Abolitionist Legacy Preserved with Digital Exhibit

by | May 9, 2023 | Research and Innovation

The Unionist, Unified is a new digital exhibit created by SJSU Humanities Professor Jennifer Rycenga and SJSU Digital Scholarship Librarian Nick Szydlowski. The above image of Prudence Crandall is based on a 1834 portrait by Francis Alexander.

San José State Professor Jennifer Rycenga is retiring at the end of the semester with a real sense of accomplishment. With almost 30 years of teaching for the Department of Humanities, she has approached her career with an interdisciplinary lens that spans across the university, mentoring and guiding SJSU students, who she says are some of the most diverse and engaged she’s ever encountered. 

In addition to teaching, over the last two decades, she has examined how alliances across race and gender contribute to making abolitionism the first truly integrated and intersectional political movement in the United States. And to cap off her research, she is excited to launch The Unionist, Unified, a digital project created in partnership with the SJSU King Library’s new Digital Scholarship Services unit

The digital exhibit tells the fascinating story of The Unionist newspaper, which was created to provide a voice for the Canterbury Female Academy in Connecticut in 1833. The Canterbury Female Academy featured the highest level of education open to women of any race in the United States at that time, but the academy was met with constant verbal harassment and vigilante violence from many local white people. 

To learn more about the turbulent social history of this abolitionist movement and the people who fought for open education for all, read the Q&A with Rycenga and attend the virtual launch event of The Unionist, Unified on May 16 at 10 a.m

What can readers learn from The Unionist and how can it be applied to the present day?

Jennifer Rycenga (JR): The Unionist was a newspaper established to provide a supportive local voice for the Canterbury Female Academy, its students and its teachers. However, the paper was much more than propaganda. The editors were two white men, Charles C. and William H. Burleigh.

The Unionist printed the latest news about the school, but also published the latest in pacifist philosophies, anti-slavery thought and writings by both women and men. The editors knew that the Black students were reading The Unionist, as well as the abolitionist and peace pamphlets the Burleighs had on hand. One of the co-editors, William Burleigh, was also a co-teacher at the Canterbury Female Academy.

What The Unionist’s brief history shows us is what a radical media source, operating in an environment of local crisis, can accomplish. The Unionist reveals a web of communication among the nascent abolitionist community, a brief glimpse into the working minutia of the abolitionist movement. 

More importantly, though, it provides us with another piece of an anti-racist legacy. White people who want to be allies to people of color need to know that we have a history, and that it has its share of heroes, missteps and shining moments. The Unionist has the full suite of these! We can gain perspectives, therefore, on being an ally, on understanding the radical content of women’s education, and the warp and woof of revolutionary journalism.

What is your main takeaway from working on your digital project?

JR: Digital humanities has numerous advantages over standard scholarly venues like academic journals. I can appeal to a variety of audiences at once, from interested adults to pre-college students, to graduate students and professional colleagues. The ability to incorporate visuals — pictures, timelines and more — makes the material more dynamic and lively. All of my evidence can be shared directly, for the rich scholarly back-and-forth that it deserves.

The other main takeaway was that it was difficult to create, but thoroughly enjoyable! I’ve been a life-long academic, so writing an essay (as in a scholarly article) is no longer a struggle. But working with multiple media and multiple colleagues is new territory. I’ve loved every minute of it.

What made you decide to involve the library as a collaborator on your digital project?

JR: I wanted to offer my project, which I felt was made for digital humanities, to the library faculty as a kind of test case. The Humanities Department offers an introduction to digital humanities course, and the College of Humanities and the Arts has made digital humanities a major initiative. Kathy Harris was a great cheerleader and matchmaker for digital humanities: she showed me how working with the library brought all the threads together. 

It has been remarkable working with Digital Scholarship Librarian Nick Szydlowski — he’s smart, funny and so knowledgeable. I am happy to have him as a colleague and friend. In the humanities we often work quite individually. This collaborative approach has been so rewarding. Learn more about how the library can collaborate on digital projects

What is the first thing you would tell your colleagues who are interested in creating a digital humanities project?

Jennifer Rycenga

Rycenga’s research interests include Her areas of interest include American religious history, religion and music, feminist analyses of religion, lesbian history, religion and politics, and feminist analyses of music. Photo by Robert C. Bain.

JR: Do it! This is a medium that enables us to share all we know, without overwhelming readers. I’ve been enjoying planting some surprises in obscure spots, similar to small pieces of added content in movie credits! 

The possibility of adding new material as one finds it over the years — a kind of infinite mechanism for revision — makes digital humanities a very promising medium indeed. Embrace the collaboration, work with the incredible library faculty and staff, and take advantage of our location as the massive public university in the heart of Silicon Valley!

You’ve shared your research in books and journals. Is there something that a digital humanities project lets you do or express differently than an essay or monograph?

JR: In the case of the project, called The Unionist, Unified, the problem was two-fold. The Unionist ran for a little over a year (from August 1833 to September 1834), likely producing 56 total issues. However, only five issues have survived, and they are locked away in prestigious archives. But it was standard practice in 19th-century journalism to republish articles from other newspapers, and because it was understood that The Unionist was the most authoritative local voice on a controversy that garnered nation-wide attention, it was often quoted and credited by other newspapers. 

The existence of more searchable digitized newspapers has made the search for such content considerably easier. Think about it, though: presenting lots of fragments in a journal article is the definition of dull academic writing. Presenting them instead in a dynamic framework, such as the one Nick introduced me to in Wax, an open source workflow for creating digital exhibits and projects, brings those fragments to life.

Learn more about digital humanities projects across campus by visiting the Digital Humanities Center website