Archival Instagram Accounts Are Teaching Forgotten Histories

People of color are informing others of those who need their flowers

Archival photo from 1899 of Lavinia Baker and her family.
Lavinia Baker with her family, 1899. Photo: Library of Congress Photo Archives

Until recently, Instagram was not known for its political potential. The app was widely understood as the land of influencers, curated realities, and vapidness — and though its political potential has recently been harnessed by the proliferation of social justice “Instagraphics,” this view of the app has ignored the work of archival Insta accounts that seek to build communities around forgotten or ignored histories.

It is no secret that the history we are taught is sanitized, whitewashed, and sexist, but this knowledge does not make these hidden histories easier to excavate. Instagram accounts like @Race_Women attempt to make these forgotten histories more accessible by posting archival photos and materials that disrupt the notion that the histories that matter are solely about White men.

Founded in 2016 by Brooklyn nonfiction writer and editor Maya Millett, 34, Race_Women was born out of anger at not being taught that Black women had been instrumental and active in the fight for racial equality in the 1800s and early 1900s. Millett came across this erasure when working on a research project about a collection hand-drawn statistical charts by W.E.B. Du Bois and his students at Atlanta University (now known as Clark Atlanta University) that tracked the progress of Black people in America post-emancipation. As Millett worked on the charts, she kept coming across Black women who gave lectures and shared stages with Du Bois and Frederick Douglass — women she had never heard of — and realized that a whole dimension of her own history wasn’t accessible to her.

“These Black women were running their own publications, spearheading movements, doing all of this amazing work to center Black women’s achievements and struggles — and I didn’t recognize any of their names,” Millett said. “The more I learned about them, the angrier I got. I felt like their stories were my inheritance as a Black woman, and they were kept from me because the ‘official’ record had decided that in the grand scheme of history, they just weren’t important enough to preserve.”

Founded in 2016 by gallery assistant Alan Garcia, 28, the account has almost 10,000 followers, celebrating physical spaces that no longer exist or places of assembly that are disappearing.

The @Race_Women account was born out of this anger, and the need to keep the legacies of these pioneering Black women alive. There is, for example, the story of Callie Guy House, a washerwoman and widow who was the only woman national officer for the Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association in 1898 or the story of Harlem Renaissance writer Anne Spencer, who loved to garden, wrote about how she loved being Black and being a woman, and often hosted Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes in her home in Lynchburg, Virginia. “When it comes to the long fight for justice, Black women been leading the way,” Millett said. “I also… hope that the more we all learn about them and pass that knowledge on, the more we solidify their rightful place in history.”

The account, followed by a relatively small community of 3,000 people who comment, like, and engage with Millett regularly, has also become a place of connection and community, and the content ends up being shaped by these aspects of the account. Millett noticed an uptick in engagement during the pandemic, and hopes the account is continually shaped by the community around it.

“I think it all speaks to a desire to know the truth when it comes to the past,” she said. “People are becoming more and more aware that there is a huge chasm between what we may have been taught in school and history as it really happened. And that systemic racism and sexism (and so many other -isms) are responsible for that chasm. ”

The collaborative nature of these alternate histories accounts seems to be a huge draw to audiences on Instagram. Some of these archival accounts lean into the collaborative aspect even further, requesting submissions of materials from their followers. In the midst of the pandemic, these digital spaces and these acts of sharing have become even more important to marginalized people seeking refuge from a world that sees them as disposable.

This is the case of the @atx_barrio_archive account, which celebrates the culture and history of Black and Brown barrios in Austin, Texas, in response to violent processes of gentrification that are currently erasing communities of color in East Austin. Founded in 2016 by gallery assistant Alan Garcia, 28, the account has almost 10,000 followers, celebrating physical spaces that no longer exist or places of assembly that are disappearing.

“In Austin I think our hearts are all hurting for our favorite local businesses, and with the pandemic I think there has been a more emotional response to the posts about the gone-but-not-forgotten barrio hangouts,” Garcia said. “Even before the pandemic our community was dealing with the constant anxiety of when the next beloved barrio landmark would close due to rising property taxes, unaffordable rent, or predatory real estate development. Unfortunately, Covid-19 has accelerated all of that for us.”

Often, Garcia says, followers of the account recognize family or friends in photos of extinct establishments like barbershops or Mexican restaurants. Garcia’s collaborative archival collection approach seems to provide opportunities for connection beyond mindless social media scrolling, adding meaning to a gentrified Instagram timeline.

“It’s beautiful to hear from fellow Austinites who identify with the page and want to share their family story. Black and Brown folks have deep roots in this city, and sadly that isn’t celebrated enough,” said Garcia.

The digital community has also become a bridge between the past and the present when it comes to the uninterrupted history of police violence in the United States. Photos of Black and Brown Austinites protesting against police brutality after the killing of Tiburcio Soto on October 13, 1974, were shared by Garcia in the same week where people were gathered in the same exact spot outside APD headquarters demanding justice for Michael Ramos, an unarmed man who was shot and killed by police in Southeast Austin, putting the community’s fight into historical perspective. “I think the feedback for city leaders has been as loud as it’s ever been,” Garcia said. “Things must change. Our people have put up with this shit for too long.”

Dorothy Berry, digital collections program manager at Harvard University and an expert in digital projects, says,“These digital spaces are so important because they allow people who are often excluded and marginalized in traditional archives to see themselves and their history centered. Seeing people who look like you, your family, your imagined past — it helps people to remember that they have as long and valued a lineage as the White, propertied, male faces who have long been at the center of institutional archives… Our ancestors were not always suffering, but were complex and unique individuals who experienced the same joys we do!”

The trend of historical Insta accounts challenges the prevailing pace of immediacy social media expects. In a world of fast-paced, endless news cycles, historical Instagram accounts are forging digital spaces where more expansive histories can be acknowledged and honored.

Women’s Studies PhD student in UK. Writer, reporter, thinker, feminist. Views my own. #Latina. Culture Columnist for Zora. Tip jar: paypal.me/NHernandezFroio

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