“Proving a Secret is Difficult”: Zora Neale Hurston at UNC

On May 28, 2015, the UNC Board of Trustees voted to remove the name of Ku Klux Klan leader and Confederate Army colonel William Saunders from a campus building and rename it “Carolina Hall.” Additionally, the Board voted to place … Continue reading

Image of the Zora Neale Hurston Hall plaque created by UNC MFA candidate Jeanine Tatlock.

On May 28, 2015, the UNC Board of Trustees voted to remove the name of Ku Klux Klan leader and Confederate Army colonel William Saunders from a campus building and rename it “Carolina Hall.” Additionally, the Board voted to place a 16-year moratorium on renaming campus buildings. The removal of Saunders’ name came after decades of work by student activists on campus, particularly the collaborative efforts of student organizations (the Black Student Movement, Real Silent Sam Coalition, and the Campus Y) in 2014.

Activists had urged the administration to rename the building for renowned black anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston. They cited a belief that Hurston attended UNC as a “secret student” in 1940, more than a decade before the first African American students were admitted to Carolina.

Even after the Trustees’ decision, student activists continued to celebrate Hurston’s life and call for a new name for Carolina Hall. In the fall of 2015, student activists held an “opening ceremony” for Hurston Hall. A statement by the Real Silent Sam coalition acknowledged the importance of naming the building for Hurston: “We named this building after Zora Neale Hurston precisely because racist and sexist admissions policies excluded her and other Black women from UNC.”

In March 2017, UNC MFA candidate Jeanine Tatlock added an additional plaque to the building, naming it Zora Neale Hurston Hall and acknowledging that “against all odds and despite a system that did everything in its power to keep [Hurston] from attending college she went on to become one of America’s most celebrated authors.”

From what we can tell, the Board of Trustees never collectively addressed the idea of renaming Saunders Hall for Zora Neale Hurston. However, in a letter to the Daily Tar Heel editor in 2017, UNC Trustee Alston Gardner argued that students never formally proposed the name change from Saunders to Hurston. Responding to the suggestion, Gardner wrote, “of course, proving a secret is difficult, so I applied a reasonableness test and came up short.” Many details of Zora Neale Hurston’s connection to Carolina are unclear, but the question of whether or not she was really a secret student here before UNC integrated in 1951 still remains on many of our minds. After an extensive search of resources in the Wilson Special Collections Library (and some from the University of Kansas’ Kenneth Spencer Research Library) we’ve established the following:

According to Cecelia Moore’s The South as a Folk Play: The Carolina Playmakers, Regional Theatre and the Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939, in 1934, Zora Neale Hurston met playwright and UNC professor Paul Green and Carolina Playmakers founder Frederick Koch at the National Folk Festival in St. Louis, Missouri (p. 167). Recruited by Koch, Zora Neale Hurston came to North Carolina in 1939 to assume a theater teaching position at North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham (now North Carolina Central University)(Moore, p. 154).

Daily Tar Heel, 7 October 1939.

Daily Tar Heel, 7 October 1939, describing Hurston’s presentation at the Carolina Dramatic Association.

Hurston is now best known for her folktales and novels telling black stories, but in the 1930s she was invested in writing and producing folk plays: plays that highlighted everyday black life. On October 7, 1939, Hurston spoke at the fall meeting of the Carolina Dramatic Association, a statewide organization of theater directors and educators. The group met in Playmakers Theater on UNC’s campus. The following day, the Daily Tar Heel quoted her as telling the group, “Our drama must be like us, or it doesn’t exist.” She wanted to create theater that better exhibited the fullness of black life. Green, drawing from the legacy of the Carolina Playmakers under Frederick Koch, was similarly interested in writing folk plays He wrote and produced many works and won a Pulitzer Prize in May 1927 for the play In Abraham’s Bosom

Daily Tar Heel article describing the Sunday night Radio Writing and Production course, lists Zora Neale Hurston among other students, March 30, 1940. 

In the spring semester of 1940, Hurston joined Paul Green’s small Sunday night theater class that met at Caldwell Hall. There is conflicting information about this class: Hurston biographer Robert Hemenway writes in Zora Neale Hurston: a Literary Biography that the class was moved to Green’s home due to a complaint from a white student (p. 255), while Laurence G. Avery in A Southern Life: Letters of Paul Green, 1916-1981 says the class was always at Green’s house (p. 312). The March 30, 1940 issue of the Daily Tar Heel lists Zora Neale Hurston among the students in Green’s “Radio Writing and Production” course, meeting Sunday nights in Caldwell. In a 1971 interview with Robert Hemenway, Paul Green said they often had to work “sort of specially separate from the class,” and she would come to his house quite often.

Although Paul Green was the instructor for the course, his relationship with Hurston appeared to be more collaborative. In one energetic letter, Hurston writes to Green imploring him to send someone to record a spiritual she found at a black church in South Carolina. The spiritual could help them in the writing of their play, with the working title John De Conqueror. In the letter, she says, “Now, don’t sit there Paul Green, just thinking! Do something!” (p. 312). She feared a fellow student would record the spirituals and sell them before they could use it in their work. Unfortunately, the recordings weren’t made, and John De Conqueror was never finished.   

Daily Tar Heel article describing the Sunday night Radio Writing and Production course, lists Zora Neale Hurston among other students, March 30, 1940.

Despite not being officially recognized as a student, the spirit of the plaque students placed on Carolina Hall two years ago is still represented in Zora Neale Hurston’s abundant life as a black scholar. Her work initially received mixed reviews, but by the time she arrived in North Carolina, she had already earned a bachelors degree from Barnard College in 1928 and published several noteworthy books—including one of her most popular works, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Paul Green said in that 1971 interview that he remembered Hurston driving around campus in her “little red sports car” with a “jaunty little tam o shanter” on her head. Students would “jeer” as she drove by. On one occasion, he recalled, even the professors mocked her — she responded by calling “Hi, freshmen! Hi, freshmen!” It seems she never backed down from a challenge.

As Gardner noted, “proving a secret” is a challenge, and one archivists face often. Reference archivists frequently receive questions about aspects of campus history that, for many reasons, went undocumented or unpreserved. It is a struggle to find answers and adequate evidence to support them. It all depends on what has been collected and preserved. When we find these gaps in the historical record, it is frustrating but encourages us to think more deeply about what we’re collecting now and its uses in the future. In the case of Zora Neale Hurston at UNC and many parts of university history that we take extra time to research, we relish in the small crumbs we have but find ourselves hungry for more information.

Learn More: “Saunders Hall” essay in Reclaiming the University of the People: Racial Justice Movements at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Charlotte Fryar, 2019.

Sources:

Carolina Hall History

The Daily Tar Heel

Frederick H. Koch Papers, 1893-1979.

Letter to the Editor of the Daily Tar Heel

Paul Green Interview, 1971, Personal Papers of Robert E. Hemenway, PP 487, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas

Paul Green Papers, 1880-2009

The South as a Folk Play: The Carolina Playmakers, Regional Theatre and the Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939 [in the Carolina Digital Repository]

A Southern Life: Letters of Paul Green, 1916-1981

UNC T-Shirt Archive

University Archives Web Archives

William Laurence Saunders Papers, 1712-1907.

Zora Neale Hurston: a Literary Biography

Old West Hall: A View Changes With Time

It could have been the result of damage from hurricane Florence or tropical storm Michael.  Maybe it was just (extreme) old age. During the week of October 21, UNC Grounds Crew felled one of the most consistently photographed trees on UNC’s campus. Don’t worry… the Davie Poplar is fine… Another tree, not as prominent or […]

It could have been the result of damage from hurricane Florence or tropical storm Michael.  Maybe it was just (extreme) old age.

During the week of October 21, UNC Grounds Crew felled one of the most consistently photographed trees on UNC’s campus.

Don’t worry… the Davie Poplar is fine…

Another tree, not as prominent or easily identified as a landmark on campus as the Davie Poplar, a majestic Post Oak that was a fixture in images of Old West Hall (when photographed from the north side looking to towards South Building), was cut down.

The tree was there when Old West was constructed in 1823 and appears in the first images in the University’s possession of the building, dating from the 1880s-1890s.

In 2005 the (UNC) Chancellors Buildings and Ground Committee approved a report from the Task Force on Landscape Heritage & Plant Diversity.

In that report the committee identified and described it as:

“(Heritage Tree #) 74. Quercus stellata (Post Oak) — an impressive specimen.”

Close up of page from 2005 UNC report on heritage trees and plant diversity.

A rendering of a tree appears to be in the same location on the north side of Old West in this early engraving by W.  Roberts from a drawing by William Momberger of the University campus as it appeared circa 1855 (Old West is right side of illustration).

P0004/0162: Campus view: Engraving by W. Roberts (facsimile), 1855

 

Circa 1880s-1890s:

P0004/0393: Old West Hall and New West Hall, circa 1880s-1890s; North Carolina Collection Photographic Archive

It was difficult to get a “long-view” of the west face of the building AND include the Old Well…. without capturing “Tree 74” in the image.

Circa 1880s-1890s

P0004/0393: Old West and Gerrard Hall, circa 1880s-1890s; North Carolina Collection Photographic Archive

Circa 1940s

P0004/0393: Old West, circa 1940s; North Carolina Collection Photographic Archive

On October 23, 2018 this is what remained of “(Heritage Tree #) 74. Quercus stellata (Post Oak) — an impressive specimen.”

(Images by Patrick Cullom)

North side of Old West looking east. Stump of Tree 74 is at the far left side of image.

View of stump of Tree 74 (North of Old West).

View of stump of Tree 74 with timeline of approximate age/size of tree indicated. (Timeline is from unverified source)

View of stump of Tree 74 (North side of Old West).

All historical views from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Image Collection Collection #P0004

Ackland Art Museum turns sixty

Birthed as the William Hayes Ackland Art Center, the Ackland Art Museum turns sixty today.  The art center held a special preview for UNC faculty on Friday evening, September 19, 1958.  The official dedication ceremony took place the next morning, featuring a talk titled, “The Role of the College Museum in America” by S. Lane […]

Ackland Art Center gallery

A gallery in the William Hayes Ackland Art Center during its opening weekend, 19-20 September 1958. (Scene cropped from a negative in the UNC Photo Lab collection.)

Birthed as the William Hayes Ackland Art Center, the Ackland Art Museum turns sixty today.  The art center held a special preview for UNC faculty on Friday evening, September 19, 1958.  The official dedication ceremony took place the next morning, featuring a talk titled, “The Role of the College Museum in America” by S. Lane Faison, head of the art department and director of the art museum at Williams College in Massachusetts.  The opening exhibition drew paintings, prints, etchings, drawings, and sculptures from the collections of several college and university art museums across the country.

The university slated Joseph Curtis Sloane, then at Bryn Mawr College, to become chairman of the Art Department and director of the new art center.

Sitterson, Aycock, and Sloane

Welcoming visitors to the Ackland Art Center are, left to right, J. Carlye Sitterson, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; William Aycock, UNC-Chapel Hill; and Joseph C. Sloane, incoming chair of the Art Department and director of the Ackland Art Center. (Scene cropped from a negative in the UNC Photo Lab collection.)

William D. Carmichael Jr., Vice President and Financial Officer of The University of North Carolina, accepted the building on behalf of the consolidated university.

William D. Carmichael Jr.

William D. Carmichael Jr. accepting the Ackland Art Center building on behalf of the university. (Scene cropped from a negative in the UNC Photo Lab collection.)

Photographic black-and-white negatives and prints in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Photographic Laboratory Collection document both events, plus a number of artworks loaned for the debut exhibition.

Care to learn more about the Ackland’s origins?  The Daily Tar Heel covered the story, including the background of the William Hayes Ackland bequest and the works of art in the opening exhibition on September 18th in advance of the dedication ceremony, and reported on the formal opening on September 21st.

 

 

 

“Scratch” the Surface & Find the Not-Too-Distant Past!

As renovations on the brick walkways in the “The Pit” and surrounding areas (Lenoir Hall, Davis Library, Graham Student Union, and Student Stores) continue through the summer, ground is regularly being uncovered that has literally “not seen the light of day” for numerous decades.  During my 10 years as the Photographic Materials Processing Archivist for […]

As renovations on the brick walkways in the “The Pit” and surrounding areas (Lenoir Hall, Davis Library, Graham Student Union, and Student Stores) continue through the summer, ground is regularly being uncovered that has literally “not seen the light of day” for numerous decades.  During my 10 years as the Photographic Materials Processing Archivist for Wilson Library Special Collections,  I have had the privilege of being able to work with thousands of images (drawings, sketches, photographs, etc…) depicting the University campus as it has grown and changed over the years.  Often, as I walk around campus, I find myself thinking of how areas looked before other building were added to the landscape of campus.  I do this so that when I see historical images, I can sort of  “deconstruct” to what campus looked like at the time an image was made,  and more quickly orient myself to what I am looking at.

On the morning of June 20, on my way in to the office,  I walked from the bus stop on South Road at the Student Stores up the brick stairs between the Student Store and the Frank Porter Graham Student Union Buildings….

View of the brick stairs today at Frank Porter Graham Student Union.  Image by Patrick Cullom  

As I reached the top of the steps, I noticed some stone work that had recently been uncovered directly in front of the Graham Student Union Building…

View of construction outside of Frank Porter Graham Student Union Building Image by Patrick Cullom 2018

View of construction outside of Frank Porter Graham Student Union Building Image by Patrick Cullom 2018

This stonework looked familiar to me…where had I seen it before? Then it hit me; this must be what is left of the staircase that existed before the 1999-2004 renovations to the Frank Porter Graham Student Union Building.  I honestly could not recall (from my own memories of campus) what this area looked like before the renovations and additions began in 1999.

(Good thing we just happen to have SOME images of the campus from days past in the Wilson Special Collections Library)

View of the “original” brick stairs (on left) at Frank Porter Graham Student Union, soon after construction, circa 1970 (Image taken from the bell tower looking north across South Road) Image from: UNC at Chapel Hill Image Collection Collection #P0004, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives Folder 0306: Graham Student Union (Frank Porter Graham), 1970-1979

 

View of the “original” brick stairs (on left) at the Frank Porter Graham Student Union, circa 1990s                                            (Parking lot expanded and Davis Library visible in background)    Image from UNC Facilities Services Engineering Information Services Website https://planroom.unc.edu/FacilityInfo.aspx?facilityID=065

View of demolition of “original” brick stairs at Frank Porter Graham Student Union Building, circa 1999-2000 Image from News Services of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Records #40139, University Archives Digital Folder DF-40139/0169

 

When I walked by the next day, the stonework was gone and the whole section had been dug out. It was a brief look into the past, now covered up again, as the campus continues to grow to fit the needs of its students. Now we are back to the image that started this post.

View of the brick stairs as they appear today at Frank Porter Graham Student Union.  Image by Patrick Cullom 2018

A New Addition of Athletics Photographs from the 1960s and 1970s

We are excited to announce that a new accession of photographs to the Department of Athletics Collection is available for research. This accession is particularly special since it contains images of less-documented sports — including women’s sports and intramural sports — … Continue reading

We are excited to announce that a new accession of photographs to the Department of Athletics Collection is available for research. This accession is particularly special since it contains images of less-documented sports — including women’s sports and intramural sports — from the 1960s and 1970s.

Included in this addition are images of the Titleholder’s Championship (also called the Women’s Pro Tournament), held at Southern Pines and sponsored by UNC in 1972.  The Titleholder’s Championship was only a handful of championship-level events for professional women’s golf in the 1970s, and the winner of the event — Sandra Palmer — was one of the most accomplished female golfers of the time. The addition also includes photographs of the 1963 renovations to Kenan Stadium.

The selection of photos below include images of men’s intramural handball; women’s intramural basketball, volleyball, tennis, and bowling.

men standing in front of women's titleholder championship scoreboard
men playing handball
women playing basketball and volleyball
women at intramural event eating kfc
group photo of women's tennis
woman gymnast practicing
women bowling
women playing football

 

Carolina Firsts: Vermont C. Royster

At the University Day celebration on October 11, 2016, Chancellor Carol Folt announced a new program to name scholarships after notable “firsts” in UNC history. In recognition of the individuals recognized as pioneers at UNC, the University Archives is publishing blog … Continue reading

At the University Day celebration on October 11, 2016, Chancellor Carol Folt announced a new program to name scholarships after notable “firsts” in UNC history. In recognition of the individuals recognized as pioneers at UNC, the University Archives is publishing blog posts with more information about each of the twenty-one “firsts.” This post is part of that series.

When Vermont C. Royster began his studies at UNC in 1931, he was no stranger to the campus.  He was born in Raleigh, and his father, Wilbur Royster, was a professor of Greek and Latin at the university. Although Royster did receive his degree in Classics, his mark on UNC as a student, alumnus, and professor was made through his journalism — writing for the Wall Street Journal and later teaching at the School of Journalism. Royster was one of the first UNC alumni to receive a Pulitzer prize in 1953 (the same year as W. Horace Carter), and he later received a second Pulitzer in 1984.

Royster’s profile in the 1935 Yackety Yack.

Royster began his journalism career at UNC, where he worked for several campus publications, including The Daily Tar Heel and The Student Journal.  During his senior year, he revived and wrote a column in the Daily Tar Heel titled “Around the Well,” which highlighted and described various campus happenings and gossip.

In addition to being drawn to journalism at UNC, he was also an active writer and participant in the Department of Dramatic Arts.  As part of a play-writing course, he wrote and staged two plays — Shadows of Industry and Prelude — both of which can be found in the archives.

After graduating, Royster went on to begin the journalism career for which he is well known.  He moved to New York and began working for the Wall Street Journal in 1936.  He retired from the Wall Street Journal in 1971 and joined UNC’s School of Journalism as a faculty member later that year.  Over the course of his career — both as a professional journalist and university professor — he won two Pulitzer Prizes: the first in 1953 for Editorial Writing and the second in 1984 for Commentary.

Royster died in 1996, and his personal papers are housed in the Southern Historical Collection at Wilson Library. In addition, Royster published several books over the course of his life — including My Own, My Country’s Time, A Pride of Prejudices, and Journey Through the Soviet Union — all of which can be found in UNC Libraries.

Sources & Additional Readings:

Collection of “Around the Well” columns

“Vermont C. Royster (1914-1996),” written by Will Schultz.  North Carolina History Project. http://northcarolinahistory.org/encyclopedia/vermont-c-royster-1914-1996/.

Vermont Royster papers #4432, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The Essential Royster: a Vermont Royster reader. edited by Edmund Fuller. Chapel Hill, N.C. : Algonquin Books, 1985.

My Own, My Country’s Time: a journalist’s journey. Vermont Royster. Chapel Hill, N.C. : Algonquin Books, 1983.

A Pride of Prejudices. Vermont Royster. Chapel Hill, N.C. : Algonquin Books, 1984.

Journey through the Soviet Union.  Vermont Royster. New York, D. Jones [1962].

Happy Mary Lindsay Thornton Week!

A woman of patience and vision. That may be the best general description of Mary Lindsay Thornton, who 100 years ago this fall began a long and extraordinarily productive career with the library at the University of North Carolina. More specifically, it’s also accurate to call her the mother of special collections at UNC and […]

A woman of patience and vision.

That may be the best general description of Mary Lindsay Thornton, who 100 years ago this fall began a long and extraordinarily productive career with the library at the University of North Carolina.

More specifically, it’s also accurate to call her the mother of special collections at UNC and the all-time champion collector and bibliographer of North Caroliniana. Literally thousands of researchers have benefited from Thornton’s hard work, determination, and foresight.

Early life

Mary Lindsay Thornton portrait

Mary Louise Thornton was born June 12, 1891, in Virginia. Her family moved to Salisbury, NC, where they lived for a few years before moving to Atlanta, where she grew up. Thornton was still a girl when she decided she disliked her given name “Mary Louise.” She swapped the “Louise” for “Lindsay” — the name of her beloved paternal grandmother — and went by Mary Lindsay Thornton for the rest of her life.

Thornton, soft-spoken but hard-working, graduated from the Atlanta Girls High School and the Carnegie Library School, later to become the Emory University Library School. In 1913, with a certificate in librarianship in hand, she took a position at the University of Georgia where she would remain for four years.

The first special collections librarian at UNC
In 1917, UNC’s University Librarian Louis Round Wilson was looking for someone to bring order to a small but growing collection of North Caroliniana. Wilson had been supervising the collection of around 1000 books, 500 pamphlets, and a number of state documents and manuscripts, occupying 50 or so shelves in the library.

Impressed by Thornton’s training and strong interest in cataloging, Wilson and other library officials concluded that she was the perfect candidate to develop the North Carolina Collection into the type of repository that North Carolina citizens wished for. Thornton accepted the position, becoming the Librarian for the North Carolina Collection at UNC, later designated Curator.

The next two decades would see the establishment of the Rare Book Collection and the Southern Historical Collection, whose professional librarians and archivists would join Thornton in developing strong and nationally recognized special collections at Chapel Hill.

A dedication to collecting and bibliography

In 1918, the year following her appointment, Thornton worked closely with Wilson to purchase an unrivaled collection of printed North Caroliniana amassed by Stephen B. Weeks.

Weeks, the first professional historian of the Tar Heel State, had spent thirty-four years gathering a remarkable collection totaling more than 10,000 books, pamphlets, newspapers, and maps. The Weeks Collection provided the depth and breadth that made the North Carolina Collection a resource for in-depth scholarly research on North Carolina. And Thornton’s careful, detail-oriented cataloging provided an entryway into the collection.

A meticulous bibliographer

At the same time that she was cataloging the Weeks Collection, she began a robust collection development program to acquire both older North Caroliniana and the new materials being published by the state’s authors, businesses, organizations, and institutions. With increased support from John Sprunt Hill, who admired and appreciated her good work, Thornton built the North Carolina Collection to 59,000 items by 1937 and 161,000 by 1954 through a combination of donations and purchases.

In 1934 Thornton began contributing an annual bibliography of newly published North Caroliniana to the North Carolina Historical Review Quarterly. She continued to publish bibliographies over her career, including her widely praised Official Publications of the Colony and State of North Carolina, 1749-1939: A Bibliography, a careful and detailed record of all known North Carolina governmental publications to that date.

The culmination of her bibliographic work was the publication of A Bibliography of North Carolina, 1589-1956, which the university press published in 1958, her final year as curator. The volume compiled 15,519 citations to historically significant books, pamphlets, and periodicals she had cataloged into the North Carolina Collection in her years with the UNC Library. Immensely valuable to anyone interested in the history and literature of North Carolina — scholar and non-scholar alike — the book facilitated and stimulated research for decades to come, and served as a most appropriate capstone to Thornton’s career as the unequaled promoter, collector, cataloger, and bibliographer of North Caroliniana.

Thornton’s legacy

hand holding a Mary Louise Thornton button

Today, more than one hundred librarians, archivists, library assistants, and student employees provide services and resources to the researchers who use the Wilson Special Collections Library. This fall, they pause to remember, admire, and appreciate the remarkable career of Mary Lindsay Thornton — a pioneering career that inaugurated the first century of professional special collections librarianship at UNC-Chapel Hill.

If you find yourself in Wilson Library this week, November 6-10, we invite you to stop by any reading-room desk and take a North Carolina trivia quiz in honor of Ms. Thornton. Turn in your answers for a Mary Louise Thornton button, and join us in celebrating this important library pioneer.

Happy Mary Louise Thornton Week!

A woman of patience and vision. That may be the best general description of Mary Lindsay Thornton, who 100 years ago this fall began a long and extraordinarily productive career with the library at the University of North Carolina. More specifically, it’s also accurate to call her the mother of special collections at UNC and […]

A woman of patience and vision.

That may be the best general description of Mary Lindsay Thornton, who 100 years ago this fall began a long and extraordinarily productive career with the library at the University of North Carolina.

More specifically, it’s also accurate to call her the mother of special collections at UNC and the all-time champion collector and bibliographer of North Caroliniana. Literally thousands of researchers have benefited from Thornton’s hard work, determination, and foresight.

Early life

Mary Louise Thornton portrait

Mary Louise Thornton was born June 12, 1891, in Virginia. Her family moved to Salisbury, NC, where they lived for a few years before moving to Atlanta, where she grew up. Thornton was still a girl when she decided she disliked her given name “Mary Louise.” She swapped the “Louise” for “Lindsay” — the name of her beloved paternal grandmother — and went by Mary Lindsay Thornton for the rest of her life.

Thornton, soft-spoken but hard-working, graduated from the Atlanta Girls High School and the Carnegie Library School, later to become the Emory University Library School. In 1913, with a certificate in librarianship in hand, she took a position at the University of Georgia where she would remain for four years.

The first special collections librarian at UNC
In 1917, UNC’s University Librarian Louis Round Wilson was looking for someone to bring order to a small but growing collection of North Caroliniana. Wilson had been supervising the collection of around 1000 books, 500 pamphlets, and a number of state documents and manuscripts, occupying 50 or so shelves in the library.

Impressed by Thornton’s training and strong interest in cataloging, Wilson and other library officials concluded that she was the perfect candidate to develop the North Carolina Collection into the type of repository that North Carolina citizens wished for. Thornton accepted the position, becoming the Librarian for the North Carolina Collection at UNC, later designated Curator.

The next two decades would see the establishment of the Rare Book Collection and the Southern Historical Collection, whose professional librarians and archivists would join Thornton in developing strong and nationally recognized special collections at Chapel Hill.

A dedication to collecting and bibliography

In 1918, the year following her appointment, Thornton worked closely with Wilson to purchase an unrivaled collection of printed North Caroliniana amassed by Stephen B. Weeks.

Weeks, the first professional historian of the Tar Heel State, had spent thirty-four years gathering a remarkable collection totaling more than 10,000 books, pamphlets, newspapers, and maps. The Weeks Collection provided the depth and breadth that made the North Carolina Collection a resource for in-depth scholarly research on North Carolina. And Thornton’s careful, detail-oriented cataloging provided an entryway into the collection.

A meticulous bibliographer

At the same time that she was cataloging the Weeks Collection, she began a robust collection development program to acquire both older North Caroliniana and the new materials being published by the state’s authors, businesses, organizations, and institutions. With increased support from John Sprunt Hill, who admired and appreciated her good work, Thornton built the North Carolina Collection to 59,000 items by 1937 and 161,000 by 1954 through a combination of donations and purchases.

In 1934 Thornton began contributing an annual bibliography of newly published North Caroliniana to the North Carolina Historical Review Quarterly. She continued to publish bibliographies over her career, including her widely praised Official Publications of the Colony and State of North Carolina, 1749-1939: A Bibliography, a careful and detailed record of all known North Carolina governmental publications to that date.

The culmination of her bibliographic work was the publication of A Bibliography of North Carolina, 1589-1956, which the university press published in 1958, her final year as curator. The volume compiled 15,519 citations to historically significant books, pamphlets, and periodicals she had cataloged into the North Carolina Collection in her years with the UNC Library. Immensely valuable to anyone interested in the history and literature of North Carolina — scholar and non-scholar alike — the book facilitated and stimulated research for decades to come, and served as a most appropriate capstone to Thornton’s career as the unequaled promoter, collector, cataloger, and bibliographer of North Caroliniana.

Thornton’s legacy

hand holding a Mary Louise Thornton button

Today, more than one hundred librarians, archivists, library assistants, and student employees provide services and resources to the researchers who use the Wilson Special Collections Library. This fall, they pause to remember, admire, and appreciate the remarkable career of Mary Lindsay Thornton — a pioneering career that inaugurated the first century of professional special collections librarianship at UNC-Chapel Hill.

If you find yourself in Wilson Library this week, November 6-10, we invite you to stop by any reading-room desk and take a North Carolina trivia quiz in honor of Ms. Thornton. Turn in your answers for a Mary Louise Thornton button, and join us in celebrating this important library pioneer.

Artifact of the Month: Nurse Cape

Did you know that the design of the nurse’s uniform evolved from the nun’s habit? At one time the convent was a common place for the sick to receive care, and the nuns did the nursing. The cape was a standard part of the nurse’s apparel, a practice that endured into the 1980s. Our recently […]


Did you know that the design of the nurse’s uniform evolved from the nun’s habit? At one time the convent was a common place for the sick to receive care, and the nuns did the nursing.

The cape was a standard part of the nurse’s apparel, a practice that endured into the 1980s. Our recently donated cape was worn by Nancy Hege Paar, a member of the UNC School of Nursing’s fifth class of Bachelor of Science in Nursing graduates in 1959. Like many such capes, it is gray and mid-length. It appears to be made of wool, including the lining. The lining is a blue-gray, perhaps the closest match to Carolina Blue available from the Snowhite Garment Sales Corporation of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The initials “U. N. C.” on the collar further brand the cape.

Photo of Nancy Hege from 1959 Yackety Yack

Nancy Hege, 1959 Yackety Yack

The nurse’s cap was originally employed to keep a nurse’s hair neatly in place and to present a modest and orderly appearance. In the latter part of the 19th century, the form of the cap evolved to signify a nurse’s school. The cap became a symbol of the profession, often shrinking to be a token rather than a functional piece of clothing.

Today, both cape and cap are less common components of a nurse’s apparel. Scrubs have replaced them, providing a unisex uniform for both women and the increasing number of men in the profession.

Photo of UNC Nursing students, 1959

UNC School of Nursing students, 1959. From the UNC Photographic Laboratory Collection, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives

Artifact of the Month: Nurse Cape

Did you know that the design of the nurse’s uniform evolved from the nun’s habit? At one time the convent was a common place for the sick to receive care, and the nuns did the nursing. The cape was a standard part of the nurse’s apparel, a practice that endured into the 1980s. Our recently […]


Did you know that the design of the nurse’s uniform evolved from the nun’s habit? At one time the convent was a common place for the sick to receive care, and the nuns did the nursing.

The cape was a standard part of the nurse’s apparel, a practice that endured into the 1980s. Our recently donated cape was worn by Nancy Hege Paar, a member of the UNC School of Nursing’s fifth class of Bachelor of Science in Nursing graduates in 1959. Like many such capes, it is gray and mid-length. It appears to be made of wool, including the lining. The lining is a blue-gray, perhaps the closest match to Carolina Blue available from the Snowhite Garment Sales Corporation of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The initials “U. N. C.” on the collar further brand the cape.

Photo of Nancy Hege from 1959 Yackety Yack

Nancy Hege, 1959 Yackety Yack

The nurse’s cap was originally employed to keep a nurse’s hair neatly in place and to present a modest and orderly appearance. In the latter part of the 19th century, the form of the cap evolved to signify a nurse’s school. The cap became a symbol of the profession, often shrinking to be a token rather than a functional piece of clothing.

Today, both cape and cap are less common components of a nurse’s apparel. Scrubs have replaced them, providing a unisex uniform for both women and the increasing number of men in the profession.

Photo of UNC Nursing students, 1959

UNC School of Nursing students, 1959. From the UNC Photographic Laboratory Collection, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives