Newly-Discovered Archival Materials Recall the Textile Union Organizing Work of Leaders Killed at the Greensboro Massacre (November 3, 1979)

Forty-four years ago today, five leaders of the Communist Workers Party (CWP) were shot and killed at a demonstration in Greensboro, N.C., by members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party. The violence of the “Greensboro Massacre” lasted only eighty-eight seconds, but ended with the murders of CWP organizers Sandra Smith, James Waller, William Sampson, César Cauce, and Michael Nathan.

Since the massacre, families and friends of the people murdered have tried to keep the memories of their loved ones alive through commemorations, such as the 2015 placement of a North Carolina Highway Historical Marker at the site of the shootings. In 1980, families and survivors established the Greensboro Justice Fund (later the Greensboro Civil Rights Fund, or GCRF) to fundraise and organize for a civil suit on behalf of the victims. That lawsuit, Waller v. Butkovich, resulted in a jury finding two Greensboro police officers and six Klansmen and Nazis liable for the wrongful death of the deceased and a judgment of close to $400,000 in damages to the plaintiffs.

In 1992, the Southern Historical Collection acquired the Greensboro Civil Rights Fund’s immense archive of records relating to the massacre and subsequent legal cases. The library also preserves the papers of massacre survivors John Kenyon “Yonni” Chapman and Jim Wrenn and other related collections and published materials.

Recently, as part of a new project called “Print Culture of the Southern Freedom Movement,” SHC staff reviewed the contents of the GCRF records and this search surfaced a group of rare and unique bibliographic sources that offer important evidence of the labor organizing work that several of the Greensboro Massacre victims were doing in the years and months leading up to November 3, 1979. We’ll share some samples of the reports, union newsletters, flyers, and other sources and what they reveal about CWP’s involvement in organizing textile workers in North Carolina in the 1970s.

Dr. James Waller and the Granite Finishing Plant

Born in 1942, Jim Waller grew up in a Jewish household in Chicago. He later received his medical degree from the University of Chicago, trained as part of the Lincoln Hospital Collective in New York, and organized medical aid to American Indian Movement activists under siege at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973. He relocated to North Carolina in the mid-1970s when he received a medical fellowship at Duke University.

His activism continued in the South. Waller organized with the Carolina Brown Lung Association, where he provided textile mill workers with health screenings for byssinosis (or brown lung) and helped develop health clinics.  But in 1976, Waller decided to abandon the medical profession to become a textile mill worker at the Granite Finishing Plant in Haw River, N.C.

Photograph of Dr. Jim Waller speaking at an African liberation event in 1978.
Photograph of Dr. Jim Waller speaking at an African liberation event in 1978.

Waller was a member of the Workers Viewpoint Organization (WVO, later the Communist Workers Party) which believed in fomenting revolution through organizing rank-and-file workers. He began selling copies of the WVO’s newspaper outside of the gates of the Cone Mills-owned Granite Plant. He held training sessions for workers and shared educational literature to build up membership in Local 1113T of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU).

Then, in the summer of 1978, Waller was fired by Cone for failing to list his medical training on his employment application. Waller claimed it was in retaliation for his union organizing work in the plant. In response, workers organized a twelve-day wildcat strike and held an election to establish new union leadership, since they felt that ACTWU was not doing enough to support the workers. Waller was elected president of Local 1113T. The strike brought renewed energy to the union and its member rolls grew from 15 to 200 members under Waller’s tenure.

Image of copies of the Granite Workers Update newsletter from the Greensboro Civil Rights Fund Records, Southern Historical Collection.
Image of copies of the Granite Workers Update newsletter from the Greensboro Civil Rights Fund Records, Southern Historical Collection.

Jim and his wife Signe Waller produced and printed a newsletter, called Granite Workers Update, with a mimeograph machine they had at their home in Greensboro. Seven issues of the newsletter were printed during the strike. We uncovered copies of these issues of Granite Workers Update during our search of the Greensboro Civil Rights Fund Records and we are working on getting them cataloged as a separate serials title, to make them more accessible. According to the WorldCat library database, it appears that UNC Library holds the only extant copies of this newsletter.

Sandra Smith and the Revolution Mills

Photograph of Sandi Smith at a demonstration, circa 1979.
Photograph of Sandi Smith at a demonstration, circa 1979.

Like Jim Waller, Sandi Smith had medical training (as a nurse), a long history of activism, and an interest in organizing rank-and-file textile mill workers. Smith was a graduate of Bennett College in Greensboro, where she had served as president of the student body and a founding member of the Student Organization for Black Unity (SOBU). She was also a community organizer with the Greensboro Association of Poor People (GAPP). In the mid-1970s, Smith decided to become a worker at the Revolution Plant in Greensboro (also owned by Cone Mills Corporation) so that she could organize a union in the plant. She co-founded and was later elected chairperson of the Revolution Organizing Committee (ROC).

Under her leadership, ROC filed and won grievances with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against unfair firings and arranged to have the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspect safety conditions at the mill for the first time in its history.

Image of copies of the Revolution Organizing Committee's newsletter, from the Greensboro Civil Rights Fund Records, Southern Historical Collection.
Image of Revolution Organizing Committee’s newsletter, from the Greensboro Civil Rights Fund Records, Southern Historical Collection.

Those efforts are documented in a newsletter that ROC published throughout this period. We surfaced copies of the newsletter from our search of the GCRF collection and we will be cataloging and digitizing these to make them more widely available. They are believed to be the only extant copies of this union newsletter preserved by a library.

William Sampson and the White Oak Plant

Bill Sampson was born in Delaware in 1948. Active in the anti-war movement as an undergraduate student (and student body president) at Augustana College, Sampson spent his junior year studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, received a Masters in Divinity degree from Harvard in 1971, then studied medicine at the University of Virginia, where he organized health care workers to support liberation struggles in southern Africa.

Image of a campaign flyer for officer elections for ACTWU Local 1391 at White Oak Plant in Greensboro. Bill Sampson is shown at top left.
Image of a campaign flyer for officer elections for ACTWU Local 1391 at White Oak Plant in Greensboro. Bill Sampson is shown at top left.

Sampson left medical school to work and organize at the White Oak Denim Manufacturing Plant in Greensboro. Initially assigned to the dye house, which was a dirty and dangerous part of the denim manufacturing process, Sampson’s co-workers did not think he would last long in this role. But he stayed, working at White Oak for the last two and a half years of his life.

During that time, Sampson filed grievances on behalf of his fellow workers, he built up union membership, and fought unfair firings of fellow union leaders. He then ran for and was elected president of the union (ACTWU Local 1391). He was serving as president-elect at the time of his death.

Sampson and the White Oak Organizing Committee (WOOC) published a union newsletter during this period. We discovered a near full-run of the publication during our search of the GCRF collection. Again, it is thought to be the only extant copy of the newsletter that is held by an academic library. We are working on cataloging and digitizing this newsletter to make it more broadly accessible to researchers.

Image of copies of the White Oak Organizing Committee Newsletter, 1977-1979, from the Greensboro Civil Rights Fund Records, Southern Historical Collection.
Image of copies of the White Oak Organizing Committee Newsletter, 1977-1979, from the Greensboro Civil Rights Fund Records, Southern Historical Collection.

Conclusion

These newly-discovered archival materials reveal important details about the lives and work of several of the activists killed on November 3, 1979, shedding new light on the intersections between racist violence, anti-Communism, and the labor movement in the South. We hope their re-discovery will inspire researchers to explore this and other lesser-known aspects of the legacy of the Greensboro Massacre.

Works Consulted:

Bermanzohn, Sally Avery. Through Survivors’ Eyes: From the Sixties to the Greensboro Massacre. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2003.

Chapman, John Kenyon Papers. Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC. https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/05441/

Gateway, University of North Carolina at Greensboro Libraries. “The Greensboro Massacre.” Accessed November 2, 2023. https://gateway.uncg.edu/crg/essay1979.

Greensboro Civil Rights Fund Records. Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC. https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/04630/

Greensboro Truth & Reconciliation Commission. “Final Report.” Accessed November 2, 2023. https://greensborotrc.org/index.php.

Magarrell, Lisa and Joya Wesley. Learning from Greensboro: Truth and Reconciliation in the United States. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.

Waller, Signe. Love and Revolution: A Political Memoir: People’s History of the Greensboro Massacre, Its Setting and Aftermath.” New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.

Workers World. “40th Anniversary of Greensboro Massacre provides lessons for today’s movement.” Accessed November 2, 2023. https://www.workers.org/2019/11/44354/.

Wrenn, Jim Papers. Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC.  https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/05625/

Building on Sixty Years of Partnership to Preserve the History of Penn Center

The first school established in the U.S. South to educate formerly enslaved people. The beating heart of Gullah cultural traditions. A sacred gathering place for those seeking justice, civil rights, and Black uplift. Since 1862, Penn Center has been the convergence point for these and many other central threads of the American experience. And since 1962, the Southern Historical Collection has been honored to collaborate with Penn Center in preserving a rich archive of materials that document Penn’s storied past.

This year we are reflecting on this legacy of preservation, sixty years in the making, and preparing the way for decades of partnership to come!  Here is an interactive timeline of the Penn Center-UNC Library partnership and some highlights of our most recent community-engaged activities:

Timeline:

 

Digitization and Access:

  • Since 2005, we have digitized around 10,000 documents, including: all early Penn correspondence, administrative records, dozens of manuscript volumes, and other papers.
  • Digitized twenty five fragile 18th- and early 19th-century photograph albums (with more than 1600 pages containing thousands of individual photographs) and hundreds of individual unmounted photographs.
  • Digitized more than 300 audiocassettes and 10 transcription discs, containing recordings of Gullah and African American musical traditions, oral history interviews, and recordings of meetings and events.
  • This year we received an National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) grant to digitize a set of at-risk films from the Penn collections.

Recent Community Outreach and Education:

  • SHC staff have visited Penn Center several times in recent years to meet with the center’s staff about ways to make the collection more readily accessible to the research public and the local communities around Penn.
  • This spring, SHC curators Chaitra Powell and Brianna McGruder developed and taught a UNC Maymester class on the history of Penn Center (AAAD 290 – “Memory Work at Penn Center“). The  class included hands on research and engagement activities during a visit to Penn Center by enrolled UNC students.
  • SHC archivist Brianna McGruder curated a digital exhibition, “Erasure and Resilience at Penn,” focused on surfacing the marginalized thoughts, narratives, and voices of local Black people who are documented within Penn’s archival collections.
  • UNC Library staff developed a LibGuide to aid researchers in navigating the two main Penn archival collections and many related primary and secondary sources.

More Information and Links:

Our year of focus on “radical empathy”: a summary

Background

In the 2021-2022 academic year, the staff of the Southern Historical Collection employed three graduate students working on projects that engaged elements of radical empathy. Flannery Fitch and Michelle Witt were working on On These Grounds (a project focused on the lives of enslaved individuals connected to the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill), while Brianna McGruder was involved in the Hungry River Collective (a project focused on the historic lives of incarcerated women in Cherry Hospital Goldsboro, NC). As the supervisor of all three students, SHC Curator, Chaitra Powell, initiated a bi-monthly discussion group that encouraged the graduate students to explore readings, their own experiences, and their projects to help develop a working definition of what radical empathy means to us. This blog post includes our reading list, a summary of our discussions, and offers a few personal reflections/connections. 

xoom screen boxes from NCPH
A sample of Hungry River Collective members, (clockwise, l-r) Tift Merritt (singer), Vanessa Jackson (social worker), Sarah Koonts (archivist), Alison Russell (singer), Hannah Jacobs (digital humanist), Chaitra Powell (curator), Wanda Cox-Bailey (genealogist) presenting at the National Council of Public Historians annual meeting (May 2022)
A sample of the UNC- Chapel Hill OTG Project team during a meeting in Spring 2022

Our 6 tenets of Radical Empathy

1

Radical Empathy requires an analysis of where power and/or money reside. We thought about this in relation to work happening to tell stories about Dorothea Dix hospital in Raleigh, NC compared to our efforts at Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro, NC. We think about this every day in the Southern Historical Collection, when we compare the paucity of information, we have about enslaved individuals to the information we have about wealthy white families.  

During a Spring seminar talk for information and library science graduate students, the poet and activist Anasuya Sengupta explained that often, we are simultaneously oppressor and oppressed. I think about this often while engaging in community-driven archives work. Within Wilson library, I often work with and am surrounded by materials that document the subordination of BIPOC and I sometimes feel dejected by the lack of empowering materials that celebrate black or biracial black experiences.  

Brianna McGruder 

Sources that explore power 

  • Revisiting a Feminist Ethic of Care in Archives: An Introductory Note (2021): Caswell and Cifor 
  • Toward Slow Archives (2019): Christen and Anderson 
  • The House Archives Built (2021): Berry 

2

Radical Empathy acknowledges multiple ways of knowing. Our manuscript collection is full of ink on paper, what if your community does not hold knowledge in this way? What if it is in the oral tradition, the tattoos, or a worn in cast iron skillet, this history matters and confirms that the traditional archive is missing important pieces of the story. We don’t say this to expand the collection scope, we say this with humility and openness to new interpretations of our collections.    

In her memoir Bad Indian, California Indian activist Deborah Miranda writes about the pain she experienced in white American schooling where her teachers repeatedly told her that she could not be a California Indian because they were extinct. There was such a deep adherence to this idea that her white teachers felt a need to impress upon a child that her very understanding of herself, her community, and her people was wrong, that she did not exist. Why? 

Flannery Fitch 

Sources that explore ways of knowing 

  • Feminist Pedagogy for Library Instruction (2013): Accardi 
  • Tribal Critical Race Theory in Zuni Pueblo: Information Access in a cautious community (2021): Leung and Lopez-McKnight 
  • To Suddenly Discover yourself existing: uncovering the impact of community archives (2016): Caswell, Cifor, and Ramirez 

3

Radical Empathy is not a moral imperative. We don’t talk about radical empathy to make powerful people or institutions feel bad and share their resources. We hope that a clear identification of the imbalances will help people think about the specific ways that their work helps or hinders progress toward equity. We also acknowledge that there is no silver bullet, and that the other tenants of our understanding of radical empathy will be consulted as decisions are being made. 

Celebrating our differences while acknowledging our shared humanity and placing this awareness at the center of our day-to-day activity. Examples of this include asking thoughtful questions, sharing candidly, listening and demonstrating understanding, speaking, writing, and acting with kindness and humility. 

Michelle Witt 

Sources that explore morality 

  • Dusting for Fingerprints: Introducing Feminist Standpoint Appraisal (2021): Caswell 
  • How to be Anti-Racist (2019): Kendi 

4

Radical Empathy invokes notions of belonging and community. When we think about communities that have been “othered”, a common part of their resilience is the development of a sense of community for themselves. Archival practitioners can learn more about dignity, truth, and the power of collective memory by listening to and learning from community memory practitioners. In all our discussions we asked, who belongs? who has been excluded? which community is being centered? — to bring our activities and decisions into closer alignment with our values.    

White American culture has historically enforced an idea of individualism that strips power from communities and upholds keeping that power with the ruling class. Embracing community is a way to subvert this, because community allows for different viewpoints, experiences, and beliefs while functioning as a whole. Shifting focus from standard archival and library practices into a more community driven, empathetic model not only uplifts the experiences of oppressed and marginalized communities but increases our overall experience of community and how crucial it is to have a place and a people to belong to. 

Flannery Fitch 

Sources that explore belonging and community 

  • From Human Rights to Feminist Ethics: Radical Empathy in the Archives (2016): Caswell and Cifor 
  • Each according to their ability: Zine Librarians Talking about Their Community (2018): Wooten 
  • A Measure of Belonging: 21 writers of Color on the New American South (2020): Barnes (editor) 

5

Radical Empathy calls for embodiment, in every sense. Embodied knowledge radiates from our heads and hearts, extends to our surroundings, our nation, and our planet. There are stories that can only be told by certain people because they have lived it, stories that can only be told in certain places, because the natural environment holds so much memory. We give space for our whole selves in our work and think creatively and with deference about how embodiment could be understood by our colleagues and the people in our collections.    

Thinking about an archive or artifact as disembodied knowledge, these items that are often mistaken as neutral and natural, and by some audiences deemed as history embodied. A historical document sheds light on the past, through a particular lens and through several (sometimes unknown) facets, producing a particular narrative; but only the person that produced the document embodied the knowledge, and transcribed that knowledge into a now disembodied document. The document can’t talk to me or explain the thinking of its creator. All we are left to do is carefully and cautiously interrogate these disembodied materials with our whole, embodied selves. 

Brianna McGruder 

Sources that explore embodiment 

  • Why the Way we Tell stories and Document History as a social justice issue (2019): Mason-Hogans 
  • This [Black] Woman’s Work: Exploring Archival Projects that Embrace the Identity of the Memory Worker (2018): Powell, Smith, Murrain, and Hearn 
  • Undrowned (2020): Gumbs 

6

Radical Empathy is iterative. We know that a decision that we make today about description, budgeting, or collections could easily be challenged tomorrow. We all have blind spots and finite resources, so we make our best decisions with the information in front of us and try not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  

Treating archiving as a living discipline that’s constantly changing 

Michelle Witt 

 

I must credit Michelle for introducing me to the idea (really, the fact) of our initiatives as iterative. I’ve discovered that it’s very easy to self-aggrandize through weight-of-the-world mentality in imagining the most ethical, most reparative, most effective initiatives and projects to combat epistemic injustices. But after listening to Michelle’s very wise realization that our efforts are but a step in the direction of progress, I felt relieved! I’ve felt more productive since internalizing the work of reparative archives is iterative. Like meditation, iterative repair and care work seems to be the spot where “intention meets honesty in practice” (Anasuya Sengupta 2022). 

Brianna McGruder 

Sources that explore iteration 

  • Radical Collaboration: An Archival View (2018): McGovern 
  • Archives, Records, and power: the making of modern memory (2002): Schwartz, Cook 

A Winding Road: Starting to Explore Community-Driven Archives in a Post-Grant Context

In Fall 2020, through the generous support of the Kenan Charitable Trust, the Community Driven Archives Team had an opportunity to hire a graduate student, Angelique Marrero, to explore how the Libraries could leverage lessons from the Mellon grant into outreach efforts after the grant’s staffing and resources ended. Read about Angelique’s journey in her own words here:  

My Background  

My time on the Community Driven Archives team has been full of twists and turns, and one of the most unique job experiences I’ve ever had. I was really excited to be a part of this grant because as a Latina from a close knit community I have seen how history and culture can manifest in different ways. Most of my childhood was spent in Fayetteville, North Carolina where both of my parents were stationed at Fort Bragg. Being a part of a close knit community that took care of each other helped me understand what true community was.  

Angelique and her dad, Fort Bragg, Fayetteville, NC (2001)
Angelique and her dad, Fort Bragg, Fayetteville, NC (2001)

  

           

                                        

 

 

I loved how something that could seem unimportant to outsiders could mean the world to us, that kind of “insider knowledge” made me feel special. When I was given the opportunity to be a part of this grant it was no question that I wanted to be here. 

Approaching Community Driven Archives with a Research Question

I joined the team with a project scope in place: connect with Black communities in North Carolina and learn how these communities would like their history preserved. I understood that there exists a historical marginalization and exclusion of Black voices in the library and archives. The traditional archival process involves the library taking the artifact and giving context to it in their own separate repository which often leads to misrepresentation and misinterpretations. Our central research question became: Given our geographic, staffing, and institutional boundaries, alongside community priorities; how can we support the collecting, preserving, and sharing of Black community voices in North Carolina? That’s a big question and while we knew our research would not cover every aspect of this question, the hope was that it would begin the conversation that would lead to more projects and different viewpoints.  

A Research Journey 

Once we established this question, we needed a way of forming relationships with Black communities in North Carolina and narrowing a sample few communities with whom to conduct interviews. We acknowledged early on that our readiness to pursue this line of inquiry did not equate to the availability of community members for us to talk to. Through conversations with Community Driven Archives Team members and staff from the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center, I learned how some African American communities identified themselves (alumni of segregated high schools, neighbors in a coal mining community, etc.) and value they placed in archiving their stories for future generations. I wanted to find more African American communities that had this strong sense of interconnectedness and heritage.

The Rosenwald School Connection 

As a team we decided to focus in on the linkage of Rosenwald Schools (NC Museum of History) that was a massive project that occurred between 1917 and 1932 when Julius Rosenwald left the initiative for the creation of nearly 5,000 rural schoolhouses in the south. Around 800 of those schools were here in North Carolina, however, many are no longer standing or have been converted into community centers or other properties. While this avenue did give us a narrower range of possible communities, it was still a very expansive list. But everything began to become clearer when I found an article discussing Lowe’s Charitable Fund Grants in North Carolina that were focused on the restoration of Rosenwald Schools that were awarded to community groups. Through this source we were able to pin three viable options for communities to contact that were actively invested in their community’s history and the preservation of that history.  

Students in front of the Walnut Cove Rosenwald School, in 1930 (Stokes County, NC)
Students in front of the Walnut Cove Rosenwald School, in 1930 (Stokes County, NC)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walnut Cove Rosenwald School as a Senior Citizen Center in 2013 (Stokes County, NC)
Walnut Cove Rosenwald School as a Senior Citizen Center in 2013 (Stokes County, NC)

 

Following the selection of possible candidates to interview it then became an adventure to find contact information for these groups and organizations. While I initially thought this process wouldn’t be too difficult, I ended up not being able to find up to date information that I could actually be able to contact to someone in the community. Many of the groups had Facebook pages that were inactive, old numbers/emails, were currently not active because of the pandemic or just did not have an online presence. After many dead ends, I began to get a little discouraged and the option of changing directions became a possibility.

Then one day I was looking into one of the last communities in Walnut Cove that had a restoration project led by two women, Dorothy Dalton and her sister Mary Catherine Hairston Foy, they were both alumni of the school. After some research I found out that both women had unfortunately passed away but a news article listed the daughters of Mrs. Foy, and I decided to reach out to one, Dr. Capri Foy, who I found on an employee registry at Wake Forest Medical Center. Initially I didn’t expect a response but a few days later I received a reply letting me know this was Mrs. Foy’s daughter and that she currently served as a board member on the Walnut Cove Preservation Board!

The Outreach 

With this link to a community, we decided it would be helpful to do a focus study on this one place with Dr. Foy, as an enthusiastic leader. As we met and discussed various outreach programs and initiatives, we ran into difficulties in determining whose labor would be involved in bringing these projects together. For example, without a grant funded oral historian available to record the elders, the timeline for training community members and setting up interviews became untenable. We were also insistent on finding ways for the community to benefit from our engagement, but without an Archival Seedlings program to join, there weren’t any structured professional development or monetary incentives. The transparency that we were able to demonstrate felt strange at times, but it kept us from committing to projects that we weren’t fully prepared to execute. In the end, we determined that a full partnership was not feasible at this time but we would keep their needs in mind as our work evolved.  

New Measures of Success 

After reflecting on my time with this project I’ve realized that building these community and institutional partnerships is not always a linear process. We should act and react based on close listening, and not be afraid to re-calibrate. Community history is owned and shared by those in the communities, as an institution we are not supposed to control the outcome of these discussions. Instead, we are there to listen, learn, and follow the lead of these communities who are the experts in their own heritage.

As a graduate student, I was eager to support the community, but I think we needed more buy-in from library staff and leadership to make the community feel like they were a part of something more substantial. I also hope that we can do more with the Rosenwald School story as it is well documented in the archives/libraries and continues to have a high impact in communities, perhaps my research journey can be a part of another collaborative research or outreach project.   

If our only goal was to find the conditions under which CDAT can work without external funding, we were not successful…and that is ok. There are other strategies to explore and other measures of success. Especially now, during this critical point in UNC’s history we successfully disrupted the silencing of Black voices, avoiding a negative precedent often employed in traditional libraries and archives. We did this by being honest with our potential partners about our capacity, encouraging them to make an informed decision about whether to proceed, and acknowledging that our community driven archives framework (as it is currently implemented) won’t always be the best option for every community.   

Potential Next Steps  

As I continue my time in the School of Information and Library Science, I will always be grateful for my time on the Community Driven Archives Team. I have never had a job where my input, decision making, and creativity was so valued by my leadership. I was often faced with a lot of choices on which way to take the project and while it may have led to a few dead ends, I learned a lot about myself and what it takes to lead a successful grant project. I am so excited to see this work continue with other projects and research; I hope that eventually community driven archives work can be fully resourced and serve as a main service for major universities to offer.

Visions for a Community-Driven Archive

Throughout our grant-funded Community-Driven Archives project, our team worked in collaboration with our partners based on a guiding set of values that emphasized community benefit, reflexivity, service, and accessibility. Now that we’ve concluded the work on our grant, we are identifying ways that our short-term efforts can have a longer-term impact on the University Libraries at UNC-Chapel Hill.

What might we take with us into the next chapter? What is our vision for community-driven archives when practiced at scale at an archival institution?

Free from the pressure and limitations of grant deliverables, our team started the process of imagining what our home institution might look and feel like through a community-driven archival lens. Below is a synthesis of some of our team’s conversations.

What might signal a Community-Driven Archives approach to library visitors and researchers?

When a member of the public visits the library’s website or walks in the door of the library, they see announcements about upcoming events that pertain to some of their interests. They see an event invitation to a free community archives scan day at a local community center in partnership with the library. They see an upcoming Archives 101 training and skill-share hosted by an organization they are already familiar with, one connected to their neighborhood, identity, or hobbies—another community-library partnership. They see an announcement that a local community organization received a substantial grant to start a community archive with the support and ongoing partnership of the library. In addition to the library’s website and buildings, they see these announcements and flyers at various community spaces and public places they frequent, as well as through member groups’ web-based communications and social media.

What do these approaches have in common?

  • They do not take place at an institutional library setting, but rather at community centers and spaces that our collaborators already frequent and feel comfortable visiting. A public library can feel more comfortable and accessible, for example, than an academic institutional library.
  • They are all based on partnership with organized groups of people and and/or existing community organizations, rather than relying on one individual as the “go-between” or trying to recruit community members to attend an event based on a one-time interaction.
  • They are based on a model in which the library is resourcing communities, with a focus on historically marginalized and underrepresented communities, through funding opportunities and staff support, rather than funding flowing first to the library and then to communities through library-branded programs.

When using the archives, what evidence might users see of a Community-Driven Archives framework?

When community researchers come into the library they are welcomed and asked if they need any specific help with their research project. They see staff working at the library in positions of leadership who look like them. If they are new library users, they are given a welcome sheet with information that might be helpful both to new archives users as well as to new researchers at the University Libraries at UNC-Chapel Hill. This information is also clearly available and accessible on the library’s website, as well as through a printable PDF distributed to partner organizations. The welcome sheet covers topics like:

  • What are the easiest ways to get to the archive?
  • How will the library accommodate my access needs?
  • How do I search the archive for what I’m looking to find? Who can help me?
  • How do I request materials to look through while I’m at the archive?
  • Why do I need to leave my belongings in a locker and stay in the reading room when I’m looking through archival materials?
  • If I find something that I’m interested in, what are the best ways to keep track of it?
  • How can I make a copy of items I find here?
  • What are the best ways I can share what I find here with other people?

When searching finding aids, libguides, subject guides and other indexes of collections materials, users are able to search using terms for themselves and their communities that they use rather than outdated or, much worse, offensive terms. Searchable guides that do not meet these parameters might be labeled with content warnings and an acknowledgment from the institution that language found in the relevant guide is inappropriate and has been flagged for remediation. Users are encouraged to bring offensive or harmful language that they uncover through their research along with other access needs to the attention of the libraries’ staff through an anonymous online form and/or paper survey.

On the Carolina libraries’ website and through its communications with its users, the library shares recommendations of community-based digital and physical collections connected to historically underrepresented communities, peoples, groups, and events. It should make these recommendations of community archives projects alongside its own acknowledgement of the internal work that must happen institutionally to redress long-standing gaps and silences in its archives, towards repairing historic erasures.

What are the common threads of this archives experience?

  • It centers an accessible archives experience for a broad base of people.
  • It is attentive to the hiring practices of the library and emphasizes staff diversity across race, gender identity, sexuality, and ability.
  • It owns up to past harms perpetrated by and through archival institutions and clearly communicates the steps being taken towards repair and redress.
  • It invites users to share any access needs that will support a fruitful archival experience.

What could library outreach activities look like as part of a Community-Driven Archives experience?

A staff member at a local LGBTIQ center receives a call from a staff member at the library. The library staff person explains that the library has been contacting local groups and organizations to ask them about their work and to learn more about the groups and organizations in their area/region. They explain the resources that the library offers to community groups wanting to document their histories and/or preserve and share their historical materials. Those resources can also be found in a guide for potential community partners available online or as a physical brochure.

The staffer from the center shares the center’s history and what goes on there day-to-day. The library staff person asks if they might be interested in setting up a meeting to talk more about how the library might be able to support the center to share its history with its members and chosen audiences, and they take the next step to set up an in-person or Zoom meeting.

What are the important features of this interaction?

  • The caller places the focus on the organization or community group and its history rather than on the services, goals, or interests of the institution. The library staff person wants to get to know groups in the broader community and to serve them — and makes that clear.
  • The library does not make promises of support it will not be able to provide and clarifies what it is able to offer through a written list of available services in support of community partners. This list is made available to all potential partners and is kept up-to-date on the library’s website.
  • Rather than try to secure immediate interest, the caller makes it clear that they want to spend time on building a relationship with this potential partner over time through physical or virtual face-to-face meetings.

How might our communication about our work shift under a Community-Driven Archives framework?

Library collaborations are branded in a way that cross-promotes our collaborators’ work and organizations. Collaborative projects are not branded with institutional colors, and staff members take steps to avoid colors, fonts, images, and related design choices that signal an academic and/or institutional audience to the exclusion of community audiences. When launching, announcing, or celebrating our collaborative achievements, our institution amplifies the work of our collaborators and directs our audiences to learn more about it. Our institution only takes credit for its share of the work and honors and champions the people, groups, and organizations who made contributions.

When we create communications content, we pay attention to voice, reflecting critically and reflexively on the institutional voice we use when reporting on our community collaborations. We look for ways to respectfully weave in the voices of our collaborators, especially when representing their work or stories. When our collaborators entrust us as stewards of their materials, stories, or collections, we make it a priority to promote those items, so as to reach our collaborators’ priority audiences in addition to our own.

What are the common threads of this approach?

  • It requires institutional staff to be reflexive when representing collaborative work, taking into consideration the power of the institution and the benefits, responsibilities, challenges, and problems that come with it. Sometimes it means using the weight of the institution to direct people and resources in support of communities. Sometimes it means amplifying community voices rather than our own.
  • It redirects the focus of our communications about our work to serve the goals of our community partners. It pays attention to our partners’ needs rather than those of our institution, donors, or funders. This shift in how we represent our work is communicated upfront to institutional and fundraising stakeholders.
  • It makes design choices that signal a shift in our communications towards community benefit.

Budget as Morality in Community-Driven Archives

Where the money resides, or in this case, where the power resides.

Can we talk about grant funding and community engagement for a minute? Many libraries, archives, and museum leaders make identifying grant-funded work a high priority. We rationalize the decision to seek out external short-term funding because grants can add capacity to our projects, allowing us to reach our goals quicker. Or because grants can inject additional resources to support the exploration of new ideas and buy projects time to secure more solid funding.

While these reasons are valid, what do we do if our work is in collaboration with communities that are not comfortable with the fast pace and short-term nature of grant timelines? Is it moral to engage with community partners exclusively on grant-funded initiatives?

Throughout my nine-year career in archives, I did not think about institutional budgets through a moral lens until the Black Lives Matter events of the summer of 2020. While talking with colleagues about the movement to defund the police, I learned more about how a morality framework has been used to critique too large federal defense and too small federal healthcare budgets. The concept has roots as a principle articulated by religious communities to policymakers. As Jim Wallis, a public theologian, states:

…any budget is a moral statement of priorities, whether it’s a budget created by an individual, a family, a school, a city, or a nation. It tells us, mathematically, what areas, issues, things, or people are most important to the creators of that budget, and which are least important.”

The question of who benefits from any budget line item is complex. For example, who does staff travel to an out-of-state historically marginalized rural community benefit? The institution, because the staff member is representing the university and building its network? The community, because their needs and expectations are centered? How often do we bend and stretch these discussions of “benefit” to support our own agendas? A more direct question might be: Who is receiving cash directly, institutions or communities?

The reality is that activities that promise longer-term returns, like grant-writing workshops or skill-building for future employment, are not guaranteed or reliable revenue streams for community collaborators. According to the Architecting Sustainable Futures report, in most community-institution collaborations, community organizations only received 3% of the project budget for their expertise and labor.

As we analyzed the spending breakdown of our own grant-funded community-driven archives project, 66% of our grant award went to UNC staff’s salaries and benefits, and the other 27% included direct payments to community members, but this percentage also includes other institutionally-directed spending.

Our grant team members live in and around Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a wealthy college town; we contribute to this expensive and often exclusionary and elitist academic community. We acknowledge that there are other communities and local economies that could use the support much more. Our team is inspired by alternatives to grant funding such as mutual aid, grassroots fundraising, and more opportunities to directly fund community needs.

Our grant project is one of many examples of this need for critical reflection about institutional resources, and our experiences spur us to devise ways to more directly resource our partners, to design grant projects with a bigger focus on equity, and to collaborate with our community partners in the development of frameworks to help us measure progress in these areas.

Many thanks to Bergis Jules and Nicole Kang Ferraiolo, whose writings on these issues within the worlds of grantmaking and cultural heritage practitioners helped to frame our team’s conversations.

Additional Reading

Burtman (2003, June 19), On the Road to a More Elitist Chapel Hill, Indyweek. https://indyweek.com/news/road-elitist-chapel-hill/

Caswell, Michelle, Christopher Harter, and Bergis Jules (2017). Diversifying the Digital Historical Record: Integrating Community Archives in National Strategies for Access to Digital Cultural Heritage (Forum 4). D-Lib Magazine, Volume 23, Number 5/6. http://www.dlib.org/dlib/may17/caswell/05caswell.html

Cultural Heritage and Social Change Summit (2016). Nothing About Us, Without Us (report). Shift Design. https://about.historypin.org/content/uploads/2017/12/HistoryPin_CHSC_takeaways_final.pdf

Ferraiolo, Nikole Kang (2019, February 21). More Equitable Partners in Grant Funding (blog post). CLIR (Council on Library and Information Resources). https://www.clir.org/2019/02/more-equitable-partnerships-in-grant-funding/

Ferraiolo, Nikole Kang (2019, March 12). Toward a more inclusive grant program (blog post). CLIR (Council on Library and Information Resources). https://www.clir.org/2019/03/toward-a-more-inclusive-grant-program/

Ferraiolo, Nikole Kang (2019, March 12). Still Listening (blog post). CLIR (Council on Library and Information Resources). https://www.clir.org/2019/04/still-listening/

Jules, Bergis (2018). Architecting Sustainable Futures: Exploring Funding Models in Community Based Archives (blog). Medium. https://medium.com/community-archives/architecting-sustainable-futures-exploring-funding-models-in-community-based-archives-da9a7a856cbe

Jules, Bergis (2019). Architecting Sustainable Futures: Exploring Funding Models in Community Based Archives (report). Shift Design. https://shiftdesign.org/content/uploads/2019/02/ArchitectingSustainableFutures-2019-report.pdf

Wallace, Jim (2017). Truth that Bears Repeating: A Budget is a Moral Document. Sojournershttps://sojo.net/articles/truth-bears-repeating-budget-moral-document

Reflecting on our Community-Driven Archives Project, 2017-2021

Beginning in 2017, the Community-Driven Archives (CDA) team with the University Libraries at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Southern Historical Collection developed approaches to working with historically underrepresented history keepers that center the needs and goals of our community collaborators.

Our approach has focused on building trust, developing relationships, and valuing process over product. Although some of our collaborators decided to donate their historical materials to the Wilson Special Collections Library, our Carolina libraries staff-led team coached our collaborators to make the decisions that they felt were the right fit for them and their archives. Our goal was to help our community partners make informed choices about how to best care for their collections, whether at home, through a local organization or community archive, or housed at an archival institution like ours.

After four years, our CDA team has concluded its work on this Andrew W. Mellon grant-funded initiative. As we come to the end of our journey together, our staff and graduate student research assistants took the time to reflect on and to be honest about the strengths of this work and the challenges and weaknesses of our project.

A Winning Team

a multiracial, majority Black group of four people seated at a table smiling and looking through documents
Members of the CDA team (Chaitra Powell, Charlie Rice, Alex Paz Cody, and Sonoe Nakasone) meet at the Wilson Special Collections Library, December 2019. Courtesy CDAT

First, all of us have loved being part of Carolina libraries’ Community-Driven Archives team! We emphasize that, because community-based projects are relational and determined in large part by the people doing the labor of connection and care, it really matters who is doing the work. Ours was a Black-led, multiracial, majority women and nonbinary people-staffed project team, including our staff and student workers. We learned so much together and each of us brought a unique perspective as well as personal and professional background. We emphasized clear, honest, and frequent communication, deep listening, and supporting one another in asking questions and growing as people and practitioners.

“I have learned what this type of work consists of. This is my first time ever working in a library and coming into this role, I did not know all of the different type of things that went on in the library. I was so thankful to be included on the team…so that I can continue to learn and grow professionally in this field. I am thankful for everyone on the team for being open and inclusive and I will never forget this experience. I love being a part of something, especially when it involves pouring into a community that once poured into me.”
– Charlissa “Charlie” Rice

“I’m most proud of the project’s evolution over the course of the grant. Every graduate student, staff member, and community added a critical element and we grew together. The project transformed from its original conception and became something more real, more transparent, and more inviting, which makes me feel like we have a better chance of achieving some sustainable practices.”
-Chaitra Powell

“This is one we don’t really talk about: I am incredibly proud of how diverse our CDAT staff team is/has been. I think we “walk the walk” in that regard. I also reflect a lot on the labor issues we’ve discussed, in terms of how much this work relied on graduate students and term-limited employees.”
-Biff Hollingsworth

Community Collaboration

A majority Black group of women and femme-presenting people around a table working on labtops and looking at museum artifacts
CDA team members Kimber Heinz and Sonoe Nakasone with volunteers with the Hobson City Museum for the Study of African American History and Culture in Hobson City, Alabama. Courtesy CDAT

Doing community-based work from within an archival institution is hard. Institutions are complex systems employing people to sustain them, and they have their own goals, objectives, and measurements of success. Sometimes those align with the goals that communities have for themselves, and sometimes they do not.

Additionally, archival institutions, including UNC-Chapel Hill’s Wilson Special Collection Library, are well-oiled machines; they rely on systems developed over the course of decades or, in the case of the Southern Historical Collection, centuries. Our team has realized that, because of its highly relational nature, community-driven work requires institutional practitioners to spend extra or unplanned amounts of time with a collaborator working through an issue. It often requires that archives professionals to be nimble in a way that our current work structures and systems don’t readily support.

A big question that continues to arise is one around the morality and ethics of grant-funded institutional community archives projects. Do marginalized communities truly benefit when grant funds support staff salaries rather than directly resourcing community-led archival projects? We continue to wrestle with this question, asking ourselves, “What role can institutional archives play in supporting a community’s control over its stories and historical records?”

Despite these challenges, obstacles, and cautions, we feel proud of the work that we accomplished and the ways that our collaborators have been able to build their archives, share their research, and grow their projects and organizations with some added resources and support.

“The EKAAMP exhibition and related gatherings and charrettes felt extremely powerful and like they had a measurable positive impact on the community partners. I’m proud of all the fieldwork we did in the mountains with the [Appalachian Student Health] Coalition; our involvement in the Black Communities Conference; how we supported the recording of oral histories for SAAACAM; History Harvests and in-person workshops; and [Archival] Seedlings!”
-Biff Hollingsworth

“I do think in the future, even if it’s not a grant collaboration (but especially if it is), everyone needs to be at the table ahead of time to design the project together before even deciding to do a project…In the future, I think it is OK to start small. Everything doesn’t need to be a big roll out or comprehensive coverage. I think it could be powerful to just focus on certain types of things or even starting close to home in the Triangle.”
-Sonoe Nakasone

Accessibility

A black and white image of a school overlaid with the name, "Dunbar High School"
A still image from community collaborator Whitney Peckman’s documentary collaboration with the Town of East Spencer, NC. The CDA team, together with Peckman, ensured that her video was closed captioned to make it accessible. Courtesy Whitney Peckman

One key thing we learned while developing our project is that our work gets stronger the more accessible it is. Accessibility helps everyone, whether it is someone using a screen reader, listening to a video with captions, or simply navigating a website for the first time.

If we want our tools, resources, and programs to reach broad public audiences, we learned that meaningful accessibility is not optional or a last-minute addition; it is baked into the way we do our work. We see access along with anti-racism and other forms of social justice frameworks as integral to community-driven archives.

In 2020, we focused mostly on digital accessibility, from creating alt text for images, to creating audio transcripts, to simplifying our sentences and removing jargon. We are excited to imagine how our approach to access can support the ongoing accessibility work of the University Libraries at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“I feel proud of striving and working hard to make each piece we created or curated accessible and open for everyone.”
-Lidia Morris

“I learned so much through this work about access and how it is a healing, liberatory act both to ensure access for others and to experience access individually.”
-Kimber Heinz

Defining Archives

Three people seated behind a table who are part of a panel presentation. Chaitra Powell, who is holding the mic, looks at Biff Hollingsworth and Claire Du Laney. All are smiling. Behind them projected on a large screen are their names and email addresses.
CDA team members Chaitra Powell, Biff Hollingsworth, and Claire Du Laney present at the NC Preservation Consortium conference, 2018. Courtesy CDAT

One of the core values of our project has been to demystify archives. Many people don’t know the definition of an archive or its purpose. Part of what we are here to do is to connect everyday history keepers within families, organizations, businesses, and communities of all kinds to resources to help them build or refine their archive, item by item. We hope for our collaborators to see their own materials as archives or archives-in-the-making.

Another piece of the work of demystifying archives is defining the role of institutional archives like ours at Carolina libraries in relationship to communities outside of the institution. We know that we want to advance and amplify the work of historically underrepresented communities, but we have questions about how to best do that without extracting from communities or leveraging our partnerships to attain resources, acclaim, or unearned praise.

“I have learned how to define archives in a way that doesn’t see it as a closed circuit, but an open world ready for input from people who have too often been archived and forgotten. I have come to learn that any archive would be richer, kinder, and more powerful with the people it seeks to define involved in it in any way possible.”
-Lidia Morris

“I’m really thinking about the definition of CDA, and what it means to each of us. To me, it is fully situated in our institutional context. Which communities have been silenced by the Southern Historical Collection? How might we start re-aligning priorities and resources to be more inclusive of those communities?”
-Chaitra Powell

“I have learned so much about how institutional and community archives function through my involvement in CDA. Learning about institutions through the lens of community-driven archives has taught me that just because something has always been done a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s the right way AND it’s trained me to look for the people, experiences, and events, that are underrepresented or rendered invisible by predominantly white institutions.”
-Alex Pax Cody

Storytelling

Bernetiae leans over a group of seated African American women to assist them during a training
CDA team member Bernetiae Reed leads an oral history training in San Antonio, TX, November 2017. Courtesy CDAT

Beyond preserving and caring for historical materials, our project has emphasized and supported capacity-building around interpreting these materials and sharing stories. For many of our collaborators, the stories held within their archival collections haven’t been told anywhere else. After building their collection, many of the people we worked with also felt moved to share the stories contained within it with public audiences.

Our team supported our collaborators in creating exhibitions, audio pieces, documentary videos, interactive maps, and public programs as pathways to storytelling.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned is history from our different partners. I’m not a historian or a Southerner, so working with these folks has been so enriching in understanding American history. It’s a privilege, too, because even though their histories are part of some popular threads (e.g., The Great Migration, historically Black towns), the specificity of these communities’ histories has been unknown to a lot of people outside the community.”
-Sonoe Nakasone

“Through our work with our collaborators, I learned so much about local histories that I would not have heard about otherwise, including some in my own backyard in North Carolina. I feel honored to be connected to the people steadfastly stewarding these stories for future generations.”
-Kimber Heinz

While our grant project is officially over, our relationships with our collaborators and the lessons we learned along the way remain. Check out our new Community-Driven Archives project website to explore more of our work and reflections on archival institutional support for community-based archives.

The Community-Driven Archives Project at UNC-Chapel Hill is supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Follow us on Twitter: @SoHistColl_1930 #CommunityDrivenArchives #CDAT #SHC

Working with the Oral Histories Present in the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project Collection: “Always Be My Home” StoryMap

Oral histories provide us with a direct window to the past – interviews with people that provide not only historical context and information, but also personal details and stories. They show how history is not just a series of events, but the real lived experience of everyday people. Oral histories can be revelatory, sad, empowering, and even just plain funny. Giving people free reign to talk about their lives gives us the chance to examine the details – the facts that often get left behind. What I wanted to do was provide  a method for visualizing a few of the stories that were told in the oral histories that the Community-Driven Archives team of the University Libraries at UNC-Chapel Hill had the privilege of archiving throughout our time working with the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project (EKAAMP).

Throughout my time working with the EKAAMP oral history collection, I reviewed transcripts and read through the words of Black former coal mining communities from eastern Kentucky that Dr. Karida Brown collected in collaboration with EKAAMP members. I was consistently drawn to the stories of the women. Their experiences – their drive throughout the Second Great Migration and beyond; their stories of working, having fun, falling in love – reading about the lives of these women really was breathtaking. Their lives, even down to the most mundane moments, were so rich and full of warmth. I wanted to find a way to show their experiences in historical context, to show just how far so many of these women went in their lives during a time where so many things were stacked against them. That’s how I decided to start the “Always Will Be My Home” StoryMap project.

Selecting Stories

To start this project, I selected several stories from the oral history collection. I started by narrowing down the stories just to the women in the collection. Then, after a primary review of these interview transcripts, I pulled out the transcripts of the women who had moved away from the Kentucky area at some point in their lives, whether on their own or with their families.

Since I had chosen the Second Great Migration period as the timeframe for my project – a time period following the second World War in which many African American families moved from the American South to the Northeast, Midwest, and West – I was able to further narrow down the list of women to those who had made that journey. I had a pretty short list by this time, and I selected four amazing women whose stories ranged across many experiences – moving with their family for work, moving on their own but returning to Kentucky frequently throughout their lives, reuniting with community and family who had already moved, and more.

However, after selecting these stories, I felt I had limited the field. I wanted to show that Black women during these times led rich lives, but not all rich lives had to be contextualized by a move away from the South or by Southern culture and Black Southern experiences. Ultimately, I chose to add the story of a woman who moved to St. Louis, Missouri with her husband during the industrialization period.

Of course, I still feel sad that I couldn’t include the experiences of so many other women in the collection. But the purpose of this project was to highlight a few women’s stories and show the visual storytelling possibilities that oral history collections can provide.

Using StoryMaps

I had heard of and learned how to use ArcGIS’s mapping software before, but it didn’t provide me with a way to portray the stories and visuals that I wanted to add to the oral histories I had selected. Thankfully, Kimber Thomas, Postdoctoral Fellow at the University Libraries, showed me how a tool created by ArcGIS, StoryMaps, could be used to create a flowing story post using maps that could be created quickly and easily to illustrate the journeys of the selected oral history narrators.

A map of the U.S. Northeast and part of the South reading, "Viola Brown's Journey," featuring map points in southern Virginia, eastern Kentucky, New York City, New York, and Cleveland, Ohio, with lines drawn between them to indicate movement. The point over Cleveland features a small, blurred graphic
StoryMap featuring EKAAMP oral history narrator Viola Brown’s life journey during the Second Great Migration era. Courtesy Lidia Morris

Entries can be created like the one featured above, to allow for a map to be seen alongside selected text. When a reader clicks into the map, each point in the map can have images, text, and links added in to give geographical, historical, and personal information based on each location.

Creating these maps is fairly intuitive – the tool gives you a short tutorial, and everything can be customized – from the color of the lines and pins, to the type of map itself. And StoryMaps even provides examples of other stories that have been created using the tool to give you ideas. Videos, text posts, slideshows, and images or other visualizations can also be embedded throughout the story. Of course, more detailed or complicated map visualizations created in ArcGIS can also be embedded and are even more interactive or illustrative. But the ease of using the simpler maps for this project suited me and my needs well!

Research

Part of the experience of working on this project was research – I wanted to add historical context to many of the stories I was gathering. My sources ranged from other historical collections in libraries and universities, as well as books written about the Second Great Migration and Black communities in the United States. So many of the oral history subjects had their lives coincide with major social movements and events. Hearing about how people lived their lives during these huge events, lived them like it was just any other day, helps to contextualize life today. It’s hard to recognize in the moment, when you’re a young person going through daily life, that what you’re living through is going to change the course of history.

For example, one of the subjects, Yvonne McCaskill, marched with civil rights activist Father James Groppi, who worked to desegregate schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For her, this was just an action she took as a young girl. She understood the importance of the event at the time because it was important to her and to her community – this was an event she had to join for her rights, not one she believed would become historically important. The urgency of this event in the moment was extremely personal. Seeing the personal side of history is just one of the things that working with oral history can really show people.

Reflection

Though my project changed many times and went through many iterations throughout the past year, I was ultimately able to do what I set out to do – to help people see and learn about the larger context of a few of the amazing stories available in the EKAAMP oral history collection. These story maps, together, create a narrative that underscores the connection of history and humanity. They are just one way to explore how oral histories can be used to guide people through the lives of others. Oral histories don’t just share context, but also perspective, joy, and depth.

Community Archives as Data: Reflections on Oral History Text Analysis within the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project Archive

Between September 2020 and January 2021, I worked on an EBSCO-funded internship administered through the Association of Research Libraries focused on a Python text analysis project on oral history interview transcripts. I worked with the Community-Driven Archives team, which partnered with communities across the American South to amplify histories that have been silenced or marginalized in traditional archives. The purpose of this project was to explore the possibility of using computational methods on oral history data. I was interested in exploring how computational methods can build upon digitization, in which historical records are searchable on the web, to make community archives more accessible to their respective communities.

My project focused on oral histories created by the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project (EKAAMP), a public history and community archival project centered on the stories of Black former coal mining families in Eastern Kentucky. The Community-Driven Archives team collaborated with EKAAMP to support the creation of its collection, some of which is housed in the Southern Historical Collection at University Libraries at UNC-Chapel Hill, along with a series of traveling exhibitions. EKAAMP honors the place of Black Americans in Appalachia.

Learning Text Analysis in Python

Python is a powerful programming language. Aside from its extensive use in software and web development, Python is also widely used in computing and applying computational methods to humanities and social sciences data because of its powerful data modeling libraries and natural language processing algorithms. One such application is text analysis, where a body of textual data is processed and analyzed. When done well, text analysis can reveal patterns in topics and sentiments in large quantities of textual data.

I started this project being very new to the world of text analysis and to Python as a programming language. I used a variety of resources in my self-directed and explorative learning process, both on Python and on text analysis methodologies. Here are some of the resources that guided my project and helped me respond to challenges along the way:

I found the following text analysis projects and papers informative and relevant to this project:

I learned that most resources and available projects utilizing text analysis deal with bodies of text that are different than oral histories, both in content and structure. For instance, the conversational format of the interview transcripts meant that the more common text analysis techniques that are used on other kinds of texts will not yield meaningful results. Based on what I learned in my research, I explored two main text analysis methods, including Term Frequency-Inverse Document Frequency (TF-IDF) and Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA), to categorize main topics discussed in the interviews.

My preliminary results yielded by the LDA methods aligned with the main topics covered in EKAAMP and Dr. Karida Brown’s research related to these histories. Some of the main topics that emerged in the text analysis results were: family reunions, school integration, and mining accidents.

Archives as Data: Computational Methods for Community Archives

In support of the larger work of the Community-Driven Archives project, I wanted to explore the research value of archival collections, such as oral history transcripts, as data that can be analyzed and visualized through computational methods. My goal was to gain deeper insight into these histories through text analysis, an automated process for gaining insight into a large collection of oral history interviews by mapping common topics and visualizing patterns in conversations. Such computational techniques would then be used to extract a variety of data about the collection as a whole and about individual interviews. This would support community researchers’ discovery and identification of these histories.

This model can then be built upon and implemented in the future for metadata generation for collections with similar size and scope. High quality metadata that provides descriptive information about an oral history collection not only facilitates better discovery and identification, but also creates exciting possibilities for presenting and analyzing the research data, such as data visualization of migration paths among Black former coal mining families represented in EKAAMP oral histories.

Perhaps this project can serve as an example of using computational tools and techniques for unlocking data and gaining insight into large oral history collections. Community leaders in charge of similar public history projects can use such tools to reimagine discovery, management, and description of their oral history archives.

I am in the final phases of developing a website to open source my code for the public to use and build upon. The website will include a brief collection description, as well as a brief discussion of challenges and snippets of Python code to run on an internet browser.

Data analysis methods and techniques can transform large quantities of non-machine-readable content, such as oral histories, into machine readable content. This transformation would enable community leaders to enhance their archives by creating robust research data sets for computational research. The new data would then allow community researchers to present, visualize, and analyze oral histories in new and dynamic ways.

The Negro Motorist Green Book and Community Memory Keepers

Cover of the "Negro Motorist Green Book: An International Travel Guide, 1950 Edition," featuring a person standing in front of a map background holding maps and pamphlets
Cover of The Negro Motorist Green Book in 1950, the first edition to list the DeLuxe Barber Shop in Durham, North Carolina. The Green Book included listings located in 43 towns/cities across 34 counties in North Carolina from 1936-1966. Image from The Green Book Collection, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library Digital Collections

I grew up in North Carolina. While I recall eighth grade social studies classes focused on North Carolina history, I do not have many memories of learning about the numerous African American communities across the state until graduate school. Currently, I am writing a dissertation on North Carolina listings in The Negro Motorist Green Book (Green Book), a booklet published from 1936-1966 to assist African American travelers in avoiding encounters of racial discrimination. My research is not about the experience of African American travel. Rather, my work focuses on the people who assisted travelers seeking goods, services, and information. Who were the people who guided Green Book travelers through North Carolina?

A page from the Green Book listing the names of places and businesses, with a red box highlighting the listing for DeLuxe Barbershop
Listing for DeLux [sic] Barbershop in the 1950 edition of The Negro Motorist Green Book. Image from The Green Book Collection, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library Digital Collections
The Green Book listed the DeLuxe Barbershop in Durham, NC, from 1950-1952. The barbershop was established in 1946 and first appeared in Durham city directories in 1947, located at 617 Fayetteville Street in Durham’s historic African American Hayti community. Sterlin M. Holt, Sr. and Lewis H. Wade were listed in the city directories as co-owners until 1952. Afterwards, Holt was listed as the sole proprietor. (1) The shop’s address also changed in 1952 from 617 Fayetteville to 511 Fayetteville Street and remained at this address until 1970, when the shop moved to its current location at 1220 Fayetteville Street. (2)

Black and white photograph of a small white building resembling a house along a tree-lined street with a sidewalk and cars parked along the side. A handwritten note, "Before Relocation" is in the lower right hand corner
Building located at 511 Fayetteville Street. The DeLuxe Barbershop was listed at this address from 1952-1970 in Durham city directories along with Orchid Beauty Shop. The name “DeLuxe Barber Shop” is on the right window. Image from the Durham Urban Renewal Records, Durham County Library, accessed from Digital NC

Fayetteville Street was home to the main commercial and cultural strip in Hayti. DeLuxe Barbershop, along with many of Hayti’s important places, relocated due to the City of Durham’s Urban Renewal program. Many others were lost completely. In Hayti, urban renewal destroyed more than one hundred Black businesses.

While general information about the DeLuxe Barbershop and other Green Book locations is available within libraries and archival collections, these records do not always reveal a business’s or the owner’s role within the larger community. Working directly with local residents and family descendants connected to Green Book proprietors helps to fill the gap. I had the opportunity to conduct an interview with Derrick Green, the current owner of the DeLuxe Barbershop and a close connection to Sterlin Holt, for my Archival Seedlings project. The recorded conversation not only puts into context the DeLuxe Barbershop’s role within the Hayti community, but it also illustrates the importance of community memory keepers passing down the stories of earlier generations and keeping local history in the forefront of public awareness.

Black masculine-presenting person wearing sunglasses in front of a building with a sign reading, "1220 Fayetteville St. Student, Senior Specials, DeLuxe Barbershop." White bars cover the window and door.
Current DeLuxe Barbershop Owner, Derrick Green, in front of the building at 1220 Fayetteville Street in Durham, North Carolina. Image taken by Lisa R. Withers

Derrick Green met Sterlin Holt through Holt’s son in Mebane, North Carolina. After realizing a close family connection, Holt invited Green to work at the barber shop in Durham. In the interview, Green describes the relationship he had with Holt, who became his mentor. Green fondly recalls Holt as someone who was willing to help out a young person, sharing lessons as a barber on what it meant to be a public servant, and who would talk to you like a peer. Holt reminisced with Green, sharing memories of the Great Depression and the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. According to Green, the way Holt talked about the past felt as if history came in through the front door.

Cover of Sterlin M. Holt, Sr.'s "Homegoing Celebration" program, featuring a photo of him. It notes his "Sunrise" in 1919 and his "Sunset" in 2016. The data of the memorial service is noted as October 24, 2016.
Sterlin M. Holt, Sr.’s obituary. Holt was the original owner of DeLuxe Barbershop. Derrick Green keeps Holt’s image on the shop’s Wall of History. Image taken by Derrick Green

In addition to Holt’s lessons on being a barber, Green keeps the stories about Mr. Holt and the DeLuxe Barbershop’s history alive. Green shared how the barber shop received its name during the interview. The African American community in Durham had a national reputation, and many well-known individuals came through the area on their travels. According to Green, Sterlin Holt provided haircuts to famous individuals, from singer James Brown and civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. to John Hope Franklin, a prominent African American historian. Early on, Holt determined that if he was going to provide a deluxe service to his customers, then the shop should be named DeLuxe Barbershop. Green emphasized that Holt also dressed the part of someone providing a deluxe service by coming to work every day in a suit and tie.

Derrick Green described the DeLuxe Barber Shop’s role within the community as “a Black man’s country club.” (3) As Green shared, one could find almost anything one needed at the barber shop simply due to the fact that everyone, from the lawyer to the police officer to the local store clerk, came through the shop. Additionally, Green, sharing community memories of Mr. Holt’s interactions with Durham’s youth, referred to the DeLuxe Barbershop as a place for children as well as adults. World Nursery School, located in the barbershop’s basement, was operated by Mr. Holt’s wife, Josie Holt, along with Mrs. Virginia Alston, Green’s grandmother. In this way, the DeLuxe Barber Shop was a community space for everyone, adult or child, resident or visitor.

Much of the current narrative about the Green Book revolves around the publication and first-hand accounts of African American travel during the Jim Crow era. My project with the Archival Seedlings program and my dissertation research examine the publication’s North Carolina listings to reframe the Green Book and Black travel within the social dynamics of local communities, an approach that would not be possible without working with family descendants of Green Book proprietors and community memory keepers. Derrick Green’s interview is one of several from my research that shifts the narrative about the Green Book from a travel guide to a publication highlighting social networks, community hubs, and prominent changemakers in African American communities across North Carolina.

Visit Community Knowledge in North Carolina: The Negro Motorist Green Book in the Old North State to hear the full interview with Derrick Green and to view images associated with the DeLuxe Barbershop.

(1) The 1951 Durham City Directory is the last edition to list both Holt and Lewis as co-owners of the barbershop. Holt is first listed as the sole owner in 1950 then again in 1952 and in subsequent years; DeLuxe Barbershop Founding Plaque (image), Community Knowledge in North Carolina: The Negro Motorist Green Book in the Old North State, communityknowledgenc.org, accessed December 1, 2020; 1947 Durham City Directory, p. 130 (alphabetical listing); 1948 Durham City Directory, p. 146 (alphabetical listing); 1949 Durham City Directory, p. 137 (alphabetical listing); 950 Durham City Directory, p. 121 (alphabetical listing); 1951 Durham City Directory, p. 124 (alphabetical listing); 1952 Durham City Directory, p. 124 (alphabetical listing). 

(2) 1952 Durham City Directory, p. 124 (alphabetical listing); “Advertisement/Notice,” The Carolina Times, January 31, 1953, p. 8, North Carolina Newspapers/DigitalNC, digitalnc.org, accessed September 25, 2019; 1955 Durham City Directory, p. 159 (alphabetical listing); 1956 Durham City Directory, p. 154 (alphabetical listing); 1958 Durham City Directory, p. 165 (alphabetical listing); 1959 Durham City Directory, p. 161 (alphabetical listing); 1960 Durham City  Directory, p. 170 (alphabetical listing); 1961 Durham City Directory, p. 177 (alphabetical listing); 1962 Durham City Directory, p. 180 (alphabetical listing); 1963 Durham City Directory, p. 177 (alphabetical listing);  “Christmas  Advertisement,” The Carolina Times, December 25, 1965, P. 5B (Image 15), North Carolina Newspapers/DigitalNC, digitalnc.org, accessed September 25, 2019; “Announcement: Herbin & Miss Long,” The Carolina Times, September 19, 1970, P. 10A (Image 10), North Carolina Newspapers/DigitalNC, digitalnc.org, accessed September 25, 2019.

(3) Derrick Green, interview with Lisa R. Withers, November 18, 2020, communityknowledgenc.org, accessed December 1, 2020.

Lisa R. Withers was a participant in UNC Libraries’ 2020-21 Archival Seedlings program. For more about Archival Seedlings on the Southern Sources blog:

Archival Seedlings: Resourcing Local Collaborators Across the American South

Archival Seedlings: Putting Our Values into Practice, the 2020 Edition

The Community-Driven Archives Project at UNC-Chapel Hill is supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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