This website was a long time in the making. Back in 1999, I bumbled across the fact that the web domain unitedfruitcompany.com was available. On a whim, I registered the domain with the vague impression of someday doing something constructive with it. Mind you, I was a young historian specializing in the history of Islam and Politics in 20th Century Northern Nigeria, so this wasn’t exactly a topic for which I had much store of knowledge or pressing need to pursue. However, the novelty of owning unitedfruitcompany.com was apparently motivating enough that I renewed the domain for the next two decades.
When the domain once again came due for renewal in 2019, I asked myself (not for the first time) “why do I even bother with this? Is there somebody I could pass it on to in hopes that they might do something constructive with it?” Then, to my surprise, I got an idea. Why not offer a class wherein students undertook research into the subject with the goal of creating a publicly available “Digital Archive” focused on the United Fruit Company? I took the idea to my department chair and the Dean of the Honors College at NKU, and their enthusiastic response meant that we offered the class (entitled “Let’s Make Some History: The United Fruit Company Digital Archive Project” was offered in the Spring of 2020. The class featured over a dozen students, many of whom were History Majors, but others hailed from fields as diverse as International Business and Marketing. We also had one soon-to-be-overburdened Computer Science major with an interest in History and some experience in Web Design.
The students were divided up into different teams focusing on different aspects of the research. These were: Team Narrative; Team Biography; Team Themes; Team Documents and Images; and Team Tech. Some students worked with more than one team at a time, and other students drifted from one team to another. We used an Agile methodology that organized our research into a series of four “Sprints” over the course of the semester. Each week we assessed our progress towards the current Sprint objectives and adjusted our research and objectives accordingly.
Things went great for the first half of the semester/first two sprints… and then we got gollywhomped by the COVID-19 Pandemic. Northern Kentucky University, like almost all educational institutions in the US, went online as the world went into lockdown. We forged ahead as best as we could, but the transition from a tightly knit collaborative face-to-face project to a collection of online independent research projects was not easy for either students or for me. It also made collecting the material and getting it ready for posting to a website particularly challenging for our hard-working but lone Computer Science/Web Design expert. At the end of the term, I found myself in possession of a broad range of materials collected and authored by the students enrolled but lacking the technical skills to make them available in any real or useful way. Over the semesters that followed I kept hoping that a student might cross my path who combined an interest in things historical with the appropriate web-design chops.
Lo and behold, in the Fall of 2021 this (former) student appeared. Even better, it was Camden Mecklem, a recently graduated International Studies major who had taken the original class and had, miraculously, decided to pursue a new career direction in Web Development. Camden and I decided to do our best to pull our existing materials together and get a website up and running. This mostly meant me sending him the edited work submitted by the course’s students and him designing a super cool and functional website to make that work available to students and researchers everywhere. To be honest, I think he has knocked it out of the park.
Of course, this digital archive would not be possible were it not for the hard work and dedication of all the students originally involved. Many proved themselves adept researchers, able to pore through historical archives to identify useful materials and also to identify and collect the information necessary to create the biographies and narrative found here. Not all of the work eventually took the sort of form necessary for it to be included in the incarnation of the website you see here, but they all did great things, and I hope they learned a lot about doing research and about the history of the United Fruit Company in the process. It was an honor to work with them all.
The students involved were:
Erica Almquist Andrew Becker Naomi Belanger Elena Bonitz Danni Ray Buckler Paige Burcham Katelyn Clough Mia Derks Maria Kordes Alex Kuderer Camden Mecklem Duong Nguyen Cornelius Smal Jade Tillet Reana Warfield Sarah Weidner
Many thanks to the Northern Kentucky University Department of History and Honors College for their support in making this research possible.
Jonathan T. Reynolds
NKU Regents Professor of History