Identity Intersections in the Spotlight: The Joan Little Case

In June of 1974, a 21-year-old black woman was placed in a Beaufort County jail on a breaking and entering charge. By August of that same year, she was on the run after one of her white jailers, Clarence Alligood, was found dead in her cell, stabbed multiple times with an ice pick and naked from the waist down. After a week on the run, Little turned herself in and what followed was a fascinating clash of southern mores, international topics of activism, and the dark truths about the American criminal justice system. On the 43rd anniversary month of the start of the ordeal, this post intends to highlight how the case is documented in the Southern Historical Collection, various interpretations of the material, and why it is a significant part of our manuscript collection.

Illustrated image of Joan Little from https://alchetron.com/Joan-Little-721496-W

The Southern Historical Collection has a small collection of materials on the Joan Little murder trial sold to us by James Reston Jr., a Creative Writing lecturer1 at UNC-Chapel Hill in March of 1976. Reston based his book, The Innocence of Joann Little: A Southern Mystery (1977) on this material. The collection includes transcripts of key witness testimonies from the defense and prosecution as well as news clippings and recorded interviews from significant participants in the trial. Reading through the transcripts, a researcher can put him or herself in the front seat of the courtroom. We learn how Alligood propositioned Joan repeatedly before the murder; we feel how Joan’s voice falters when she must relive her assault on the witness stand (Figure 1); we hear the crass interrogation as the prosecution tries to vilify Joan with assumptions about her sexual history and criminal lifestyle.

Figure 1: From page 44 of Joan Little’s testimony in Folder 1, James Reston Jr., Collection of Joan Little Materials #4006, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Although it is easy for general audiences to be drawn to this case because of its ties to racism, sexism, classism, the criminal justice system, and sexual assault – there is much more to unpack. Many scholars have delved deeper into the broader historical, legal, and societal issues that make this a landmark case. For example, in “She Ain’t No Rosa Parks: The Joan Little Rape-Murder Case and Jim Crow Justice in the Post-Civil Rights South”, Christina Greene discusses how we may not want celebrate Joan’s acquittal in a southern courtroom as a sign of progress too quickly. On page 429, she reminds us that many poor black women without the national attention or high caliber defense team are being crushed by the same systems that almost crushed Little.

Genna Rae McNeil’s article sums up many aspects of my interest in this case with her essay; The Body, Sexuality, and Self-Defense in State vs. Joan Little, in which she discusses the many important ways that Joan Little maintained her integrity and defended herself throughout the ordeal (p. 237). All accounts confirm that her personal life was challenging before her imprisonment (leaving home at an early age, not finishing high school, and falling in with a dangerous crowd) but she did not let those obstacles or how people may have perceived her control her future. She could have let that jailer rape her and follow through with her plans to get out of jail on bond for her breaking and entering charge in the weeks ahead. She could have fled the country when she escaped from jail, she certainly had enough lead time and connections to keep herself hidden for a long period. She could have fallen apart under the trauma of it all. She didn’t do any of these things, she fought for her life, she turned herself in, and in the trial, she withstood attacks on her character and spoke her truth (Figure 2). This woman embodies what it means to be free – which is probably why her story resonated with so many types activist groups.

Figure 2: From page 152 of Joan Little’s testimony in Folder 1, James Reston Jr., Collection of Joan Little Materials #4006, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

There is no doubt that the SHC curators in 1974 saw the widespread appeal of Reston’s archival materials on Joan Little. “Women’s groups saw it as a test of a woman’s right to self-defense in a sexual attack. Civil Rights groups looked to it as a test of Southern justice for blacks. Prison reform advocates supported it as an inmate’s rights issue (from staff & wire reports, N&O 08/18/1975)”. In addition to these papers, the trial is well documented in other Wilson Library resources. There are over 40 folders of content from the trial in the Hamilton Hobgood (judge) papers. Access to North Carolina newspapers from Beaufort and Wake Counties as well as others throughout the state can be found on microfilm in the North Carolina Collection. Bernice Johnson Reagon’s song about Joan Little is featured on a Sweet Honey in the Rock album in the Southern Folklife Collection. This woman and her trial represent an important episode in our collective histories and I would challenge all of us to consider what her story means to each of us and why it matters.

 

 

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LGBTQ Political Pioneer Joe Herzenberg

 “What was hope yesterday morning is now life for me”

Thanks to “The State of Things” on WUNC (North Carolina Public Radio) for inspiring today’s post with their conversation (also on Twitter) about the experiences of LGBTQ elected officials in North Carolina.

Joe Herzenberg was the first openly gay elected official in North Carolina in 1987. He served on the Chapel Hill Town Council until 1993, when it was revealed that he had not paid state income tax for the previous 14 years. His personal and political papers are held at the Southern Historical Collection (#5367); in addition to correspondence and photographs, the collection includes around 80 diaries written between 1954 to 2006.

His diary from when he was elected in the fall of 1987 (excerpts and images of which are included below) shows the excitement, emotional strain, and tedium of campaigning. Most entries include routine logs about his meals, reading list, and people he saw. Notes about significant personal and political events are written as casually as the mundane, making them both easy to overlook and all the more wonderful when found.

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Update: Women’s March Collecting

The Southern Historical Collection continues to work with the North Carolina Collection to document North Carolina’s involvement in the Women’s March this January; we thought an update on our efforts would be particularly appropriate on International Women’s Day!

Our recent focus has been material culture–the physical resources that were necessary for this “political performance” (a term described in further detail in a post from the National Council on Public History). Along those lines, we have been collecting a representative selection of items: handouts, a pink hat, protest signs (including the ones pictured in this post), and compassion sashes.

We’ve seen a few more items out there (links to examples):

If you know someone who has these, we would love to talk to them!


 

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Archiving the Women’s March

Like many other repositories, the Southern Historical Collection is interested in collecting information about recent local protests in response to national events. We are partnering with the North Carolina Collection to make this happen for the Women’s March that took place on January 21, 2017.

We will be collecting a limited number of items in the following three categories: social media, ephemera (signs, flyers, hats, etc), and images. Because posts and tweets disappear quickly, we are beginning with social media. Stay tuned for information about donating “stuff” and images!

On archiving social media:

Over the last few years, we have turned more of our attention to methods of archiving social media. We can’t capture everything, so we prioritize documenting moments and movements–phenomena that produce dynamic but ephemeral concentrations of information.

This spreadsheet shows the hashtags and social media sites we are capturing and will be updated as needed. Please comment on Facebook or send us an email if you know of any widely-used, location-specific hashtags or pages that we have missed.

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Soul City Film Screening Tonight on UNC-TV

Page of the Groundbreaking Ceremony Brochure from Soul City, NC, with a drawing of a cabin with faces of four people above it. Below is a imaginative description of the town and what it's goals are.

Page of the Groundbreaking Ceremony Brochure from Soul City, NC.

Soul City (Warren Co., NC) was established as a planned community in 1970s under the direction of civil rights leader Floyd B. McKissick. Disenchanted with the systemic suppression, poverty, and racism typical after migration to northern urban centers, he envisioned a “black owned, black built town” that offered families affordable housing, jobs, and healthcare. The project broke ground in 1973 with the help in $14 million in federal funding under the Urban Growth and New Community Development Act. The city quickly developed to include homes on spacious properties, industrial centers, paved roads, and water and sewerage systems; at its height, it was home to 200 people.

 

However, then-Governor Jesse Helms implemented a series of newspaper smear campaigns against the project, questioned the appropriate use of federal funds, and launched related governmental investigations. The active opposition of the state government and inadequate residential and employment achievements resulted in a complete withdrawal of federal funding in 1979. Without powerful private investors, the project could not continue as planned. McKissick’s children and several of the original residents still live in Soul City.

The documentary Soul City tells the story of the project through archival footage and interviews with residents, both past and present.

Watch the film tonight at 10 pm (EST) on UNC-TV. It can also be viewed here, through the UNC-TV site, for free until February 3rd.

In addition to the film, the story of Soul City has also been documented through oral history interviews, archival collections, and both popular and scholarly publications. Many of these resources are available online (see below).  Continue reading

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October Has Come Again: Southern Literary Symposium

October 30 @ 2:00 pm4:30 pm
Hill Ballroom, Carolina Inn, Chapel Hill, NC

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In his 1935 novel Of Time and the River, Thomas Wolfe wrote, “October had come again, and he would lie there in his mother’s house at night, and feel the darkness moving softly all about him, and hear the dry leaves scampering on the street outside, and the huge and burly rushes of the wind. And then the wind would rush away with huge caprice, and he could hear it far off roaring with remote demented cries in the embraces of great trees, and he would lie there thinking: October has come again—has come again.”

In honor of Wolfe’s birthday month, this literary symposium will feature a lecture by award-winning novelist and short story author Tony Earley followed by short readings from new works by Minrose Gwin, Randall Kenan, Mesha Maren, Julia Ridley Smith, and Monique Truong. These acclaimed authors will discuss the state of southern literature in the twenty-first century.

The symposium, co-sponsored by the Blythe Family Fund, the North Carolina Collection, the Southern Historical Collection, and Southern Cultures, will be held in the Hill Ballroom at the Carolina Inn from 2:00-4:30 pm. Admission is free and open to the public, but seating may be limited. Please RSVP here

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New Collections: Sickness, Farewell, and Other Daily Operations

We have a number of new collections that are preserved, processed, and now available for research. Some highlights:

  • Collection materials span from 1733-2016.
  • Subjects geographically range from Kentucky coal mines to Guyana.
  • Looks like we have a summer cold: many collections touch on death, illness, and medical care.
  • Some interesting mentions include a suspected slave uprising in Hillsborough, NC, medicinal recipes from the 1890s, and studies of medieval crusades.

Click on any of the collection titles to learn more about the materials, view any digital items, and request them for use in our reading room.
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New Collections: Love Letters

We have a number of new collections that are preserved, processed, and now available for research. Love and war were in the air, as the bulk of the materials include courtship correspondence and letters written by people while they were serving in the Armed Forces. Some highlights:

  • New materials span from the 1830s-2007
  • Subjects geographically range from the Kwajalein Atoll to Martha Washington College to the New Orleans levees.
  • Lots of love! Many of these collections feature letters between loved ones.
  • Some interesting mentions include a pair of waraji rice straw sandals, some 375 reported yellow fever deaths, and former UNC System President Frank Porter Graham participating in anti-war efforts of the 1930s.

Click on any of the collection titles to learn more about the materials, view any digital items, and request them for use in our reading room.

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Posted in Activism, Business, Civil War, Collections, Digital SHC, Family, Finding Aids, Journalism, New Collections, Politics, Race Relations, Revised Collections, War, Women | Leave a comment