Want to learn and share more about local Black history? Start with Google Maps.
April Hamm knows Google Maps is more than just a tool to navigate from point A to B. She’s harnessed the power of the app to teach people about Black history in her current city of New Orleans.
Though she grew up in a small town in Georgia, Hamm spent a lot of time visiting New Orleans as a kid. Since 2017, Hamm’s been a Google Maps Local Guide for her adopted city. Guides are contributors who volunteer their time to helps others get acquainted with places on Google Maps via personally-crafted contributions like written reviews, photos, and fact-checking information.
“Places that were part of my own community…and primarily run or visited by Black, Indigenous, [and] people of color were simply not on the map or didn’t have a strong presence,” says Hamm, who is Black. “Not a lot of people were writing reviews or maybe people didn’t know about them [the businesses] to visit them in the first place.”
Hamm pours a lot of energy and love into the position, even if it is unpaid. While local guides are not Google employees, there has been a chorus of activists generally calling for people of color to get paid for corporate diversity initiatives recently. Still, Hamm finds being a guide fulfilling and knows the importance of encouraging her community and tourists to visit and learn about undiscovered places in their own backyard and beyond.
“It really starts offline for me. I love going places. Whenever I go someplace new, I love going to museums, learning about local history,” says Hamm about her motivation to become a local guide.
You, too, can create these lists in your own community, and learn from Hamm’s experience. Each guide uses the technology Google provides to support the causes they care about, Hamm says.
In her time as a local guide for Google Maps, Hamm’s made lists highlighting Black history museums and other Black landmarks in New Orleans and Louisiana, created a self-guided tour to celebrate Black freedom both on Juneteenth and throughout the year, and curated places to celebrate Juneteenth in New Orleans in 2021. (Juneteenth, which marks the true end of slavery in the U.S., became a federal holiday this year.)
For Hamm, creating these lists goes beyond an attempt to inspire her community to delve into Black history and visit local Black-owned businesses.
“If you’re a member of any minority group…it’s really hurtful when you’re looking for places that you care about and they’re not there.”
“If you’re a member of any minority group…it’s really hurtful when you’re looking for places that you care about and they’re not there,” she says.
Not only is Hamm a fan of cultural institutions that uplift Black stories, she’s also a co-founder and educator at the Jim-Ree African American Museum in Elberton Georgia. The museum is a family affair. Hamm’s stepfather planted the seeds for it after he started a Black History Month committee in Elberton in the ’90s. In 2015, after years of work by Hamm, her mom, and aunt, the museum formally opened in what was a former county jail.
After opening a museum centered around Black history and culture, it was a natural segue for Hamm to create Google Maps lists of Black businesses and landmarks.
While Hamm hasn’t seen other people creating similar Google Maps lists to hers, she’s observed people commenting online that they’d like to do the same.
Hamm doesn’t think the lack of Black businesses and cultural sites on Google Maps always stems from an intentional whitewashing. Sometimes, it’s simply because people don’t know these places exist.
By drawing people’s attention to these businesses via Google Maps lists, Hamm wants to help spotlight them and, hopefully, draw more visitors. And, of course, make Black history come alive for everyone.
1. Creating a Google Maps list to highlight local Black history
If you want to follow Hamm’s lead and make Google Maps lists to put your local Black history on the map, Hamm has some advice.
If you already have a few places you want to spotlight, first save them on Google Maps for yourself so you can find them later.
“The cool thing about [Google Maps] lists is you can begin to organize it for yourself before you publish it,” says Hamm. “As you discover new places, you’ll simply save them.”
After, Hamm suggests visiting these places IRL to gather information about them so you can include that on your list. If you can’t physically go to the site right now, do a deep dive of its website to collect as much info as possible.
“As soon as you can, go and physically visit the location,” says Hamm. “If it’s a museum, find out if you need an appointment, if there’s any cost, and all of that is information you’re going to want to add to Google Maps so that other people will know too.”
People often avoid visiting public places because they don’t know what to expect, like the hours, parking availability, or entrances for people with physical disabilities, Hamm says. While you’re there, seek out that information. Also look for and include details like restroom locations, if the site is family friendly (like if they have high chairs), what kind of seating is available, and if it’s wheelchair- accessible.
Hamm also sometimes includes photos with her lists to help give people an idea of what to expect.
“You can gather that information for yourself so you can go and visit, but also then [it’s important] to share it so other people won’t have to go through all of that extra trouble,” says Hamm. If it’s easy for people to locate that information, they’ll likely visit the place rather than give up.
Once you’ve gathered this information, you can use these instructions to make a Google Maps list.
2. Identifying the right places
If you don’t know what sites are out there that celebrate Black history, that’s OK.
Start with a simple Google search, suggests Hamm. You can type something like “African American places near me” to get started.
Don’t restrict your search to the internet. Do research. Find historians in your area who study Black history and pick their brains on places they think are important to include. Hamm started this practice long before she became a Local Guide and then integrated the places she learned about into her lists.
You can also reach out to museums and historical societies to supplement your list, suggests Hamm.
3. Naming your lists
Hamm often relies on themes for her lists. For example, “African-American landmarks,” “Best of New Orleans Black-owned restaurants,” or “Where to find clothes to wear for Juneteenth.” Themes can help organize your lists so they’re not random and people know what to expect from them at first glance.
Beyond a name, you’ll also want to include a short but evocative description of the location, any helpful details, and why you think it stands out.
“It’s very important that we identify things that make the place special,” says Hamm. “I think that being Black-owned or women-owned, certainly those are things that are special.”
Overall, Hamm suggests making lists with content you truly care about.
“You don’t have to go with what you think might be popular,” she says. “It will be more meaningful for you…and more authentic for other people,” if you highlight what you’re passionate about.
4. Visiting sites in person
If you’re able to physically visit a place you want to include in your list, ask the owners or management if they’d be open to a private visit. This way, you can talk with them to curate interesting details to put in your list’s description.
If not already on the site’s website, or if you want to know more, consider questions like “Tell me your story” or “how did you get started?” These kinds of questions can elicit personal stories that can help a business pop off the screen.
“I can learn from them, what do they want people to know about their location,” says Hamm about these private visits. For example, when she visited the Meals From the Heart Cafe in New Orleans’ French Quarter for her New Orleans Freedom Tour list, Hamm learned its recipes have been passed down through generations.
“I could relate to that because that’s something we do in my family,” says Hamm.
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If you’re not able to visit a location in person, you can use information from a business’ website or interview the owners via phone to fill in details.
“It’s really a human effort to get these locations on the map,” says Hamm. “You don’t have to be Black or anything other than what you are to help make this information more accessible.”
At the end of the day, Hamm says, Black history is American history and Google Maps lists are a way to spread this knowledge:
“Creating lists makes it easier for people to find the information online,” says Hamm. By helping to create lists, regardless of your background, you’re helping more people to discover these amazing places!”