Social History and the Power of Naming

As a social historian, I love weaving together the small fragments of history into a story. I can’t speak for all social historians, but I think many of us share a desire to upend hierarchies of power by uncovering the experiences of everyday people. For me, looking through a big dusty, unwieldy volume of deeds in a courthouse, and discovering the names of the trustees who helped build a small rural church in 1923, is thrilling. Crazy, I know.

Family history researchers might be excited to locate their ancestors in documents, but I love learning the stories of people and places to which I don’t have a close connection. I transcribe small pieces of historical data, hoping to link them together into broader understandings of family and community. Names provide an avenue for doing this. But I also think it is important to recognize each individual. Even in bottom-up social histories, some names are chosen and others are left out. I find it frustrating that in historical writing I cannot name everyone who is part of the larger story. There is no feasible way to individually acknowledge all the members of a Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union local or NAACP chapter, even though each person sacrificed to make the world a better place. Digital projects offer that opportunity.

As I move forward with my digital work on the Missouri Bootheel, I will be sharing the names of the people who made change happen and some of the archival documents (depending on copyright status) connected to their lives. I hope this will provide a different perspective on grassroots leadership and courage in rural areas. I also hope it will be useful for genealogists digging into their family history. Stay tuned – I’ll begin by adding the names and federal court testimony of men and women who were held in peonage in New Madrid County, MO in 1906. While doing so, I’m going to try out Tropy, the new photo organization software by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.

About Heidi Dodson

Heidi Dodson is currently CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow at University at Buffalo.
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1 Response to Social History and the Power of Naming

  1. Chappy says:

    “Even in bottom-up social histories, some names are chosen and others are left out.”

    We live in the era of big data, perhaps it’s time for a little broad data instead. I can’t say that the idea of searching through old tomes for a name or single sentence excites me, but I’m glad that someone is excited by it. (and glad that I know that someone)

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