The Mapmaker

To ignite tough conversations, university president emeritus Ed Ayers turns to maps.

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Former UR President, Ed Ayers.
  • Former UR President, Ed Ayers.

University of Richmond president emeritus Ed Ayers is catching national attention for his latest project, called New American History.

You might’ve heard Ayers waxing historical on the radio show Backstory, but right now he’s interested by maps. The digital kind, that is. Fast Company described the project as “dazzling,” and The Atlantic says it’s “like entire textbook chapters turned interactive tools.”

“I was drawn to this because we have the opportunity to do something historians have long dreamed of doing,” says Ayers. “Showing the movement of people across space and time.”

New American History will encompass several initiatives, but its maps are grouped under American Panorama. Inspiration comes from Charles Paullin, who used 700 maps to detail everyday American life. Paullin’s 1932 atlas is considered nonpareil, because it covers everything from transportation to migrants to state boundaries.

So who did Ayers ask to spearhead such a massive digital sequel?

“Oh, gosh, I suppose that’s me,” jokes Robert Nelson, director of the university’s Digital Scholarship Lab. “But really, many days I feel like I’m just a curious voyeur, there are so many facets to this project.”

While Nelson is busy tweaking maps that have national significance, there are some that will particularly interest Richmonders.

For example, “The Forced Migration of Enslaved People” examines the American South circa 1810 to 1860. While the qualitative data takes on a visual elegance, Nelson is firm about the underlying issue: humanity’s dark side.

“How do you map emotional pain, physical trauma,” he says, hoping there can be a way to memorialize the Shockoe Bottom slave trade. “We don’t want to eclipse the individual, so we’ve included narratives from their perspective.” Black Lives Matter and other modern justice movements also seek to balance narrative with hard data. Nelson and Ayers are keenly aware of their proximity to pop culture. “We’ve started a newsletter to supplement this work,” says Nelson. “Recently we’ve used Beyonce’s ‘Formation’ video as a context. We want to be serious but fun.”

Ayers backs up his colleague here. “Having the skills of the team at the Digital Scholarship Lab makes it possible for us to create something new that is also easily understood by many people,” he says.

Keep your eyes peeled for an in-depth examination of redlining in Richmond, too. Nelson says the map will illustrate how wealth pooled into certain communities, based on discriminatory mortgage lending. With a 26 percent poverty rate hopefully on the agenda of Richmond’s next mayor, American Panorama stands to be more than a musty academic resource.

“This is part of my effort to get history before as many people as possible,” says Ayers.

Maps can be viewed at dsl.richmond.edu/panorama.

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