UVA Library joins “On the Books” project with Mellon Foundation grant for “Modeling a Racial Caste System: Algorithmic Exposure of Virginia’s Jim Crow Laws”

The UVA Library is launching a 16-month Mellon Foundation-funded project that will create a legal text collection identifying Jim Crow language in Virginia laws from 1865 to 1968.

“Modeling a Racial Caste System: Algorithmic Exposure of Virginia’s Jim Crow Laws” is headed by project lead and principal investigator Carmelita Pickett, University of Virginia Associate University Librarian for Scholarly Resources and Content Strategy. Amy Wharton, Director of UVA’s Arthur J. Morris Law Library, is co-principal investigator. The project team includes UVA Library staff from the Scholarly Resources and Content Strategy team and Research Data Services’ StatLab, UVA Law library and Legal Data Lab staff, the HathiTrust digital library, and UVA faculty.

“Modeling a Racial Caste System” is an expansion of “On the Books: Jim Crow and the Algorithms of Resistance,” a project of the UNC-Chapel Hill University Libraries that uses text mining and machine learning to uncover racially based legislation in North Carolina that was signed into law from the Reconstruction period through the civil rights movement. The computational-based results are then reviewed for confirmation by an attorney on the project team. The UVA project and another planned by the University of South Carolina were chosen through a competitive call for proposals to broaden “On the Books” to other states. The UVA team will use the workflows, products and machine learning techniques developed by the “On the Books” project team at UNC Chapel Hill.

The UVA project includes well-regarded UVA scholars Justene Hill Edwards of the Corcoran Department of History and Law professor Andrew Block. “Modeling a Racial Caste System” will build on the recent research by the Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law. Block served as vice chair of the commission, established by Gov. Ralph Northam in 2019 with the charge to review and identify laws and regulations that facilitated racial discrimination in Virginia’s Acts of Assembly and the Code of Virginia from 1900 to 1960 to determine their current impact. In adherence to the “On the Books” guidelines, “Modeling a Racial Caste System” will use Virginia’s Acts of Assembly in digital form, made available through HathiTrust.

The commission’s report acknowledged that “Virginia policymakers and other leaders spent centuries building legal and other structures to comprehensively segregate and oppress people of color,” and that while the laws have been erased, “the impact of what they built has not.”

Pickett, the project lead for “Modeling a Racial Caste System,”explained that the long history of legal discrimination and its continued effects made Virginia a compelling candidate for the “On the Books” expansion. She pointed as far back as Bacon’s Rebellion in the 1670s, which “prompted Virginia lawmakers to establish laws differentiating between persons of African descent and persons of European descent. These laws legitimized anti-Black racism and created a racial caste system.”

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