Spatial Analysis and Mapping

In his book The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein argues that while residential segregation has long been associated with the South, it was actually a national program sponsored by the federal government.1 While Rothstein’s book makes an excellent case, as a book it has certain limitations in the types of visualizations that it can offer. An excellent companion to this book is the interactive digital mapping project Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America.2

This project uses your location data to show you New Deal Era redlining maps imposed upon your present day city. By zooming out, you can also view redlining maps for other cities across the United States. In addition to illustrating how segregation was a national program rather than a regional one, this project localizes the history of redlining for its users. In doing so, Mapping Inequality makes the history of segregation personal. Users can see the neighborhoods they encounter in their daily lives placed within historical context—and make connections between redlining in the 1930s to the shape of their hometown in the present. Connections like this are far more likely to occur through digital projects than through physical books—hence spatial historian’s dependence on digital history tools.3

But what is spatial history? While I have already discussed some of its benefits, I have yet to define the practice itself. According to historian Richard White, traditional historians primarily examine change over time. White explains that geographers have accused historians of ignoring the fact that “[s]pace is itself historical.”4 While White disagrees that historians have entirely ignored space over time, he acknowledges that it often does not receive due attention. Spatial history, then, is an effort to include spatial considerations in historical research.

White emphasizes that spacial history is not just about mapping. While mapping projects like Mapping Inequality do examine space through time, they have limitations. “GIS often ends up emphasizing not the constructed-ness of space but rather its given-ness,” he writes, while this has its uses, it is “not so good if you are trying to understand a wider spectrum of human constructions of space over time.” In other words, people do not actually construct and experience space in their daily lives as “absolute space” that can be mapped with GIS. Instead, “people talk about space in terms of miles…[and] time and cost”—what White calls “relational space.”5

Relational space cannot be mapped easily, but it is a critical component of understanding space through time. White argues that there are other methods historians can use to understand relational space. An excellent example of this methodology in use is the work of Cameron Blevins in his article “Mining and Mapping the Production of Space: A View of the World from Houston.”

In “Mining and Mapping,” Blevins mapped the “the imagined geographies” of two nineteenth century Houston newspapers: the Houston Daily Post and the Telegraph and Texas Register. To do this, Blevins tracked the “frequency of different place-names” in each newspaper. Instead of using this data to create a map of absolute space, Blevins used this data to ask new questions about relational space: How did Houstonians understand the world and their place in it in the nineteenth century? How does this connect to what we already know about the era? How does this understanding change between the two newspapers?6

Richard White argues that that spatial history is “not about producing illustrations or maps to communicate things that you have discovered by another means,” rather, “It is a means of doing research; it generates questions that might otherwise go unasked.”7 The questions Blevins can ask of his sources through spacial analysis is evidence of White’s argument. Spatial history allows historians to approach their sources from a new perspective, to ask new questions, and to make different connections.8

Despite its usefulness, spatial history is incredibly time consuming, and White notes that it is usually a collaborative effort.9 Due to our limited time and limited source-base, our in-class experiment with spacial history had minimal impact. However, once more documents have been transcribed and if sufficient time is allotted, employing spatial history methodologies with CWRGA documents offers several enticing possibilities.

One subject I would want to examine would be comparing petition rates to county population. Historian Edward Ayers argues that in many cases, enslaved people were not tried by the courts because enslavers preferred to deal with crime and punishment privately on the plantation.10 If this pattern is reflected in the CWRGA documents, it would probably mean that counties with low percentages of enslaved people had higher rates of petitions than counties with high percentages of enslaved people. While we may be limited in which methodologies we can use in the early stages of the CWRGA project, it is exciting to consider which new methodologies will become available as the project grows.


  1. Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2017), xii. ↩︎
  2. Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America, https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining/. Accessed April 6, 2021. ↩︎
  3. Richard White, “What is Spatial History?” Spatial History Project, February, 2010, accessed April 6, 2021, http://web.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/site/pub.php?id=29. ↩︎
  4. White, “What is Spatial History?” ↩︎
  5. White, “What is Spatial History?” ↩︎
  6. Cameron Blevins, “Mining and Mapping the Production of Space: A View of the World from Houston,” Spatial History Project, June 2014, accessed April 6, 2021, http://web.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/site/pub.php?id=93. ↩︎
  7. Blevins, “Mining and Mapping.” ↩︎
  8. Blevins, “Mining and Mapping.” ↩︎
  9. White, “What is Spatial History?” ↩︎
  10. Edward Ayers, Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th Century American South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 134-135. ↩︎

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *