Off the Record

The Library of Virginia holds AI workshop to create portraits of underrepresented historic people of color.

Rendered in black and white, edges discolored with age, the photograph shows Nancy Cooper, a 36-year-old Black woman, with her hair parted down the center. With her warm eyes and a big grin, she’s a friendly figure, smiling back at viewers through the ages.

Except it isn’t a photograph. It’s an artificial intelligence-generated image of a real woman from the historical record who likely never had her portrait made. And if the Library of Virginia has anything to do about it, there will be more images like her in the near future.

This portrait is an example of what attendees of the library’s “Envisioning Ancestors with AI” workshop learned this past Saturday. In the class, participants were shown different ways to find descriptions of Black and Indigenous people from historic records and use AI image-generating tools to envision what it might have looked like if they had had their portrait painted or their photograph taken.

The workshop aimed to show participants how to use the library’s genealogical research tools and give people of color a new way to connect with their ancestry.

“Visual representations can be more striking than just seeing something in the written record,” explains Lydia Neuroth, project manager for the library’s Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative initiative.

Started in 2013, Virginia Untold is an effort to address the historic lack of documentation of Black people. The initiative provides digital access to records that document enslaved people and free Black, biracial and multiracial people.

Because of slavery, it’s usually extremely challenging to trace Black lineage before the 1870 census. If records of an enslaved person were kept before this point, they were usually written by their white enslaver. And as enslaved people usually weren’t documented with a last name, it can be difficult to identify who is who in these records.

One resource that both Virginia Untold and the AI workshop aim to highlight are the Free Negro Registers. In 1793, Virginia began requiring localities to record their free Black populations as a measure to control them. Before emancipation, a free Black person had to produce their “free papers” upon demand.

“They’re really interesting as records, because the clerks in the localities are required to record things like name, age, height, physical description and identifying marks and scars,” says Neuroth. “You have these very intricate, detailed descriptions of people of color, which seems very unique and rare. You look at some of these localities and the descriptions are so detailed that it describes eye color, hairlines, shape of nose and mouth.”

Using these descriptions, workshop participants used AI tools like Canva, NightCafe and Stable Diffusion to create portraits of people who likely didn’t have the means or the agency to have a portrait made.

Nancy Cooper, the woman portrayed at the beginning of this article, is described in a Free Negro Register for Henrico County as “A Black woman who has the appearance of being white, wears a false set of teeth, 36 years old with a bright complexion.”

Neuroth points out that these AI portraits aren’t always accurate in their renderings. In her portrait of Cooper, for instance, “a bright complexion” appears to have been interpreted as having a big smile.

Some of the AI tools also have problems with outdated racial terms, such as “mulatto,” a historic term for a biracial or multiracial person that is now considered racist. When put into Canva, the app responds, “Mulatto may result in content that doesn’t meet our policies.”

Neuroth, who credits her colleague, Sonya Coleman, the Library of Virginia’s digital engagement coordinator, with coming up with the idea of using AI to visualize historic people of color, says the first workshop was a success.

“Participants came prepared with their own descriptions of ancestors and quickly took to using the tools,” Neuroth says. “Several participants shared that they found it as an opportunity to connect visually with their ancestors and that they will continue to use the tools in their own time.”

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