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. “ – Soul City, NC.” YouTube, 2010.

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An African American first responder: An oral history with William C. Covington

Contributed by Chaitra Powell, African American Collections and Outreach Archivist 


William C. Covington in his uniform

The tales of African American first responders, over the years, are full of bravery, perseverance, strength, and principle. These men and women are at their best when society is at its worst. The Southern Historical Collection is always looking for ways to shine light on these important figures in our collective history.

Starting in March of 2015, we have had the pleasure of working with one of Charlotte’s early African American police officers, Mr. William C. Covington. We want to feature Mr. Covington on this blog post as a way to show how important it is to be cognizant of gaps in the historical record and do our best to address them. We also think that it is quite timely to hear a retired police officer’s perspective on the role of police officers in African American communities.


Mr. William C. Covington was born February 26, 1926 in Charlotte, NC. He attended Belleville School (K-6), West Charlotte High School (7-12) and Johnson C. Smith University, where he graduated with a degree in Biology in 1950. Shortly after graduation, he was drafted into the Army and stationed at Fort Eustis in Virginia, and spent some time abroad in Germany.

By 1953, he had moved back to the States, to a harsh racial climate and meager job prospects. He used his GI Bill to study photography in New York City, like his friend James Peeler. However, he was unable to use the credential to earn a sufficient living for himself and his family. Covington reluctantly applied to the Charlotte police department and began his career in 1954.



Covington and his fellow African American police officers patrolled Charlotte’s seven African American neighborhoods on foot. He remembers how he used to help people by maintaining order in public places as well as the support and protection of his community; even when he had to arrest someone.


Although, he was made to feel insignificant by the white officers, he found a profound brotherhood among the African American policemen. The men helped to form the North PoliceAcademyCovingtonCarolina Organization of Black Police Officers which provided support and advocacy for African American police officers who were constantly feeling the brunt of unjust policies. For example, African American police officers were not supposed to arrest white criminals and they were never promoted or given raises, even if they had college degrees or exemplary records of service. Covington was a part of the team that successfully sued the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department for discrimination in the 1970’s.

The full one hour and forty five minute oral history session with retired policeman, Mr. William Cecil Covington, is currently being processed at the Southern Historical Collection. Please contact us directly if you are interested in mediated access to this content; hopefully it is the beginning of much more material related to the history of African American first responders in the American South.

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Happy Fourth of July!

The Southern Historical Collection would like to wish you a very happy Independence Day! We may think of Fourth of July celebrations that include fireworks and barbecues, but this may not have been how we historically celebrated the nation’s founding.

Joseph Nathaniel Allen Letter

From Folder 1, in the Joseph Nathaniel Allen Papers #5066, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

In a letter dated 10th of July 1858, Joseph Nathaniel Allen described the Independence Day celebration in his hometown in North Carolina. He explained that there were large crowds of people, and a traveling band. The highlight of the day for him involved a reading of the Declaration of Independence, though he complained of people being too noisy for him to hear properly and lamented his ignorance about the contents of the document.

The Southern Historical Collection also has preserved records from one of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence. William Hooper helped found the government of North Carolina during the Revolution, and was elected to the First and Second Continental Congresses. He split his time between North Carolina and Philadelphia, and both of his family homes, in Finian and Wilmington, were captured by the British. The collection here includes documents from North Carolina’s revolutionary government, and a biographical sketch completed by his nephew.


William Hooper, who signed the Declaration of Independence.
His collection can be found at: William Hooper Papers, #352-z, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


This isn’t all we have on the American Revolution of course, but is a small sample related to the history of the holiday as we know it today.

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