Data: Big and Small

In 2018 we live by “big data.” Each of us not only uses data, but we contribute to its collection every time we log onto the web. The question that exposes the modern dilemma is “How much data are ordinary people willing to turn over to Kroger’s when they go grocery shopping?”  And the answer seems to be “As much as they want, as long as I get discount points on my gas purchases.”

Today, data drives almost every decision in business, everything from what aisle do you stock grape jelly, (with other jellies or next to the peanut butter), to what apps get promoted, to how to efficiently design public transit routes in a metropolitan region, to what social service programs get funding. We have convinced ourselves that without data, nothing is defensible.

Data has always been understood as important, though before the digital age of “Big Data” and the ascendency of powerful algorithms, data sets gathered to impact public policy came in smaller packages. That can be seen in several of the documents in the Kinsey African American Art & History Collection.

An 1806 report presented to the House of Commons by the British Inspector General of Imports and Exports records the number of British ships and their capacity to carry enslaved Africans (3.8 million) to the British West Indies between 1796 and 1803. This report was part of the larger public effort to end the British trade in enslaved African peoples, a campaign that achieved success in 1807.

But ending the trans-Atlantic slave trade did not end slavery. A reminder of that grim reality is demonstrated in an 1820 schedule of over 500 slaves living on the estate of William Law on the island of Granada. The inventory of assets available for sale to settle Law’s debts includes a listings of slaves by name, color, country of origin, age and any defining markings. This inventory stands as a stark reminder that people of African descent were considered as nothing more than property to be bred and bartered.

One of the most chilling and discouraging data documents in the entire Kinsey Collection is a broadside issued by the NAACP in the early Twentieth Century. A generation after the Civil War ended, white Americans defaulted on the promises made to the people freed from bondage. Rather than the full rights of citizenship proclaimed in the 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution, mainstream American gave into the mounting pressure from the re-emergent South to subjugate those one enslaved and their descendants.

Legally, this took the form of the imposition of Jim Crow Segregation that won approval from the United States Supreme Court in 1896 in the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that made “separate but equal” the law of the land.

Culturally, it meant the flowering of a Southern revisionist interpretation of the Civil War as the “Lost Cause” fought for States Rights, not the perpetuation of slavery. It was this movement, in turn, that sparked the dedication of hundreds of Civil War monuments in the early decades of the new century. It is those monuments that have recently become focal points of controversy and violence. 

Another result of the abandonment of African American citizens was the unleashing of a wave of lynchings, a calculated campaign of terror designed to control American citizens of color. In the face of this terror, the NAACP began tracking the number of lynchings in 1912. The 1922 “The Shame of America” broadside declaring that 3436 people had been lynched between 1889 and 1922 was to use statistics to shock America into taking action. 

The immediate goal was to rally support for the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill then before Congress. The bill did pass the House of Representatives by a two-to-one majority, but failed in the Senate. Despite continued efforts and the introduction of other bills, the United States Congress never passed an anti-lynching law. The catastrophic results of this failure are chillingly documented in the most powerful American history exhibit I have ever personally encountered. I am very proud that the Freedom Center brought “Without Sanctuary” to Cincinnati. 

Human beings cling to the idea that assemblage and presentation of facts (data) is the proper way to appeal to reason and advance human good. What is clear, however, whether in 1806, 1922 or 2018, economic, political or social self- interest of the powerful will always dismiss data, unless it is wrapped in a powerful political movement.


Dan Hurley
Interim President
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center