Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive

Gina Nortonsmith Discusses Work with CRRJ Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive in NEA Newsletter Article

Gina Nortonsmith, a smiling woman with short hair and glasses
Gina Nortonsmith

Northeastern University African American History Archivist Gina Nortonsmith had an extensive article published in the January 2024 issues of the New England Archivists Newsletter, discussing her work with the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project’s Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.

Nortonsmith was originally hired as a Project Archivist for the CRRJ, tasked with compiling anti-Black homicide case records from the Jim Crow era into a collection to allow for accessibility and trend study by researchers. In the article, she discusses her work and the overarching goals of both representing the work of the CRRJ while also maintaining “the dignity and respect for victims and their families.”

To do this, Nortonsmith and the rest of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive team centralized the victims’ lives and stories, not just the crime that was committed against them. In her article, she discusses approaching each record as referring to a real person and not an abstract notion. Often that included discovering and using victims’ real names, instead of alternate names or misspellings that are common in the records.

“We wanted to build an archive which illuminated CRRJ’s work and that led us to put the victim and their story foremost in arrangement, description, and access,” Nortonsmith wrote.

The Burnham-Nobles Digital Archives contains investigative records from federal and local entities as well as records from advocacy groups and letters from family and community members advocating for justice. They also included death certificates, newspaper articles, photos, and more. Taken together, these records provide a complete story of the prevalence of anti-Black violence and murder in the Jim Crow South from 1930-1954 and the failures of the justice system to solve these crimes and punish the perpetrators.

As archivists, Nortonsmith and her team made sure these records were catalogued and organized in a way that included and highlighted all parts of the victims’ life and story. Working with such subject matter was difficult, but “knowing that we were helping to bring these stories forward once again went a long way toward keeping us moving forward,” Nortonsmith wrote.

The January issue of the New England Archivists Newsletter is currently available for subscription-holders. Past issues are freely available on their website.

Library Staff Work with CRRJ to Investigate and Make Accessible 1,000 Records of Racial Homicides in Jim Crow South in New Burnham-Nobles Archive

Last week’s release of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive by the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ) was a culmination of years of work by both the Northeastern University School of Law and by the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections.

Black and white image of a Black man wearing a hat and sitting on an old car. Text on the photo reads "Caleb "Picky Pie" Hill 28 Son, Brother, Father, Husband, Irvington Georgia"
Library staff have worked to digitize photos and records of racially motivated homicides in the Jim Crow South, like that of Caleb Hill, Jr., who was murdered by two white men in Georgia in 1949, with the help of local police. The killers were not indicted.

The archive, a comprehensive collection of 1,000 racial homicides that took place in the Jim Crow South between 1930 and 1954, will serve as a tool to shed light on the scope of racial murders during this time frame, their mishandling by local police and authorities, and their effect on the law and politics. It can be found at crrjarchive.org.

The project is the result of 15 years of work, with hundreds of students gathering 20,000 pieces of evidence — items like death certificates, press clippings, law enforcement files, reports from civil rights groups, photographs, and personal stories.

Led by Project Archivist Gina Nortonsmith, staff from the Library’s Archives and Special Collections, Digital Production Services, and Digital Scholarship Group then worked tirelessly to take that raw data and make it searchable, digitizing and cataloging it so that researchers can quickly gather information as they study specific cases or the general trend of anti-Black violence in the Jim Crow south.

“This is one of the most important projects that the Northeastern University Library has been involved with, and I’m proud of the many staff members who have helped to build this essential archive that documents a tragic, unsettling period in America’s history,” said Dan Cohen, Dean of the Library.

The Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive is part of the larger Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, whose aim is to educate the public about historical anti-Black racial violence and failures of the criminal justice system, as well as to investigate those cases in which proper justice has not been served. It was founded by Northeastern University Law Professor Margaret Burnham, who serves as its director and recently published the book By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners.