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 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.

150th Anniversary of the North Carolina Republican Party

“The Grand Old Party” seems an especially appropriate nickname for North Carolina Republican Party today—the 150th anniversary of the formal organization of the party in the Tar Heel State.

Led by North Carolina Standard editor W.W. Holden, a number of prominent white citizens who had been pre-Civil War Whigs, anti-secessionists, or one-time members of the Peace Party joined with African Americans eager for a long-denied voice in the governance of the state in organizing a convention in Raleigh on March 27, 1867. The purpose of the meeting was to demonstrate to Congress and the nation that North Carolinians were loyal and ready for full readmission to the Union. A second goal was to wrest power from the Conservative party forces that governed the state. The 147 delegates in attendance collectively represented 56 counties in what was the first political meeting in North Carolina with full participation by both black and white citizens. Alexander H. Jones of Henderson, a strong advocate of voting rights for African American males, was elected president of the convention. Two white and two black vice presidents and one white and one black secretary were also chosen.

Delegate Robert Paine Dick of Greensboro proposed that the convention should proceed with organizing the Republican Party in North Carolina. But not all delegates supported that name for the organization. Several, including Daniel R. Goodloe and Benjamin S. Hedrick, argued for “Union Party”, saying that it would be more acceptable to many North Carolinians the organization hoped to attract. But the prevailing sentiment was for “Republican Party.” The next day, May 28th, in the first of a series of resolutions the delegates passed, it was resolved:

That in view of our present political condition, our relations to the National Government and the people of all sections of the country, we do this day with proud satisfaction unfurl the brilliant and glorious banner of THE REPUBLICAN PARTY and earnestly appeal to every true and patriotic man in the State to rally in its support.

The March 30, 1867, issue of the Raleigh Tri-Weekly Standard provides a detailed account of the two-day convention. Digital access to this issue of the Standard is available via Chronicling America.

Several years of the Standard and a number of other North Carolina newspapers have been digitized and made available by the North Carolina Collection thorough its participation in the Chronicling America newspaper digitization project coordinated by the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Milton Robinson: Editor and Minister

Front page of Harris Herald

The North Carolina Collection recently acquired 18 issues of The Harris Herald, a paper founded by Milton Bernidine Robinson, Sr. in 1946. In exploring the history of this African-American newspaper from Rutherford County, we learned about Robinson, a man of talent and achievement.

Born in Forest City in 1913, Robinson was orphaned at a relatively young age. Upon finishing elementary school, but with a high school education not available to him and other African Americans locally, he went to work. At various times in his life Robinson would work as a teacher, farmer, brickmason, Pullman porter, and school bus driver. But today he may be best remembered as a minister and editor.

Ambitious and energetic, Robinson ventured into the world of journalism with the The Harris Herald. Seeking to serve the African-American community in Rutherford County and the nearby area, he began publishing the four-page monthly newspaper “for the purpose of keeping our people informed about current issues of the day, together with article and column by some of our best informed people. … This paper is your friend and seeks at all times to help you solve your problems.” Robinson edited and published the paper until early 1949. Later that year he was ordained a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the first of many leadership positions he would subsequently fill for the denomination. In midlife, he enrolled in Johnson C. Smith University, receiving his A.B. degree in 1963. In 1967, he earned a masters in education administration from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

Having whetted his appetite for journalism with The Harris Herald and having become a much respected leader in the A.M.E. Zion Church, the Reverend Robinson was appointed editor of the church’s Star of Zion newspaper, published in Charlotte.

Reverend Robinson’s daughters—Phyllis Robinson Washburn, Annie Robinson Jones, and Evelyn Robinson Mercer—generously donated their copies of the Harris Herald to the North Carolina Collection. Before this donation, only a few issues of the newspaper were available on microfilm. All 18 known issues have now been digitized and made freely available online to the public by the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center in Wilson Library.

“As Close to Magic as I’ve Ever Been”: Thomas Wolfe at Chapel Hill

Image of Thomas Wolfe smoking a pipe. The photo reportedly shows him during his senior year at UNC.
Thomas Wolfe during his senior year.
One hundred years ago today the tall, rather awkward, not quite yet sixteen-year-old Thomas Clayton Wolfe boarded an early morning train in Asheville bound for Durham. There he was met by his brother-in-law who drove him the twelve miles over to Chapel Hill to enroll at the University of North Carolina. Wolfe had longed to attend the University of Virginia. But his father had insisted he go to Chapel Hill, foreseeing a possible legal career and future in politics for his youngest child. Once at Chapel Hill, however, Tom quickly dove into both coursework and campus activities with a passion and focus that quickly made him among the most prominent and popular students on campus.

Upon arrival in Chapel Hill, Tom signed up for room and board at the three-story rooming house of Mrs. Mattie Eva Hardee, a widow originally from Asheville–$15 a month for board and $7.50 for a student’s half of a room. Writing to his brother-in-law a few days later, he declared the food “splendid” but the room rent “exorbitant.” His professors were “all fine fellows” for whom he hoped to “do well in all my studies and my guess is that I’ll have to ‘bone’ up on math.”

During the next four years, Wolfe would do well in his studies—as a junior winning the prize in philosophy for best student thesis and earning multiple A’s that same year from favorite professors Edwin Greenlaw in English, Frederick Koch in dramatic literature, and Horace Williams in philosophy. His achievements in student publications and as a leader of campus organizations were equally outstanding—assistant editor, then managing editor, and finally editor-in-chief of the Tar Heel student newspaper; assistant editor, then assistant editor-in-chief of the University Magazine; associate editor of the Yackety Yack yearbook; member of student council; author of and sometimes actor in plays performed by the campus Carolina Playmakers campus theater company; and class poet.

After graduating from UNC in 1920, Wolfe studied playwriting at Harvard, then moved to New York where he initially did some teaching at New York University. But soon he turned his legendary intellectual energy and passion to fiction writing. In 1929 his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, was published, winning wide praise among literary critics and creating a sensation because of the thinly-veiled autobiographical nature of the book. The life and experiences of the book’s protagonist, Eugene Gant, are often unmistakably similar to those of Thomas Wolfe. In Look Homeward, Angel, however, young Gant attends the state university at Pulpit Hill, not Chapel Hill. But the sense of adventure, excitement, and intellectual stimulation he experienced there as described in Look Homeward, Angel, echo loudly the fond memories of Thomas Wolfe for a place and time he would later describe as being “as close to magic as I’ve ever been.”

Happy 100th Birthday National Park Service!

Happy 100th birthday to the National Park Service (NPS)!

On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Organic Act establishing the NPS as an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior to coordinate administration of the then 37 national parks and monuments. Today the NPS oversees 412 parks, monuments, and other conservation and historic properties.

In 1926, 10 years after establishment of the NPS, creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was authorized. Covering 522,427 acres, almost evenly divided between the states of North Carolina and Tennessee, the park is today the most visited of the 59 national parks, attracting over 9 million visitors annually. More than 1,660 kinds of flowering plants can be found along its more than 800 miles of tended trails.

Here are a few postcards from the North Carolina Collection’s postcards collection showing the beauty and wonder of this special place:





University Of North Carolina At Durham?

UNC and Duke partisans shouldn’t be too hard on the two skydivers from Virginia-based Aerial Adventures who recently mistook Duke’s Wallace Wade Stadium for Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, eight miles away. After all, they are not the first to have confused the two institutions.

Hired to deliver the game ball for UNC’s August 30th season-opening football contest with McNeese State, the parachutists declined to jump because of bad weather when they passed over Kenan. A few minutes later the clouds broke. The men saw a stadium below, assumed they were again over Kenan, and jumped—to the confusion and then delight of Duke fans gathered for pre-game ceremonies.

Confusing UNC and Duke is simply inconceivable to alumni and fans of the two fierce rivals. But it does occasionally happen and not just among parachutists. Shortly after Caldwell Hall was dedicated on the UNC campus in 1912, the S. H. Kress & Co., published this postcard, which identified the building as being on the University of North Carolina campus—in Durham.

Sticking Up For / Sticking It To Senator No

Tonight, at 9 p.m., UNC Television will premiere the 90-minute documentary Senator No: Jesse Helms. The film offers an in-depth look at the life and public career of one of North Carolina’s most significant political leaders in the second half of the twentieth century.

Some historians and political analysts go even further in their evaluation of Helms. He was, they claim, the most influential and effective leader of the New Right movement that transformed the national political scene and culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980. First as a Raleigh-based television editorialist and then as a United States senator, Helms combined criticism of the civil rights movement and warnings about the threat of communism with sharply stated conservative positions on controversial social issues, such as abortion and gay rights. His political action committee became the largest in the nation, pioneering in the use of direct mail and in hard-hitting, negative television ads that energized his supporters and outraged his opponents.

Few people were neutral about Helms. In 2002, near the end of his 30 years in the U.S. Senate, The Almanac of American Politics asserted that “No American politician is more controversial, beloved in some quarters and hated in others, than Jesse Helms.”

A recent gift to the North Carolina Collection provides a unique, if unscientific way, to gauge the prominence of Helms in state and national politics. In December 2007, Lew Powell of Charlotte donated 2,698 North Carolina-related pin-back buttons, badges, ribbons, cloth swatches, promotional cards, and stickers. Among the most extensive subsets of items in The Lew Powell Memorabilia, as the gift will be known, is the collection of pin-back political campaign buttons.

Over several decades of collecting, Powell gathered hundred of buttons distributed during Tar Heel campaigns for offices ranging from mayor to county commissioner to Council of State to governor to congressman to senator to president. But Helms is the clear winner as the politician who generated the greatest variety of buttons. Helms for Senate. Helms for re-election to Senate. Helms for Vice-President. Helms for President. And lots of anti-Helms buttons, too. In all, there are forty-nine Helms-related buttons in the Powell collection—fascinating, if unusual, documentation of the long and important place of North Carolina’s Senator No in twentieth-century American politics.

Here’s a sampling of Helms-related buttons: