“Before I’m 25” – Sharing Stories with Google Cultural Institute

In our ongoing quest to engage audiences in new and different ways, we are pleased to unveil a project that we have been working on for the past few months. In partnership with the Google Cultural Institute’s series on Black History and Culture, we have developed an online exhibit of original collection materials titled Before I’m 25… Stories of African American Youth.

beforeBefore I’m 25 is a multimedia exhibit that uses our diverse collections to highlight the ways African American youths have shaped Southern history. Spanning over 150 years, it examines the lives of young African Americans through the lenses of freedom, military service, the pursuit of education, entertainment, and activism.

The Google Cultural Institute allows museums and archives throughout the world to share their collections with the online using sleek, innovative technology. As part of the Google Cultural Institute’s series on Black History and Culture, The Southern Historical Collection is in good company with partners ranging from the National Museum of African American History and Culture to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Each of over forty exhibits covers one niche of Black history and culture, from Alvin Ailey to Frederick Douglass, and from Black comic books to African American inventors.

We are excited to share this digital exhibit with you and hope that it enhances discussions by and about African American youth, and how history shapes our present day.

Posted in Activism, African American, Civil Rights, Collections, Digital SHC, Education, Exhibitions, Labor, Links, Politics, Race Relations, Slavery, Southern Culture, War | 1 Comment

Men with Turkeys

Happy Thanksgiving from the SHC! Today we bring you a turkey themed post to celebrate the occasion.


Citation: Film Box 003, in the Otis Noel Pruitt and Calvin Shanks Photographic Collection #05463, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

To provide some context, this image was taken by Otis N. Pruitt in Columbus, Mississippi. Pruitt was a photographer who moved to Columbus to work with Henry Hoffmeister who owned a photography business there. After buying Hoffmeister’s business, Pruitt became the only photographer in Columbus. Most of the work included in this collection was done by him during 1920s through the 1950s. In the 1950s, he went into business with Calvin Shanks, who was once his photography assistant. He sold the business to Shanks in 1960.

Their photographs depict life in Mississippi: the town, its people, and local businesses.  The image in this post depicts men with turkeys, and was likely taken in the 1930s or 1940s.

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Staff Profile: Mary Williford, Business Services Coordinator

What do you do for tMary1he Southern Historical Collection?

As Business Services Coordinator, I do a little bit of everything to keep us a well-oiled machine. One workday can involve accessioning donations, ordering lunch for visitors, crunching a bit of data, and developing publicity materials for community archives projects.



What did you do before joining the Southern Historical Collection?

My passion is for anything where the public comes into contact with history. I have worked with some truly fabulous museums, historic sites, community groups, and archives in central and eastern North Carolina and no matter where I was, the SHC was an important resource.

But, to keep things interesting, I have tried to do just about everything once. I can operate an autoclave, tidy up HTML, and develop educational activities for children while you wait. If it needs doing, I will get to it or learn how!

How did you get into this line of work?

When I was an undergraduate American Studies student, I had wonderful opportunities to work in the Southern Folklife Collection and the Carolina Digital Library and Archives (now the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center). Even though my work involved less-than-glamorous spreadsheets or old cassette tapes, I learned how valuable and lively these materials really are, and how every little thing we do here in Wilson Library contributes to an understanding of Southern history and culture.

What do you like about your job?

I get to talk to so many different people, from folks following the first threads of their family history to world-renowned scholars. I am always surprised by what materials people donate and the different ways our visitors use these materials. One person may use a diary collection to research divorce in 1790s Louisiana, while another person uses that same collection to learn about regional slang. There really is no telling what lives our collections will take on.

What are some new and exciting projects on the horizon?

I am so pleased to be here at a time when we are really concentrating our efforts on community partnerships and public outreach. Right now, I am working on a lot of new materials to help the public better understand what we do and how they can get involved. When I tell people I work in an archive, I get a lot of “I’d love to see all the old stuff, but I don’t think I’m allowed to” responses. Totally untrue! We have millions upon millions of items and we want you to put them to good use and tell us what they mean to you!

What do you do when you are not in the SHC?Mary2

I am all about day trips: state parks, aquariums, zoos, gardens, museums, and festivals. (Fun fact: the world’s largest collection of waterfowl is a mere two hours from Chapel Hill, and it is open to the public. And yes, they let you feed the birds.) If I am stuck indoors, chances are I have the Twilight Zone on while I bake and cuddle with my beloved parrot, Benito.

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Connecting UNC Summer reading to Primary Sources

Wilson Library launched a Twitter campaign at the beginning of the semester to support campus programming surrounding the UNC summer reading initiative. This year’s book, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, argues that current problems with mass incarceration are built on the country’s history with systems of slavery, racial terrorism, and Jim Crow. The book is very powerful for those who read it because of Stevenson’s combination of historical documentation and first-hand accounts of systematic injustice. During his address in Memorial Hall back in August he described how working with people who have been denied equal treatment in the legal system changed his life. He hopes students at UNC feel empowered to change things that they see as unfair or unequal.

The SHC’s Chaitra Powell was impacted greatly by reading Just Mercy. She said that she saw that, “All of these themes are housed in the materials of the Southern Historical Collection in one context or another.”  With help from all staff representing all the collections in Wilson Library, Chaitra created the @WilsonReads Twitter account. They made an extra push at the beginning of the year to post four times a day from August 16th to September 17th highlighting images from material held at Wilson Library. Each post used #justmercysyllabus hashtag, which was selected to indicate that these primary sources can help scholars dig deeper into the issues mentioned in the book. During this time the Twitter made 126 collection posts, received 52 retweets, favorites, and mentions, and gained 20 followers.

Chaitra also co-facilitated a student discussion on Just Mercy. Student perspectives on the book illuminated how close to home many of these issue are to them. She said, “They shared their concerns about police brutality, horrendous prison conditions for women, children, and the mentally ill. Students spoke from direct experience about how the criminal justice system has or has not impacted their families and the way that their parents talked to them about the police.”  She left feeling hopeful that the students had really engaged with the message of the novel: “Overall, the reactions from the students indicated a willingness to look beyond the headlines, the politicians, and stereotypes to understand what is happening in society, as well as work to seek solutions to these very serious problems.”

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Decoding a Civil War letter mystery

EP Alexander001

Image P-7/2, in the Edward Porter Alexander Papers, #7, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Back in 2011, when the Civil War Day by Day blog was in its infancy, a letter from the Edward Porter Alexander Papers, #00007 (a blog favorite) sparked a flurry of comments, when readers noticed the code present in the missive. The commenters with knowledge of the Chinook jargon Alexander used debated the wording and meaning of the secret message intended for his brother. After much back and forth the small group of engaged readers reached no consensus.

Four years later, Wilson Library staff received an e-mail from David D. Robertson, PhD, a consultant linguist at the University of Victoria, B.C., explaining how he used his expertise in the pacific northwest language to take a stab at his own translation. He reveals a message that if discovered would have been considered traitorous to the Confederacy. To read his interpretation of the message see his excellent blog post, which also summarizes the translations done by other readers and staff members before him.

Thank you to all the wonderful readers of the Civil War Day by Day blog for their work on this 150 year old mystery. And especially to Dr. Robertson for revealing Alexander’s wavering belief in Confederate success!

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Have You Heard of the Montford Point Marines?

On Saturday, August 1, 2015, I had the honor of attending a ceremony for the presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal to the family of Sgt. James Andrew Felton (1919-1994), a Montford Point Marine. The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian award bestowed by the United States Congress. The medal ceremony was held at the C.S. Brown Regional Cultural Arts Center and Museum in Winton, N.C.

Leading the proceedings was Mr. Curt A. Clarke, president of Chapter 14 of the Montford Point Marine Association. During his remarks, Mr. Clarke did an informal survey of the audience’s knowledge of the Montford Point Marines and their place in American history. He asked the attendees to raise their hands if, prior to that week, they had ever heard of the Montford Point Marines.  Surprisingly, only about 20% of the audience raised their hands. Next, Clarke asked, “Who has ever heard of the Tuskegee Airmen?” About 90% of the audience raised their hands. This represents the Montford Point Marines’ unsung legacy and it underscored the need for recognition ceremonies such as the one honoring Sgt. Felton.


The family of Sgt. James A. Felton receiving the Congressional Gold Medal from a delegation of the United States Marines and the Montford Point Marines Association, August 1, 2015.

The Montford Point Marine Association has been working since 1966 to educate the public on the history of the “Montford Pointers.” In 2011, Barack Obama signed into law the legislation that would award the Congressional Gold Medal to individual Montford Point Marines. Since then the Association has been working locally with surviving members of the Corps or with the families of deceased Montford Pointers to present medals and honor their distinguished service.


The program for the Congressional Medal Ceremony for Sgt. James A. Felton.

The Southern Historical Collection is proud to preserve the James and Annie V. Felton Papers, which includes some photographs and other documentation of Mr. Felton’s military service. Please check out the finding aid for more information about the Felton collection.

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New Collection: Johannes Adam Simon Oertel Papers, #4592


“The Ark Restored” by Oertel, 1881.
From Folder 8 , in the Johannes Adam Simon Oertel Papers #4592, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


The Southern Historical Collection is pleased to highlight a new collection available to the public: the Johannes Adam Simon Oertel Papers, #4592.

Johnnes Adam Simon Oertel (1823-1909) was born in Bavaria and came to the United States in 1848. His artistic achievements include art completed for many churches, a widely reproduced work titled “Rock of Ages,” and a piece on the ceiling of the House of Representatives in Washington D.C. He considered a series of canvas paintings called “Redemption”  to be his greatest achievement. He served as a rector for the episcopal church in Lenoir and Morganton, N.C., Glen Cove, N.Y., and Emmorton, Md.

The collection consists of his diary, sketchbooks, newspaper clippings, and letters. Topics covered in his diary reveal how difficult he found providing for his family. However, he always maintained his faith in God, and firmly believed in his calling to be a religious artist. He lamented art-buyers’ preference for foreign over American art, and portraits and landscapes over religious artwork.

The image above appears in his sketchbook, which may be found in his papers at the Southern Historical Collection. If you’d like to learn more about Johannes Adam Simon Oertel, you can view the finding aid for this collection, or come visit us at Wilson Library!

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Soul City: Self-Determination and Utopian Views of Black Towns in the South

Contributed by Maurice Hines, Class of 2016, School of Library and Information Science at North Carolina Central University. 

Floyd McKissick

Floyd B. McKissick speaks.

P-4930/6 , in the Floyd B. McKissick Papers #4930, Southern Historical Collection of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the African American Resources Collection of North Carolina Central University.




All of the founding towns of the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance (HBTSA) were founded in the mid-to-late 19th century and were profoundly influenced by the self-reliance philosophy of Booker T. Washington. Similarly, in North Carolina, there was a town founded by African Americans in the midst of the Civil Rights Era with its own utopian vision known as Soul City.

Soul City was founded in 1971 in Warren County off of Interstate 85 near the Virginia border. Its brainchild was famed Civil Rights leader, Floyd B. McKissick, a North Carolina native who witnessed the problem of Black out migration from rural areas to urban epicenters in North Carolina and other Southern states, as well as to northern cities. He believed that changes in farming practices and the attraction of better-paying jobs in the cities led to this migration. However, Blacks confronted different challenges in cities, where they competed with others for the same jobs in addition to racial and economic discrimination.

McKissick’s solution was to devise a city located at a distance from any major urban area that would be Black-owned and operated while also being open to all races. This was McKissick’s way of consolidating “Black power,” by combining Black economic and political power with the consciousness of self-determination and working for a greater good.

To this aim, he strategically made alliances while campaigning for the election and re-election of Republican President Richard Nixon in the 1970’s. Nixon would later pass the Urban Growth and Community Development Act that allowed the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to guarantee $14 million toward the establishment of Soul City. In addition, he sought to make alliances within the Black business community to invest in the project. He also consulted local universities and the federal and state governments on various municipal matters.

Water Plant

The Water Plant at Soul City.

P-4930/10 , in the Floyd B. McKissick Papers #4930, Southern Historical Collection of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the African American Resources Collection of North Carolina Central University.




McKissick’s vision mirrored that of Booker T. Washington and the towns associated with his legacy. Soul City was to be a catalyst for development in an economically depressed region. It was to be a “Free-standing” city that encouraged Black and other minority ownership. That is, a city in which residents had true freedom and opportunity for upward mobility; one that did not depend on others who have established themselves, rather one that was self-sustaining and an asset to others. In his words:

“The state of North Carolina will benefit economically by having a project like this. A project like this appeals to the self-interest of people. It opens thousands of opportunities, not just full employment, but upward mobility of employment to agree with the psychological man and his ego, to a great extent. Rather than throwing people together in a highly competitive society where there are only four or five leadership roles, Soul City opens up thousands of leadership roles…”

— Interview with Floyd B. McKissick, conducted by Jack Bass on December 6, 1973. Interview A-0134. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007)


The Decline of Soul City, 1979.

Folder 1810-1811 , in the Floyd B. McKissick Papers #4930, Southern Historical Collection of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the African American Resources Collection of North Carolina Central University.




Though Soul City did not succeed at meeting its goals due to years of litigation and negative press, its legacy demonstrates how African Americans have interpreted and
reinterpreted principles of self-determination from one generation to the next.

For more information on Soul City, check out these articles (#1, and #2), book (#4), video (#5), and pamphlet (#3) published in the North Carolina Collection.

  1. Biles, Roger. “The Rise and Fall of Soul City: Planning, Politics, and Race in Recent America.” Journal of Planning History 4, no. 1 (February 1, 2005): 52–72. doi:10.1177/1538513204269993.
  1. Fergus, Devin. “Black Power, Soft Power: Floyd McKissick, Soul City, and the Death of Moderate Black Republicanism.” Journal of Policy History 22, no. 2 (2010): 148–92.
  1. McKissick, 1922-1991, Floyd Bixler, Soul City Company, and Floyd B. McKissick Enterprises. “Soul City North Carolina,” 1974.
  1. Minchin, Timothy J. “‘A Brand New Shining City’: Floyd B. McKissick Sr. and the Struggle to Build Soul City, North Carolina.” North Carolina Historical Review 82, no. 2 (April 2005): 125–55.
  1. “SouthernWayTV.com – Soul City, NC.” YouTube, 2010. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cSUDfEVofqA.

Posted in African American, Collections | Tagged , , | 2 Comments