence the term “fields”).  During the Fall of 2020, due to the pandemic my students in Field Archaeology were dispersed all over the northeast for a “remote” semester. Normally, I run this as “field” class and we spend c. 8 full days in the field (usually Sundays). But since students could only come for a smaller number of field trips, I could not do the traditional field school. I also needed a place where things were a bit closer together (so that we could do 3 field trips instead). So, I decided to take them to Hopewell Furnace. There we could both see and learn about iron production and the production of charcoal for the iron industry. Since this was a relatively new landscape for me, I did lots of background research before we took the field trip. One map really made me take notice. From 1862, the map is from a Berks County Atlas (HERE). To the northwest of Hopewell Furnace (on the other side of hills that appear empty but are, in reality, the charcoal fields) was a grouping of houses labeled “Colored Settlement” with only one house indicated by name, “Jno Watson.” This contrasts with all of the other houses around it where each was labeled with an individual owner. Why would the cartographer not put individual names on individual houses for this “settlement”? Especially since other, very similar, maps from the same time (one from 1860 and one from 1872) name those home owners. This was both a perfect example of the power of maps- individual landowners had literally been wiped of the map and replaced with “Colored Settlement” – and an example of the racism of the time.

Here’s what that map changed. First, I began to feel like I was ignoring something really important. But, on the flip side, I also felt like I was not an expert in Black history so I shouldn’t be talking about it. Then again, by NOT talking about it was I doing the exact same thing as that map- quite literally erasing Black history. That realization did not feel good. I was sure that the relationship between this community (and other small rural Black communities) and charcoal lands was important, but, in my ignorance, I couldn’t say much more than that. Was it my responsibility to investigate this more closely BECAUSE it was Black history?

However, I kept feeling also that – because people with an identity like my own had done so much damage, not just to Black history but to Black people- I couldn’t just start researching this in way that I had been researching charcoal landscapes. If I was going to do this then I needed to do my research differently?  My basic answer is to listen. Really listen. No, I mean, listen better than I ever had before. There’s probably more than two important aspects of listening, but here’s what I came up with (in a nonhierarchical order). A) Listen to Black scholars. And B) Listen to descendent of these communities. But, what does that mean? 

Luckily, I was on sabbatical for Spring of 2021. Instead of my planned project, I basically dedicated myself to developing a bibliography and reading lots about Black history with a clear focus on southeastern Pennsylvania and the 19th century. I developed a bibliography – you can see it here, but be forewarned that it includes lots of material about charcoal and iron production as well as Black history. But just reading books is not enough. I had to ensure that I was really processing and incorporating this scholarship in my own work. And, of course, giving Black scholars the appropriate credit for their work. One of the realizations in this process is that there is so much that we already know that is not being shared and/or taught in HS history. That is, while I think that I can make a contribution, I also began to think about ways to boost the work that has already been done. As one small example, I mention two important books in my public talks- Cheryl Janifer LaRoche’s Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance (2017) and William Still’s classic The Underground Rail Road (1872). I have also developed a resource guide that I hand out when I present to the public. I have written a short article for the Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation that argues that Black History is all around us, even in state parks and forests. These are small, even tentative steps. 

I have also tried alternative approaches to listening. I follow mainly Black scholars on Twitter (and Indigenous scholars, but that’s a different story). This allows me to “hear” some of the critique and comments that don’t get published. It’s helped me understand the vast weight put on Black scholars. It has helped me understand that their scholarship is not solely about the work but about the stressful battle against systemic racism.   

I also applied for and was accepted to a 3 week long National Endowment for the Humanities Institute at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington DC entitled, “Towards a Peoples History of Landscape: Black & Indigenous Histories of the Nation’s Capital.” Organized by Andrea Roberts and Thaïsa Way, the institute brought together a wonderful group of scholars as participants and as guest speakers. We visited important sites and spoke with Black and Indigenous scholars. We read- A LOT. I’m still processing the experience and probably will for a long time. I value the curated syllabus. I don’t say this lightly, but the institute changed the course of my research. 

Lastly, one of the central components of the NEH institute was care. I know, it seemed odd to me too. But, I (think) I get it now. Care is about people and attempting to provide time and space to understand. Practically, for me this means that I can only do this work by listening to the descendants of these small rural Black communities. So, that’s what I am doing. This project is guided by them and I have dedicated myself to work that they indicate will be a benefit for them. (Note that I am not posting names because I do not have their permission). This is part of the ethic of care. It also means that my work has been slow (or slower than in the past). But, that’s perfectly fine. I do, however, recognize that I am privileged to be tenured and, therefore, don’t have the same requirements as non-tenured scholars. 

I look forward to feedback on this post, but if your response to my focus on Black scholars and Black perspectives is that this is biased (or somehow “reverse racism”) you are wrong. Sorry to be blunt, but you’re wrong. For decades I have read the works of white scholars. It’s the foundation of my scholarship. Focusing on Black scholars at this point is simply trying to correct for the inherent bias in that experience. But, if that weren’t true, if I didn’t have that background it would still be 100% appropriate to focus on Black scholars and the Black experience. Indeed, I really like to think that this is working on tearing down that foundation and building a new, better, more respectful one. This would start correcting for a wider anti-Black bias in all of academia. We have a very long way to go before that work will be complete. 

Walking Purchase Timeline

Below is an initial attempt at a timeline for the Walking Purchase. It should be seen as a draft and is a working document. While initially, it will be largely based upon information from Steven Craig Harper’s book, Promised Land, which is one of the best sources on the history and impact of this event, it will eventually include much more. There’s a lot of information so please click through the many events. Note that this version has been superseded by a version constructed in my Indigenous Pennsylvania course (Fall 2024). See the timeline here-

Allentown History

The following Timeline is a draft. The information in it is derived from Halma and Oplinger’s The Lehigh Valley : A Natural and Environmental History (especially Chapter 3) and Wikipedia’s Allentown page (which is pretty good, but far from perfect). This was created by student’s in Drs. Carter and Heiman’s Human Impacts on Local Ecology course during the Fall of 2021. It is intended to give students an overall perspective on the history of the Lehigh Valley and, more specifically, Allentown. Note that the Pre-Columbian/ Early Colonial portion definitely needs work.

Geohumanities Tools for Investigating Charcoal and Colliers.

Geohumanities Tools- April 3, 2021

All of these were discussed (or maybe just used) in Ben Carter’s presentation “Geohumanities tools for examining 19th century charcoal-making communities in eastern Pennsylvania” presented at Lafayette College, April 3, 2021. See

  • Pennsylvania Imagery Navigator-
    • Navigate and visualize aerial, satellite and LiDAR data for the entire state. All downloadable with a right click. Note that historic aerial images are not visualized, but are available for download.
  • Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access-
    • Much of the same material above (plus more) is available here. You can find downloadable data as well as WMS (and other) links for streaming GIS data into your GIS software
  • QGIS-
    • Full featured FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) GIS (Geographical Information System) software. Relatively user friendly “out-of-the-box” (but note that GIS programs are complicated, so you will likely need some training- see link to my videos below).
    • Can be greatly expanded with plugins (and Python scripts). My favorite plugins include:
      • QuickMapServices- provides access to a wide array of background maps, Google, OpenStreetMap, NASA, LandSat, USGS, etc.
        Azimuth and distance- for mapping “legal descriptions” of plots of land from deeds
      • Profile Tool- for examining the profile of the landscape (I use this to double check charcoal hearths)
      • MMQGIS- a wide array of tools (some of which are already provided), including Geocoding, which converts an address into a geolocated point (latitude/ longitude)
      • Want to learn how to use QGIS? Try this-
        • Note that the videos are organized into workshops. Start at the beginning.
    • Census and more. Similar to, but more limited than, Must sign up for an account, but not cost.
  • Qfield-
    • Android app designed to take your QGIS maps, layers, etc. into the field. Data is fully editable.
  • LASTools-
    • A simple tool for working with Lidar data (which comes in .las files). Not all components are open source, but there are workarounds. Note that this can also be used within the QGIS environment.
  • Zenodo-
    • Data publishing service. Data gets a DOI (and is therefore permanent), but can also be versioned. Located on the servers at CERN and available for all researchers.
      Some of my data-
  • University of Michigan’s The Encyclopedia of Diderot and D’Alembert-
    • Images of and text (most translated in English, but some still in French) of the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (English: Encyclopedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts). Lots of great information about “crafts.”
  • Kemper’s book on charcoal-
  • Library of Congress Map Collection-
  • Mask R-CNN-
    • You’ll need lots of programming skills for this one. Used for Deep Learning. Sharing in case anyone is interested.
  • Transcribus-
    • Software for transcribing handwritten documents. I’ve only used this on a handful of deeds, but has produced amazing results so far.
  • Is there anything that you would like to share with the group? Share in the Comments.

Kobo Toolbox in the field- limitations? and solutions.

(Note: originally posted here: on Aug 6, 2016)

This is a field report of efforts to develop a plan for low cost, digital data collection. Here’s what I have tried, what worked well, what did not and how those limitations were addressed.

First a description of the conditions. We live in two locations in Ecuador. The first is the field center established and currently run by Maria Masucci, Drew University. It has many of the conveniences needed for digital data collection, such as reliable electricity, surge protectors, etc. It does not have internet nor a strong cellular data signal. We are largely here only on weekends. During the week, we reside in rather cramped conditions in rented space in a much more remote location, where amenities (digital and otherwise) are minimal. There is limited cellular data signal (if you stand on the water tower, which is in the center of town and the highest point even though it is only one story tall, you can get a weak cellular data signal; enough for texts and receiving emails, but not enough for internet use or sending emails) and there is no other access to internet. We also take minimal electronic equipment into the field for the week (e.g. my laptop does not travel). So, everything needs to be set up prior to arrival in the field. The idea, therefore, is to largely use minimal electronic equipment in the field; I tried to use only one device (while also experimenting with others) for this reason. My device of choice (or honestly by default) is my iPhone 5s.

The central component of this attempt at digital data collection is Kobo Toolbox (see my earlier posts for more details… here, here, here and here), an open-source and web-browser based form creation, deployment and collection tool. Kobo Toolbox’s primary benefit is that, because it is browser-based, it is platform independent. You can use an iPad or an iPhone just as well as an Android device or a Mac or PC computer. This means that data can be collected on devices that are already owned or that can be bought cheaply (e.g., a lower level Android device v. an iPad). The form is created through their online tools and can create fairly elaborate forms with skip logic and validation criteria. Once the form is deployed and you have an internet connection, the user loads the form into a browser on your device. You need to save the link so that it can be used without a data connection. On my iPhone 5s, I simply saved the link to the home screen. A couple of quick caveats are important here. I was able to load the form onto an iPhone 4s (but only using Chrome, not Safari), but was unable to save it, so lost it once the phone was offline. I was unable to load the form at all on an iPhone 4 (even in Chrome). Therefore, although ideally the form should work in any browser, the reality is that it makes use of a number of HTML5 features that are not necessarily present in older browsers. Of course, as time goes on, phones and browsers will incorporate more HTML5 components and therefore, this will be less of an issue.

Once the form is deployed and saved on your device, you can collect data offline. When the device comes back online, it will synchronize the data you have collected with Kobo’s server (note that you can install Kobo Toolbox on a local server, but at your own risk). Then, you can download your data from their easy-to-use website.

For the first week, I set up a basic form that collected largely numerical, text and locational data. We were performing a basic survey and recording sites. Outside of our normal methods of recording sites and locations, I recorded sites with Kobo Toolbox in order to determine its efficacy under rather difficult “real-world” conditions. I collected data for 5 days and Kobo Toolbox worked like a dream. It easily stored the data offline and, once I had access to a data signal, all the queued data was quickly uploaded. I had to open the form for this to occur. I was unable to upload with a weak cellular data signal. It only completed uploaded once I had access to WiFi (late on Friday night). However, it synchronized nicely and I was able to then download the data (as a CSV file) and quickly pull it into QGIS.

The single biggest problem that I discovered in the field was that I needed to be able to see the locations of the sites recorded with Kobo Toolbox on a dynamic map. Although Kobo Toolbox recorded it nicely, you cannot see a point on the map, so I had to use another method to visualize what I was recording. The only way to see the recorded data is by downloading from the Kobo Toolbox, but a data connection is required. You can see and edit the data only if you submit as a draft. Once the data is submitted however, you cannot edit it in the field (this was true of other field collection systems that I have used, e.g. Filemaker Go). Yet, I still needed a way to visualize site locations (so I could determine distances, relationships to geographic features and other sites, etc. while in the field).

For this purpose I used iGIS, an free IOS app (see below for limitations; subscriptions allow additional options). Although this is an IOS app with no Android version, there are Android apps that function similarly. With this app, I was able to load my own data as shapefiles (created in QGIS) of topographic lines, previous sites and other vector data, as well as use a web-based background map (which seemed to work, even with very minimal data connection). Raster data is possible, but it needs to converted into tiles (the iGIS website suggests MapTiler, but this can also be done in QGIS). Although you can load data via multiple methods (e.g., wifi using Dropbox) I was able to quickly load the data using iTunes into the app. Once this data is in the app on the phone, an internet connection is no longer needed. As I collected data with Kobo Toolbox, I also collected a point with iGIS (with a label matching the label used in Kobo), so that I could see the relationship between sites and the environment. Importantly, I was also able to record polygons and lines, which you cannot do with Kobo Toolbox. Larger sites are better represented as polygons, rather than points (recognizing the c. 5-10m accuracy of the iPhone GPS). The collection of polygons is a bit trickier, but it works. Polygons and lines can later be exported as shape files and loaded into a GIS program. By using equivalent naming protocols between Kobo Toolbox and iGIS, one can ensure that the data from the two sources can be quickly and easily associated. The greatest benefit of iGIS is seeing the location of data points (and lines and polygons) in the field and being able to load custom maps (vector and raster) into the app and be able to view without a data connection. Although this is possible with paper maps (by printing custom maps, etc.), the ability to zoom in and out increases the value of this app greatly. Getting vector data in and out of iGIS is quite easy and straightforward. iGIS is limited in a couple of ways; nearly all of which are resolved with a subscription, which I avoided. Here’s a brief list of limitations:
– All points (even on different layers) appear exactly the same (same size, shape, color; fully editable with subscription). This can make it very difficult to distinguish a town from a site from a geographic location
– Like points, all lines and polygons appear the same (also remedied with a subscription). I was particularly difficult to tell the difference between loaded the many uploaded topolines and collected polygons.
– Limited editing capabilities (can edit location of points, but not nodes of lines; can edit selected data).
– Limited entry fields ( remedied with subscription, but, perhaps this is not necessary, if it can be connected to data collected with Kobo Toolbox).
– Unable to collect “tracks” as with a traditional GPS device (Edit- OK, so I was wrong about this! You can collect GPS tracks in iGIS, even though this is not as obvious as one might like).

The final limitation of iGIS was not something that was originally desired, but became incredibly useful in collecting survey data, especially negative results (positive results were recorded with the above). Our survey employed a “stratified opportunistic” strategy. We largely relied upon local knowledge and previous archaeological identification to locate sites, but also wanted to sample the highest peaks, mid-level areas and valley bottoms. In order to do this, we also used three different strategies. First, we utilized knowledgeable community members to take us to places they recognized as archaeological sites. Second, we followed selected paths (also chosen by local experts). Third, we chose a few points (especially in the higher peaks c. 200-300 meters above the valley floor). One of the most important aspects of this type of survey was recording our “tracks” so that we would know where we had traveled. This is commonly done with GPS units, but I was able to collect these using MotionX-GPS with the iPhone already in use. The GPS “tracks” (which are really just lines) as well as “waypoints” (i.e., points) were easily exported and loaded into QGIS. This allows for an easily collected data about where surveys traveled, but did not find archaeological sites. (Edit- Note that you can use iGIS for this function! MotionX GPS is not needed, therefore. It is great for recording mountain biking and hiking, however!).

One final comment will suffice here. I just discovered a new app that may be able to replace iGIS. QField is specifically designed to work with the open source GIS program QGIS. Although it is still new and definitely still in development, it promises to be an excellent open source solution for offline digital data collection- though limited to Android devices!