Category Archives: Subjects

Breaking New Ground – now online with the Southern Oral History Program

This post was contributed by Adrienne Petty.

Three years ago, historians Mark Schultz and Adrienne Petty set out on an urgent mission to record the stories of African American farm owners. Time was of the essence. Land ownership among African Americans peaked during the early twentieth century and continues to decline. Fearful of losing their stories forever, Schultz, a professor at Lewis University, and Petty, a professor at the City College of New York, led a team of undergraduate and graduate students from universities throughout the South in collecting and preserving digitally recorded oral history interviews for their project, “Breaking New Ground: A History of African American Farm Owners Since the Civil War.” The fruits of their labor are now available on the Southern Oral History Program site. Funded by a $230,000 collaborative research grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the collection includes more than 300 interviews with black farm owners and their descendants from Maryland to Oklahoma. The collection covers a range of topics related to farming, landownership and post Civil War U.S. history, including Reconstruction, the Great Depression, the world wars, the Civil Rights Movement, and the contemporary black farmers’ activism.

The goal of “Breaking New Ground” is to explore how rural black families “made a way out of no way” and became farm owners against considerable odds, how land ownership affected their experience of the Jim Crow era, and how their privileged positions shaped the destinies of their descendants. We want to ask, How did some black farmers acquire land? Did land ownership empower African Americans in the racially segregated South? How did African American land ownership differ in different parts of the region? What was their legacy? Answers to these questions and others will deepen our understanding of an essential, but overlooked, element of southern history.

Adrienne Petty is a descendant of black farm owners and is currently working on a book entitled, Standing Their Ground: Small Farm Owners in the South. Mark Schultz, author of The Rural Face of White Supremacy: Beyond Jim Crow, has recorded hundreds of interviews with Georgians, many of which are already in the SOHP collection at the Southern Historical Collection in Carolina’s Wilson Library.

We hope that the oral histories we collect as part of this project will not only lay the foundation for a history monograph that fills a glaring gap in the scholarship, but also creates a rich resource for historians, students, teachers, and researchers of all kinds.

You can access the 300+ interviews from this project in the SOHP database here.

The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence

“…to secure unimpaired their inalianable rights, priviledges, and liberties from the Dominant grasp of British imposition and Tyranny.”

This Fourth of July marks two hundred and thirty-seven years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, but did you know that Mecklenburg County set out to declare its independence from Great Britain even earlier? On May 19th and 20th of 1775, immediately after receiving news of the Battle of Lexington, a convention in Charlotte adopted but did not publish resolutions of independence from the British government.  Days later, the Committee of Safety in Charlotte adopted twenty resolves establishing independence and local laws.  These resolves were taken to Congress in Philadelphia, which considered them a premature action, and the National Declaration of Independence was not adopted until the next year.

However, those who had participated in the drafting of the Mecklenburg Declaration continued to profess its historical importance.  Since no formal declaration was published, the original copy was considered to be the minute book of the Mecklenburg convention recorded by its secretary, John McNitt Alexander. This minute book was destroyed in a fire in 1800, but copies of the record in Alexander’s possession survived. Later that year, Alexander created a new copy from his surviving records for William R. Davie. While the accuracy of surviving copies of the Declaration has been disputed by historians, this copy is given credence due to the accompanying certificate from Samuel Henderson testifying that he received it directly from Davie’s son. That document (known as the Davie Copy) as well as the accompanying certificate from Samuel Henderson, can be seen in the images below.

[click on images for full-screen view]

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Item citation: From folder 1 of the Mecklenburg Declaration Papers (#00501) in the Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Other sources:

McNitt, V. V. (1960). Chain of Error and the Mecklenburg Declarations of Independence. Palmer, Massachusetts & New York: Hampden Hills Press.

Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. (1961). Chapter 4: Verifying the Facts. Hornets’ Nest: The Story of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. Charlotte, NC: Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. Retrieved from http://www.cmstory.org/history/hornets/facts.htm

Daniel Webster recommendation letter on behalf of former slave Paul Jennings

Paul Jennings was born a slave at Montpelier, James and Dolley Madison’s Virginia plantation home, in 1799. He served as President Madison’s personal body servant before and during Madison’s time in the White House. Jennings was with Madison when he died in 1836. Struggling financially after her husband’s death, Dolley Madison eventually sold Paul Jennings to an insurance agent for $200. Senator Daniel Webster interceded and bought Jennings from the agent for $120. Webster then arranged for Jennings to work to purchase his freedom, which Jennings obtained in 1847.

Recently, archivists in the Southern Historical Collection re-discovered a short recommendation letter written in 1851 by Daniel Webster on behalf of Paul Jennings. The letter is filed with the SHC’s Alfred Chapman Papers (#1545). We have now updated the description in the finding aid to make specific mention of this letter. Please see below for a scan and transcription of Webster’s letter.

For a more complete history of Jennings’s life, please see:
A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons, by Elizabeth Dowling Taylor (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

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Item description: Recommendation letter, dated 23 June 1851, written by Daniel Webster (1782-1852) about his former slave, Paul Jennings (1799-1874).

Item transcription:

Paul Jennings was a servant in our house, for a considerable time. We think him very honest, faithful and sober; and a competent dining room servant. Formerly he was body servant to Mr. Madison.

Daniel Webster
June 23, 1851

Item citation:

From folder 3 of the Alfred Chapman Papers, #1545, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

New Collection: Lewis Family Papers, #5499

We are pleased to announce that the newly acquired Lewis Family Papers (SHC #5499) collection is open and available for research. For more about this collection, please view the finding aid. Here’s a brief summary…

The Lewis family arrived in Raleigh, N.C., in 1923, when John D. Lewis Sr. took a job as a district manager for North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company of Durham, N.C. He and his wife, Luella Alice Cox Lewis, and their two children, J.D. Lewis (John D. Lewis Jr.) (1919-2007) and Vera Lewis Embree (1921-2004), lived in southeast Raleigh and were members of First Baptist Church. J.D. Lewis was a Morehouse College graduate, one of the first African American members of the United States Marine Corps, and the first African American radio and television personality, corporate director of personnel, and director of minority affairs for WRAL of the Capitol Broadcasting Company (CBC). J.D. Lewis also worked as the special markets representative for the Pepsi Cola Bottling Company; as the project director of GROW, Incorporated, a federally funded program for high school dropouts; and as the coordinator of manpower planning for the state of North Carolina. Lewis was active in many civic and community organizations as well. Vera Lewis Embree (1921-2004) graduated from the Palmer Institute for Young Women and Hampton Institute. She built a successful and celebrated career as a choreographer and professor of dance at the University of Michigan. The collection consists of papers, photographs, and audiovisual materials that chiefly relate to J.D. Lewis’s working life and the civic and community organizations he supported. Lewis’s career is documented by materials from Capitol Broadcasting Company, including editorials he wrote and produced; GROW, Incorporated; Manpower; Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company; National Association of Market Developers; and the National Business League. Lewis’s civic leadership is evident in records of the Raleigh Community Relations Committee, which worked to integrate Raleigh public schools; political campaigns; and the Team of Progress, a group interested in political leadership at the city and county levels of government. Community organizations represented in the collection include the Garner Road YMCA; Alpha Kappa Alpha Debutante Ball; the Eastside Neighborhood Task Force; the Citizens Committee on Schools; Omega Psi Phi; and Meadowbrook Country Club, which was founded in 1959 by a small group of African American community leaders. Other materials document the Method Post Office dedication in 1965; the Montford Point Marine Association; and a youth charrette, possibly on integration of Durham schools. There are also clippings and printed materials on such topics as black power, African American history, Morehouse College, and Shaw University. There are several issues ofPerfect Home, a home design and decorating magazine published by John W. Winters, a real estate broker, home builder, city councilman, state senator, and civic leader. Family materials are mainly biographical and include newspaper clippings, funeral programs, school materials, awards and certificates, and photographs. There are a few family letters, including one from 1967 with a first-hand account of rioting on Twelfth Street in Detroit and a copy of a 10 January 1967 letter in which the Lewis family opposed the selection of Mark Twain’s Mississippi Melody for student performance on the grounds that it perpetuated stereotyped images of African Americans. Photographs include portraits and snapshots of four generations of the Lewis and related Cox families, documenting family life from the 1910s through the 2000s. There are non-family group portraits of Omega Psi Phi members of Durham, North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company employees on its 21st anniversary, and of unidentified groups at other civic and community events. There is one folder of J.D. Lewis photographs that depict him in various work contexts. Also included is a portrait of a young Clarence Lightner, who owned a funeral home business and later served as the first African American mayor of Raleigh. Audiovisual materials chiefly relate to J.D. Lewis’s work at Capitol Broadcasting Company/WRAL and his interest in African American community and history. Included are audiotapes of his editorials for WRAL; videotape ofHarambee, a public affairs program about the concerns of the general public and especially African Americans; audiotape of musical performances, possibly for Teen-Age Frolic, a teenage dance and variety show; audiotape of Adventures in Negro History, an event sponsored by Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of Raleigh; and film of unidentified wedding and seashore scenes. Also included are several published educational film strips on African American history with accompanying audio.

Please click here to view the finding aid.

New Collection: Washington A. Lemons Papers (#5508-z)

Washington A. Lemons of Greene County, Tenn., was born in 1833. He served in the Union Army’s Company C, 2nd North Carolina Infantry Regiment, 6 October 1863-16 August 1865, in locations throughout western North Carolina, including Deep Gap, Boone, and Asheville. The collection contains two letters, 11 April 1865 and 1 May 1865, from Washington A. Lemons to his wife, Harriet Lemons, of Greeneville, Tenn., and two related documents. The April letter recounts capturing Confederate soldiers and supplies in Jefferson, N.C., and acquiring a secession flag in Boone. The May letter refers to the Shelton Laurel massacre of January 1863, in which the Confederate 64th North Carolina Infantry Regiment, led by James A. Keith, killed 13 alleged Union sympathizers in Madison County, N.C. The letter also describes the capture of a perpetrator of the massacre, insinuating that the soldier was punished severely. Also included are a transcription of the May letter and a list of North Carolina Union regiments that highlights Lemons’s regiment and company.

Click here to view the finding aid for this collection…

New Collection: James B. Caldwell Diary (#5365-z)

James B. Caldwell of Alabama was 19 years old when he entered the Civil War in the 13th Tennessee Infantry Regiment. He served in the regiment in Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Mississippi. The collection contains the diary James B. Caldwell kept during his service with the 13th Tennessee Infantry Regiment, 23 May 1861-13 August 1962. The diary chiefly describes daily activities of the regiment as it travelled throughout Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas, and camp life while waiting for active service, including card-playing and nightly dances. Included is a description of the Battle of Belmont, 7 November 1861, in Columbus, Ky.; sketched maps of camps and lists of Caldwell’s personal expenses; and declarations of love and verses dedicated to Caldwell’s fiance Maggie, including a passage written on 7 April 1962 that Caldwell recited when he proposed to her while on furlough. Most diary entries are undated and do not appear in chronological order. Also included are a typed transcript of the diary and other materials providing historical and geographical context for the diary.

Click here to view the finding aid…

Four activists to be honored in Chapel Hill, SHC preserves documentation of their legacy

This Sunday, August 28, 2011, four names will be added to a plaque at Chapel Hill’s “Peace and Justice Plaza.” Yonni Chapman, Rebecca Clark, Rev. Charles M. Jones and Dan Pollitt will all be honored posthumously for their contributions to civil rights, social justice and equality in the Chapel Hill community. The ceremony will begin at 3pm in front of the Historic Chapel Hill Post Office on Franklin Street, just across the street from UNC’s McCorkle Place. For the full story, see the article, “Four Honored for Activism,” from the Chapel Hill News.

The Southern Historical Collection is proud to preserve a large body of material that documents the lives and legacies of these four activists, including:

Charles Miles Jones Papers – The collection includes correspondence, church documents and publications, clippings, and other items reflecting Jones’s ministry and concern for civil rights. Materials generally focus on his public rather than personal life with a special emphasis on the 1952-1953 investigation of his Chapel Hill Presbyterian Church ministry. General correspondence includes letters from supporters (among them Frank Porter Graham) and detractors, commenting on the investigation, Jones’s sermons, and several well-publicized actions in support of social justice causes.

Oral history interview with Rebecca Clark (1 interview available online via DocSouth’s Oral Histories of the American South project) – In this interview, Rebecca Clark recalls living and working in segregated North Carolina. She finished her schooling in all-black schools, so the bulk of her experience with white people in a segregated context took place in the work world. There she experienced economic discrimination in a variety of forms, and despite her claims that many black people kept quiet in the face of racial discrimination at the time, she often agitated for, and won, better pay. Along with offering some information about school desegregation, this interview provides a look into the constricted economic lives of black Americans living under Jim Crow.

John K. Chapman Papers (available Fall 2011) – This collection documents Yonni Chapman’s social activism and academic achievements, and offers an account of nearly four decades of progressive racial, social, and economic justice struggles in the central North Carolina region. Organizational materials, including correspondence, notes, newsletters and reports, document the activities of the Communist Workers’ Party, the Federation for Progress, the Orange County Rainbow Coalition of Conscience, the New Democratic Movement, the Freedom Legacy Project, and the Campaign for Historical Accuracy and Truth, among other organizations on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, in Chapel Hill, N.C., Durham, N.C., Raleigh, N.C., and Greensboro, N.C. Workers’ rights and racial justice campaigns and commemorations, including those of the Greensboro Massacre and the campaign to end the Cornelia Phillips Spencer Bell Award on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, are documented in paper, audio, visual, and photographic formats.

Daniel H. Pollitt Papers (available Fall 2012) – This collection documents Dan Pollitt’s distinguished career as an attorney, professor in the University of North Carolina Law School, and civil rights activist in the American South. The collection documents Pollitt’s activities with a number of organizations, including: the National Labor Relations Board, the National Sharecroppers Fund, the NAACP, the North Carolina Civil Liberties Union, the American Association of University Professors, the Rural Advancement Fund, and other organizations. Material also covers Pollitt’s involvement with the Speaker Ban controversy at the University of North Carolina, his opposition to the death penalty in North Carolina, issues of congressional misconduct, and many other legal and ethical matters.

Oral history interviews with Daniel H. Pollitt (13 interviews, many of which are available online via DocSouth’s Oral Histories of the American South project)

SHC partners with Southern Jewish Historical Society, grant supports digitization of part of the Mordecai Family Papers

Earlier this year, the SHC received $1,000 from the Southern Jewish Historical Society‘s Lowenstein Archival Grant program to support the digitization of 39 writings (diaries, travel accounts, memoirs, prose and poetry) from the SHC’s Mordecai Family Papers. The SHC’s Mordecai Family Papers are heavily used on site by scholars, students, and members of the local community. We were honored to receive this support from the SJHS and we are pleased that we can now make these writings available to researchers online, via the Digital SHC.

We are also pleased to share the news that the SJHS will hold its Thirty-fifth Annual Conference in Chapel Hill this year, October 22-24, 2010. In honor of the SJHS conference, the SHC will mount an exhibit celebrating the history of Jews in the American South.  The exhibit will run October 22-December 22, 2010 (on the 4th floor of Wilson Library).