When two 19th century photo albums of an African American family were found in William L. Clements Library, it was the start of a budding historical archive.
The Arabella Chapman Project is an online exhibit created by Prof. Martha Jones, a professor of history and Afroamerican and African studies, as well as students enrolled in her African American Women’s History course.
Arabella Chapman, the woman who made the albums, was born to a free African American family in New Jersey two years before the start of the American Civil War in 1859. According to the online exhibit, she spent most of her life in Albany, New York, a city pivotal in U.S. anti-slavery, civil rights and black activist history. The albums were passed down and preserved in the family and can now be viewed online or at the William L. Clements Library.
The students began the process of finding the stories of the people pictured in the albums by completing historical research. They combed through census returns and city directories.
Prof. Jones said anyone in the world can look at the online exhibit, contribute to the archive and help solve the historical mysteries of the Arabella Chapman family portraits.
While it is an ongoing project, the historicity of the albums are still significant today. Students in the class took tintype photography selfies at the end of the course.
“The thing I didn’t expect was the ways in which, by working on old photographs, we would begin to think in new ways about photographs today — in particular, the selfie,” she said. “In a way, by spending time with those photos, it led us to rethink what selfies are, what they mean, how we compose them, how we use them and how they circulate.”
As part of her course, Jones’ students learned how to discover new history by training in the Clements library, having individual consultations with librarians and staying up late foraging through online databases.
“I think a lot of students got hooked,” she explained. “Photographs have a way of doing that. They have a kind of power in themselves to draw you in. We were really discovering things that have not been known about these people and about the world they lived in.”
She added the research for the project was eye opening because it was unclear what the final product of it would look like.
“And believe me, as a professor, that’s a little scary,” she said.