Jun 7, 2022

Black Beyond Data

Historian Jessica Marie Johnson leads several teams tapping into the power of datasets to uncover new truths about Black history. Black Beyond Data is part of an occasional series that highlights Johns Hopkins faculty whose work examines issues around racial inequity, discrimination, and structural racism.

On a spring day in 1751, Charlotte, an enslaved teenage girl, went on a quest to petition the wife of the governor of Louisiana to grant her freedom. Charlotte had become acquainted with a ship captain recently arrived from Martinique, Sieur Pierre Louis Batard. He had promised to help Charlotte arrange an audience with the governor’s wife, Madame de Vaudreuil.

On this May morning, Batard sent word to Charlotte that de Vaudreuil was willing to meet. Charlotte hurried to Batard’s home, but he was not there. She spent the day awaiting his arrival in his house. But as evening arrived, so did a group of soldiers sent by Sr. d’Erneville, the man who both had fathered her and owned her. Charlotte hid under some mosquito netting in Batard’s bedroom. When the soldiers discovered her, she asked them to look at the situation from her perspective; she just needed to wait a little longer for Batard to return. Charlotte explained that if they returned her to d’Erneville, he “would have her whipped unmercifully.” She even offered them a sum of cash, 100 livres, that she had carried with her.

“Charlotte did more than run away from her father and owner,” Jessica Marie Johnson writes in her book, Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World. The book won the 2021 Wesley-Logan Prize from the American Historical Association. It also won the 2020 Kemper and Leila Williams Prize in Louisiana History, among other accolades. “She combined flight, appeal, allyship, and willfulness in her defiant bid to escape bondage. She demanded to be heard.”

Telling Black stories

Johnson is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Johns Hopkins and a non-resident fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. She discovered Charlotte’s story buried in the Records of the French Superior Council of Louisiana and the Louisiana Historical Center. Charlotte’s bravery, quick thinking, and confidence emerge from these records, much as the courageous young woman emerged from her hiding place in the ship captain’s room.

This is one of Johnson’s passions as a historian. To tell the stories of Black people—particularly Black women—in the Atlantic African diaspora during the centuries of slavery. She highlights the relationships, warmth, and intimacy they created despite the harshest of circumstances, as well as the ways in which they wielded intelligence, creativity, and interpersonal skills to strive for freedom.

But Johnson is equally committed to opening access to the myriad amounts of data that contain information about Black life and Black people, both historical and contemporary. Databases that contain information drawn from records as disparate as the manifest of slave ships, court records, and African American newspapers. She presides over and consults on numerous research projects in which other scholars are mining data sets. Their goal: to discover the lives of Black people who would otherwise be lost to time.

The full story is much longer but you can find it in its entirety at: