Collections and Resources, Exhibits, Southern Historical Collection, Special Collections

Gone Home: Race and Roots through Appalachia

Gone Home: Race and Roots through Appalachia
Melba Remig Saltarelli Exhibit Room
Wilson Special Collections Library
Through July 31, 2015 August 20, 2015
Free and open to the public
(919) 962-3765 or wilsonlibrary@unc.edu

As waves of African Americans left the rural South during the first part of the twentieth century, many stopped over in the coal fields of West Virginia, Tennessee, and Eastern Kentucky. Whether they stayed for a generation or set down permanent roots, these migrants and their families came to think of Appalachia as “home.”

Now an exhibition in the Wilson Special Collections Library brings the little-known story of these lives to light. Gone Home: Race and Roots through Appalachia will be on view in the Melba Remig Saltarelli Exhibit Room through July 31 August 20.

Homecoming parade, Lynch, Kentucky, circa 1960. Photograph from the Records of the Lynch (Ky.) Colored High School - West Main Alumni Association, Inc. (#5590), Southern Historical Collection

Homecoming parade, Lynch, Kentucky, circa 1960. Photograph from the Records of the Lynch (Ky.) Colored High School – West Main Alumni Association, Inc. (#5590), Southern Historical Collection

Gone Home grew out of the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project (EKAAMP), a novel partnership among the Southern Historical Collection in Wilson Library; Karida Brown, a doctoral student in sociology at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island; and Appalachian communities.

Brown, a descendent of coal miners, has recorded more than 200 oral history interviews with individuals who live in or grew up in the region. The Southern Historical Collection archives these recordings, along with photographs, organizational records, and family papers that community members have offered to Brown.

EKAAMP participants and Southern Historical Collection staff on the steps of Wilson Library, April 29, 2015.

EKAAMP participants and Southern Historical Collection staff on the steps of Wilson Library, April 29, 2015.

Through themes such as “School,” “Home,” and “Coal,” exhibition visitors come to know the close-knit African American community of Harlan County, Kentucky, one story at a time. Panels display excerpts from the oral history interviews, which visitors with smart phones can also listen to. On view are photographs and memorabilia from community social events, publications by schools and churches, news reports, and even a brick of coal.

A television in a reconstructed living room plays a video about the project. “When I got that audio recorder and hit the road, people told their stories and they made history, and together we made history,” Brown says in the video.

Bryan Giemza, director of the Southern Historical Collection, sees the project as an important step in developing community-driven archives at UNC. Typically, archivists at UNC and elsewhere have identified topics or individuals of interest and then sought to acquire relevant collections.

Community archiving, said Giemza, “turns that model on its head by asking communities: ‘What is important to you? How can we work with you as partners to preserve that history?’”

Giemza joined the Southern Historical Collection in 2014 and has identified community collaborations as a key focus. “EKAAMP epitomizes this approach, with a story that is compelling in its own right,” he said.

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