• Written by Derek H. Alderman, Professor of Geography, University of Tennessee

How can maps fight racism and inequality?

The work of the Black Panther Party[1], a 1960s- and 1970s-era Black political group featured in a new movie[2] and a documentary[3], helps illustrate how cartography – the practice of making and using maps – can illuminate injustice.

As these films show, the Black Panthers focused on African American empowerment and community survival[4], running a diverse array of programming that ranged from free school breakfasts[5] to armed self-defense.

Cartography is a less documented aspect of the Panthers’ activism, but the group used maps to reimagine the cities where African Americans lived and struggled[6].

In 1971 the Panthers collected 15,000 signatures on a petition to create new police districts in Berkeley, California[7] – districts that would be governed by local citizen commissions and require officers to live in the neighborhoods they served. The proposal made it onto the ballot but was defeated.

In a similar effort to make law enforcement more responsive to communities of color, the Panthers in the late 1960s also created a map proposing to divide up police districts[8] within San Francisco, largely along racial lines.

How Black cartographers put racism on the map of America The Black Panthers’ proposed police districts for the city of San Francisco, created in 1966 or 1967. Ccarolson/FoundSF, CC BY-SA[9][10]

The Black Panthers are just one chapter in a long history of “counter-mapping” by African Americans, which our research in geography[11] explores. Counter-mapping[12] refers to how groups normally excluded from political decision-making deploy maps and other geographic data to communicate complex information about inequality in an easy-to-understand visual format.

The power of maps

Maps are not ideologically neutral[13] location guides. Mapmakers choose what to include and exclude, and how to display information to users.

These decisions can have far-reaching consequences. When the Home Owners Loan Corporation in the 1930s set out to map the risk associated for banks loaning money to individuals for homes in different neighborhoods, for example, they rated minority neighborhoods as high risk and color-coded them as red.

The result, known as “redlining[14],” contributed to housing discrimination for three decades, until federal law banned such maps in 1968. Redlining’s legacy is still evident in many American cities’ patterns of segregation[15].

Colonial explorers charting their journeys and city planners and developers pursuing urban renewal, too, have used cartography to represent the world in ways that further their own priorities. Often, the resulting maps exclude, misrepresent or harm minority groups[16]. Academics and government officials do this, too.

Counter-maps produce an alternative public understanding of the facts by highlighting the experiences of oppressed people.

Black people aren’t the only marginalized group to do this. Indigenous communities[17], women[18], refugees and LGBTQ communities[19] have also redrawn maps to account for their existence and rights.

But Black Americans were among the earliest purveyors of counter-mapping, deploying this alternative cartography to serve a variety of needs a century ago.

Black counter-mapping

Mapping is part of the broader Black creative tradition and political struggle[20].

Over the centuries, African Americans developed “way-finding[21]” aids, including a Jim Crow-era travel guide[22], to help them navigate a racially hostile landscape and created visual works that affirmed the value of Black life[23].

The Black sociologist and civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois[24] produced maps for the 1900 Paris Exposition to inform international society about the gains African Americans had made in income, education and land ownership since slavery and in face of continuing racism.

Similarly, in 1946, Friendship Press cartographer and illustrator Louise Jefferson published a pictorial map[25] celebrating the contributions of African Americans – from famous writers and athletes to unnamed Black workers – in building the United States.

In the early 20th century, anti-lynching crusaders at the NAACP and Tuskegee Institute stirred public outcry by producing statistical reports[26] that informed original hand-drawn maps[27] showing the location and frequency of African Americans murdered by white lynch mobs.

One map, published in 1922 in the NAACP’s magazine “Crisis[28],” placed dots on a standard map to document 3,456 lynchings over 32 years. The Southeast had the largest concentration. But the “blots of shame,” as mapmaker Madeline Allison called them, spanned the country from east to west and well into the north.

These visualizations, along with the underlying data, were sent[29] to allied organizations like the citizen-led Commission on Interracial Cooperation[30], to newspapers nationwide and to elected officials of all parties and regions. The activists hoped to spur Congress to pass federal anti-lynching legislation – something that remains to this day unfinished business[31].

How Black cartographers put racism on the map of America Civil rights activist Bayard Rustin organizing the 1963 March on Washington, an example of how existing maps can also be used in politically disruptive ways. AP Photo[32]

Much anti-lynching cartography was inspired by the famed activist and reporter Ida B. Wells[33], who in the early 1880s made some of the first tabulations of the prevalence and geographic distribution of racial terror. Her work refuted prevailing white claims that lynched Black men had sexually assaulted white women.

Modern maps

The precariousness of Black life – and the exclusion of Black stories from American history – remains an unresolved issue today.

Working alone and with white allies, Black activists and scholars continue using cartography to tell a fuller story about the United States[34], to challenge racial segregation[35] and to combat violence[36].

Today, the maps they create are often digital.

For example, the Equal Justice Initiative, the Alabama-based legal defense group run by Bryan Stevenson, has produced a modern map of historical lynching[37]. It’s an interactive update of the anti-lynching cartography made 100 years ago – although a full reconstruction of lynching terror remains impossible because of incomplete data and the veil of silence that persists around these murders.

How Black cartographers put racism on the map of America The Equal Justice Initiative’s map tells stories of people who were lynched. Screenshot, Equal Justice Initiative[38]

Another modern mapping project, called Mapping Police Violence, was launched by data activists[39] after Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. It tracks[40] police use of force using a time-series animated map. Deaths and injuries flash across the screen and accumulate on the map of the United States, visually communicating the national scale and urgency of this problem.

Counter-mapping operates on the theory that communities and governments cannot fix problems that they do not understand. When Black counter-mapping exposes the how-and-where of racism, in accessible visual form, that information gains new power to spur social change.


  1. ^ Black Panther Party (
  2. ^ new movie (
  3. ^ documentary (
  4. ^ community survival (
  5. ^ free school breakfasts (
  6. ^ reimagine the cities where African Americans lived and struggled (
  7. ^ police districts in Berkeley, California (
  8. ^ police districts (
  9. ^ Ccarolson/FoundSF (
  10. ^ CC BY-SA (
  11. ^ research in geography (
  12. ^ Counter-mapping (
  13. ^ not ideologically neutral (
  14. ^ redlining (
  15. ^ patterns of segregation (
  16. ^ harm minority groups (
  17. ^ Indigenous communities (
  18. ^ women (
  19. ^ refugees and LGBTQ communities (
  20. ^ broader Black creative tradition and political struggle (
  21. ^ way-finding (
  22. ^ Jim Crow-era travel guide (
  23. ^ Black life (
  24. ^ W.E.B. Du Bois (
  25. ^ pictorial map (
  26. ^ statistical reports (
  27. ^ original hand-drawn maps (
  28. ^ Crisis (
  29. ^ were sent (
  30. ^ Commission on Interracial Cooperation (
  31. ^ unfinished business (
  32. ^ AP Photo (
  33. ^ Ida B. Wells (
  34. ^ story about the United States (
  35. ^ challenge racial segregation (
  36. ^ combat violence (
  37. ^ historical lynching (
  38. ^ Screenshot, Equal Justice Initiative (
  39. ^ data activists (
  40. ^ It tracks (

Authors: Derek H. Alderman, Professor of Geography, University of Tennessee

Read more

Metropolitan republishes selected articles from The Conversation USA with permission

Visit The Conversation to see more

Entertainment News


SANDRA BOOKER "Until We Meet Again" RELEASES WORLDWIDE MARCH 30TH There is something beautiful about artists whose insight into the human condition allows them to create works that meet our collective moment at a time we most need their...

News Co Media - avatar News Co Media

How Can Music Itself Survive Without Rock n Roll?

Just because you don’t hear much straightforward rock and roll on the Top 40 charts these days doesn’t mean it’s going anywhere. Its time in the mainstream limelight may not be as popular as it was when I was growing up in the 70s and what we now...

Michael Mesey, American Greed - avatar Michael Mesey, American Greed

Is Rock Music a Dying Breed?

“Rock ‘n’ Roll [is here to stay, it...] can […will] never die” – David Ernest White, Neil Percival Young, etc. “Rock ‘n’ Roll is dead” – Leonard Albert Kravitz, Barrington DeVaughn Hendricks, etc. “And so on and so on and scooby dooby dooby…” – S...

Eli Soiefer/Emodulari - avatar Eli Soiefer/Emodulari


“There’s Reason” The question mark (?) logo that Brisbane, Australia husband and wife rockers skinsNbones use in all their promotional materials in lieu of band photos reflects a fascinating aesthetic designed to create mystery, provoke and en...

News Co Media - avatar News Co Media

RAP without the F Bomb

Some would say that’s like peanut butter without jelly.  Hey, I am no prude and I shocked my best friend from grade school when I said “great detectives caught the Mo Foes, from my new song Clean Slate.”  She said:  whoa, you dropped the F word.”...

Rebecca L Davis   aka    DawgGoneDavis - avatar Rebecca L Davis aka DawgGoneDavis

My COVID Musical Journey by Kai Alece

It has been said that maybe one in 1 million musicians will make it to stardom. If you are in the top 5%, you are probably writing songs for top artists, scoring for blockbuster films and TV, a sought after session musician or maybe even playing ...

Kai Alece - avatar Kai Alece

Metropolitan Business News

Perfecting Web Design For A Health-Based Website

These days, when it comes to understanding what we put into our bodies, we are more focused than ever. It seems that everywhere we look, there is another health benefit, product, or trend on the...

News Co Media - avatar News Co Media

3 Realistic Reasons Why Physical Offices Are (Almost) Dead

Nowadays, more and more businesses are trying to find alternatives to traditional offices. For many years, brick and mortar offices have been at the heart of a company’s life. But work environme...

News Co Media - avatar News Co Media

Advantages of no-code app development for businesses

A marketer may or may not have knowledge about coding. But even if you don't’ have knowledge in coding, it is easy to build an automation sequence between two apps by making use of a no code app bui...

News Co - avatar News Co

Do Directories Still Help SEO?

Directories were once one of the main staples of SEO and they were definitely in existence before search engines took over. Directories were once the main way that people navigated the world wide we...

News Co - avatar News Co

Shipping Container FAQs

If you are looking to rent or purchase a shipping container, you probably have a few questions. We have selected some of the most common questions and answered them here. We hope that you find this ...

News Co - avatar News Co

Is Duplicate Content an SEO Myth?

Any marketer you speak to about duplicate content is concerned about a “duplicate content penalty” but they are probably not very experienced with SEO. Google has specific guidelines on duplicate co...

News Co - avatar News Co

Writers Wanted

News Co Media

Content & Technology Connecting Global Audiences

More Information - Less Opinion