Timeline: March 2017 - February 2018
One of the most enduring paradigms in American culture is that of “rags to riches,” the belief that in the United States, people can more easily rise from poverty to wealth than anywhere else in the world. Immigrants, in particular, come to America to pursue their rags-to-riches dreams, yet most historians have dismissed the rags-to-riches idea as a “myth.” The rare cases in which foreign-born Americans rose from rags to riches divert us from the harsh economic realities that most of them faced. Yet immigrants saw things differently. They may not have risen as far or as fast as natives, but they believed that in America they could rise significantly above the economic station they occupied when they arrived. Our project, a collaboration between historians and economists, asks who is right—the scholars or the immigrants? We do so through a digital humanities project that allows students to engage in original research to answer this question—one that gets to the very heart of what it means to be an American.
Over the past five years, my collaborators and I have amassed data on 16,000 New Yorkers, primarily Irish immigrants, who opened bank accounts in the 1850s after fleeing the Irish potato famine. We have transcribed their deposit, withdrawal, and balance information and collected more than 10,000 pages of original handwritten documents describing their career trajectories, geographic mobility, and families. The “Resilient Networks to Support Inclusive Digital Humanities” jump-start project provides the perfect means to begin turning our research into a digital humanities project. With the input provided by other project scholars, librarians, and students, “Moving Beyond Rags to Riches” can become a model digital humanities project, one that could help make GW a digital humanities leader and bring visibility to the “Resilient Networks to Support Inclusive Digital Humanities” project.
Visit the project at http://beyondragstoriches.org/home-exhibit.