Over two years ago, a North Carolina high school social studies teacher asked the librarians at Wilson Library for a list of the state’s Jim Crow laws. When librarians responded to the request, they found there was no such list.
Since 2019, University Libraries’ On the Books: Jim Crow and Algorithms of Resistance project has used machine learning technology to digitize every law passed in N.C. during the Jim Crow era and has identified a comprehensive list of Jim Crow laws.
The multi-disciplinary team of UNC legal experts, historians and library specialists used text mining to discern and compile legislation passed between the Reconstruction Era and the Civil Rights Movement.
Now, the team is expanding the initiative with the support of a $400,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
“That kind of delved into a classic librarian’s approach to it — of trying to find that resource that existed, and finding that there really weren't very many comprehensive resources,” said Matt Jansen, co-principal investigator on the project and data analysis librarian. “And asking the question, ‘Is this a gap we can help fill?’”
Jim Crow laws refer to statutes that enacted or allowed segregation and white-supremacist legislation. Primarily based in the American South, these laws were significant instigators of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and '60s.
The project is the first of its kind, said Project Lead and Principal Investigator Amanda Henley.
“We gathered a bunch of laws and we labeled them as either ‘Jim Crow’ or 'not Jim Crow,’” said Henley, who also serves as head of digital research services for University Libraries. “And we did this using existing research and also by scholars going through and deciding on a case-by-case basis if it was a Jim Crow law or not, for a random selection of the laws.”
The team then used the data from that random selection to generate an algorithm for computers to use in qualifying every Jim Crow law. The team has completed the full list for North Carolina and found nearly 2,000 laws.