Oral History Part 1: Procrastinate and lose memories!

One of the key components to our Community-Driven Archives project is oral history collection. Broadly speaking, this means collection methods, tools, and training. Oral histories are used to preserve memories and act as personal narratives showing both struggle and success as part of the historical record. Our “Archivist in a Backpack” kits contain the items necessary for accomplishing this goal. However, the most important factors in successful oral history capture are a communicative interviewee and an engaged interviewer. 

CDA Project Documentarian and Oral Historian, B. Bernetiae Reed, offers some thoughts on gathering oral histories.

Don’t wait! Ask your questions now. If you procrastinate that opportunity can pass by and that story, that connection, or that moment be gone forever! Pull out your recorder during special moments. Seek that person with things you want to know or that person with memories you want to capture. Your actions allow these words to be heard by future audiences! The audio and video files can be kept as family mementos or be placed in archival collections, adding to the body of knowledge or possibly utilized in an exhibit.

Although oral history interviews typically refer to full life stories, often a partial record is obtained with a topical focus in mind, i.e. a historical event or a geographic location. Let curiosity and active listening guide you. What is important to you now? What could be important to others in the future?

Ronney Stevens from SAAACAM in San Antonio TX shares a memory of going to the Carver Library as a child.

We are fortunate to have everyday audio and video recording tools on our cell phones. These weren’t available a few decades ago. So go for it! Know that no two oral histories are the same and there is no need to let perfection be the enemy to capturing something. The questions you ask and the relationship you have to the interviewee are unique and will help create a one-of-a-kind piece of history.

Start with those family stories that you have grown up hearing, approach acquaintances with knowledge you have always wanted to know, connect with community members who have recollections that need to be preserved, and then go on from there.

As a budding oral historian, just get started!

We post every week on different topics but if there is something you’d like to see, let us know either in the comments or email Claire our Community Outreach Coordinator: clairela@live.unc.edu. Please check the CDA website for ­­more resources and guides.

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What’s with all the Backpacks?

If you’ve seen any publicity about the Community-Driven Archives grant, you’ve probably seen references to “the Backpacks.” One of the central initiatives for the CDA Team is transportable archiving kit that demystifies the technical jargon and supplies resources for communities. This has manifest as the “Archivist in a Backpack” and the slightly less catchy but equally important “Archivist in a Roller bag.” These are a simplified archive in an easily portable kit that we bring and mail to communities doing archival and cultural heritage projects. In April of this year, the online forum HyperAllergic published an article about our “Archivist in a Backpack” project. Since then, we have had an enormously positive response from people all over the world and I think the speed and reach of the backpacks has surprised us all. We’ve received numerous inquiries about the backpacks and our grant project in general. This might seem like a basic administrative detail, but when you consider that each inquiry has the potential to become a new resource and an introduction to dozens of new colleagues, it is no small feat in networking. While most of my conversations have been with people in the US, we’ve had interest all over the globe. From a member of a Canadian first Nation, to a library in New South Wales, an Archivist in the UK doing her own community work with immigrant Somalian communities and a theatre professional in Germany, something about the Backpack project has struck a chord. A version of the backpack has been used in Mexico with Yucatán Mayan students with materials being translated into Spanish and Yucatec Mayan. For more information about this project check out this National Geographic article!

 Sounds great, but why all the hoopla? Backpacks aren’t exactly cutting edge. I think it is the mix of the un-apologetically bright colors of the kits (though we do offer some more muted tones) and the awe that digging into a family or community’s past almost always elicits. But there are other components to the backpacks, not always mentioned in the emails. Social justice, commemoration, and community healing often feel like implicit threads of the conversations and the projects new colleagues talk about.

The backpacks look unimposing, but I think they represent something quite profound. The backpacks invite people to tell their histories so that the information can be put towards a larger purpose. The backpacks aren’t just about a walk down memory lane (as important as that is) but many of the people with whom I’m in contact have a mission that the archival resources are to be used in forwarding. Whether it’s about connecting generations in learning about the many iterations of civil rights, housing and preventing gentrification and displacement, or combating rampant minority stereotyping and erasure practices, the backpacks are an accessible way for communities to take control.  The initial emails show that many projects are just getting off the ground or are still in the early planning stages. It will be interesting to see what the results are for everyone, especially since we at CDA are right there with them. It’s a “figure-out-as-you-go”, one foot in front of the other kind of process, collaborating between institutions, communities, and newly-found colleagues. At least we can all have coordinating backpacks.

We post every week on different topics but if there is something you’d like to see, let us know either in the comments or email Claire our Community Outreach Coordinator: clairela@live.unc.edu.

Follow us on Twitter @SoHistColl_1930
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#EKAAMP #HBTSA #ASHC #SAAACAM
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Charrette and Street Team Stories

In the last post, we talked about the format of the charrette and some examples of how questions were answered. This post dives more deeply into the personal and community stories that were gathered at the charrette and the “Street Team” table we had earlier that morning. The Street Team mapped stories that visitors wrote down and many of them were continued in the charrette.

Our Street Team table at BlackCom2018 at the Carolina Theatre, Durham NC.

The questions were broad but flexible in that people could answer in generalizations or with very specific examples. Some people took the prompts literally and named places like Eastside Oklahoma City, Rentiesville, Portland, and Detroit as their examples of communities. Others understood the concept of community in a more abstract way, citing “Hip Hop” and “Black artists.” Both interpretations speak to the CDAT’s use of community, both tangible and non concrete.

Some of the stories were just snippets, like the one from St. Helena’s Island. The participant wrote that they were invested in the history of “grandmother midwives, healing traditions of the Sea Island for post-natal care.” This participant added in the “What does this Community need to better tell its story?” section that space was needed for preservation but also components like opportunities for researchers as well as public health advocacy and its history were needed.

One participant focused on how the historic practices of systematic racism continue to harm residents of Battery Drive (now Heights) Raleigh, NC. This participant wrote that the community needs “sustainable and accessible resources to keep long-time residents (older), and generational homes in the family and protect against predatory practices to sell (tax relief and assistance for elderly, assistance for home improvement and maintenance) – you can’t have an oral history if the people are kicked out.” They also remarked on the need for equitable landmark preservation designations. This first point, about the housing practices and maintaining generational homes related to a BlackCom panel “Financial Resources for the Underserved & Underbanked.” Panelists spoke about the problems that arise from communities lacking financial and property legacies, answering questions like “Q: what other barriers exist in the black community for the transfer of wealth? A: redlining, lack of financial legacy, institutional barriers to homeownership, equitable protection for families.”

One of my personal favorites from the Street Team table was a response about the Greentown community in Georgetown, South Carolina. When asked what this community needs, the response was:

My mother, Dorothy Alston was the first African American Nurse in my hometown. She worked at Georgetown Memorial Hospital in Georgetown, South Carolina. Oftentimes, in our community, people would come knock on our door in the middle of the night for medical care. The reason being that my mother would serve as the medical provider/ nurse/ doctor. Back then many people didn’t go to the doctor because they just couldn’t afford it.

The Street Team and charrette data made it very clear that there are no quick fixes for communities. There are concrete needs: space, funding, outreach. But there are intangibles also: visibility, trust building, reconciliation, and acknowledging the legacies of oppression and a history of being taken advantage of by those in positions of power. There are needs beyond historic preservation and the interwoven nature of policy, public health, and financial education need to be better studied. Positionality matters and the historic record has not accurately represented those in marginalized spaces. One or two charrettes or community mapping projects can’t fix that. But informed action can shift the paradigm.

We post every week on different topics but if there is something you’d like to see, let us know either in the comments or email Claire our Community Outreach Coordinator: clairela@live.unc.edu.

Follow us on Twitter @SoHistColl_1930
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What is a Charrette?

A charrette is a focus group that brings together a wide variety of stakeholders in order to map solutions. Originally used in the Public Health field, our CDA Team and others have borrowed the term for community and cultural heritage work. Our charrettes bring individuals together to collaborate and workshop ideas for a common community vision. We focus on topics such as promoting and protecting cultural heritage, telling underrepresented histories, and discovering archival assets in communities. For our CDA team, we collaborate with a diverse group of stakeholders and individuals such as funders, librarians, community members, professors and academics, town officials, activists, artists, and archivists. These diverse participants ensure that the charrette isn’t an echo-chamber. Rather, members share a desire to invest in and protect a community but from different angles and perspectives.

A good charrette invites community expertise and specific knowledge of the historical and cultural dynamic; members within the community know the needs far better than we ever could. A common and often deadly shortcoming of any institutional project is to assume the institution knows what’s best for the community. Equally devastating is when an institution has a real desire to participate but struggles to have meaningful, sustained engagement. Both examples lead to institutions flailing in a sea of uncertainty and ineffectiveness. Charrettes are one way to counter these outcomes. It can be eye opening and humbling to have community members speak to historic problems and instances of broken trust face to face. For the charrette hosted by CDA in April at Black Communities: A Conference for Collaboration we asked individuals to share their knowledge of an African American community, its needs, and some hidden history highlights.

Our charrette was an informal lunchtime meeting. We provided a worksheet (with consent form to use the data collected included!) with a few questions, each probing a little more deeply into the needs and histories of communities. These questions asked participants to identify a place and describe how history is either being preserved or ignored. Our focus was (and remains) geared towards archival and cultural heritage so our questions related to storytelling and preservation of histories and materials. Our first question asked participants to identify a place and a little-known history from that area. Some of the towns and communities identified were Starkville, MS, Riceville, TX, Shreveport, LA, Halifax County, NC, Chicago, IL, and Winston-Salem, NC. Some participants told their family’s history while others focused on broader groups such as the Indigenous peoples and industries.

The second question was “What does this community need to better tell its story?” One participant from Halifax County, NC wrote: “support with National Park Service applications, (land owner contacts and research) oral history interview compilation and other related supports.” Another participant interested in Riceville, TX noted that their community need “oral history work” and a project to address that was underway.

The third question asked specifically “How is African American history preserved and shared in this community?” A participant from Shreveport, LA wrote “Southern U archives, (opening soon) North Louisiana Civil Rights Museum and NORLA Preservation Project (restoring shotgun houses).” Another participant from Chicago IL stated “History is preserved through oral conversations, research and personal narratives. We celebrate the lives of our ancestors through continual community building and grass roots organizing.” The emphasis on in-person communication is something that a charrette works hard to emulate and build upon.

Our final question asked to identify next steps. Preservation is important, but it must lead to something. We wanted to know how the ideas from this charrette could inform not only our work but work within the community. Charrettes can be all day affairs or an hour, like ours at Black Communities. Charrettes are connective, collaborative, exploratory and possibly explosive. All these attributes indicate that these types of in-person focus groups are necessary to identify need and ultimately movement.  As one participant perfectly summed up, “information has to drive advocacy.”   

 We post every week on different topics but if there is something you’d like to see, let us know either in the comments or email Claire our Community Outreach Coordinator: clairela@live.unc.edu. 

Follow us on Twitter    #AiaB #yourstory #ourhistory #communityarchives #EKAAMP #HBTSA #SHC #SAAACAM #memory #community #CDAT #Charrette #activism

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What is a Community?

Here at CDA, our team speaks about communities a lot, working to imagine and redefine what that word implies. But what exactly do we mean when we say a Community? That question seems straightforward but there is a great deal of ambiguity in this term. When we at CDA talk about communities, we aren’t just talking about towns that exist right here, right now with a neatly registered zip code. Communities can be towns, cities, parishes, neighborhoods or enclaves, rural and urban, but they can also be identities, small groups, diasporas, and informally established. Some are “post-place” but still united by a common identity. In other words, there was a historic place, but now it’s a group of dispersed people.

This complex relationship between physical space and abstract meaning produces important discussions about identity, motivating community partners and community champions to combat what scholars like Michelle Caswell have called “symbolic annihilation.”[1] Communities that had been historically, and continually, marginalized, erased, and ignored are finding ways to increase their visibility through community-archival and cultural heritage work. This increased visibility showcases the three parts of what Caswell et al calls “representational belonging.” These three parts, we were here, I am here, we belong here, affirms the importance of a community’s existence.[2] Gaps in the narrative of underrepresented communities affect histories and have consequences for contemporary identities. By refocusing the narrative, communities control their own modes of representation as opposed to tokenism by traditional power structures.

Here are a few examples of why representational belonging is so important.  Shankleville is an un-incorporated community in Newton County, Texas. This was a “freedom colony” founded by Jim and Winnie Shankle in the postbellum period. What does it mean for the contemporary community that lives in and studies Shankleville that there are so many gaps in the narrative about the lives of Jim and Winnie? Another community example is found in Portland, Oregon. One community member talked about the invisibility of the Black community there, especially when paired with notions of gentrification and infrastructure expansions, like a light-rail that displaced large swaths of the African American community. Local organizations, like the Vanport Mosaic, use art and other media to amplify forgotten histories, but what do the historic erasure practices mean for those living in the Pacific Northwest? A final example is the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project which examines the now diasporic community previously located in Lynch, KY. As jobs in the coal mining industry dried up in the mid-20th century, families relocated physically, but they remain deeply connected to Harlan County and each other. What does it mean for miners, children and grandchildren of miners to be so far apart across the country, but to return yearly for reunions? All these communities are striving for representational belonging, internal and external confirmation that their stories matter.

This is one of our grant project data visualization maps, showing the locations of just some historic black towns and communities. There are plenty of places and communities that remain hidden and part of our work is to present as full and as rich a representation as we can based on the materials presented by communities.

We post every week on different topics but if there is something you’d like to see, let us know either in the comments or email Claire our Community Outreach Coordinator: clairela@live.unc.edu. 

Follow us on Twitter    #AiaB #yourstory #ourhistory #communityarchives #EKAAMP #HBTSA #SHC #SAAACAM #memory #community #CDAT @vanportmosaic @shankleville

[1] Michelle Caswell, Alda Allina Migoni, Noah Ceraci, and Marika Cifor, “‘To Be Able to Imagine Otherwise’: community archives and the importance of representation,” Archives and Records, 38., no. 1, (2017), 5-26.

[2] Caswell, et., al.

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PROJECT SPOTLIGHT: PRINCEVILLE

On September 21st a group of CDA team members and students from the Public History graduate program led by Dr. Charles Johnson at North Carolina Central University drove to Princeville NC to conduct oral histories. We partnered with lifelong citizens, town officials, and longtime residents of the Princeville community to collect stories and workshop the oral history backpacks. This collaboration between the CDA, NCCU, and Dr. Glenda Knight, our contact in Princeville and mayor pro tem, came about from a charrette, a type of focus group, held in Durham over the summer. Dr. Glenda Knight helped organize the event and found space for us in the temporary Princeville town hall, located in nearby Tarboro. Though it was spared the brunt of Hurricane Florence, Princeville is still recovering from Hurricane Matthew 2016 and Hurricane Floyd from 1999, hence our Tarboro location.

Princeville is the oldest African American incorporated town and is one of our grant partners from the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance (HBTSA). Princeville was founded by a group of formerly enslaved people and incorporated in 1885. Originally called Freedom Hill the name was changed to reflect the work of Turner Prince within the town. Princeville remains a predominantly African American town, containing significant historical narratives. However, like many other African American towns, it suffers from racial, economic, and governmental prejudice and neglect.

Adreonna Simmons, a student interviewer, reflects on her conversations with Dr. Porter a lifelong resident.

During our time in Princeville, I had the pleasure of interviewing a woman who had been a lifelong resident of the town. She shared stories about growing up in a close-knit community and how it shaped her into the woman she is today. She reminisced on her time in college and proudly told why she returned to her hometown when most college graduates would have moved on to bigger cities. Despite these pleasantries, it was how Hurricane Floyd and Hurricane Matthew impacted her and the community of Princeville that stuck out to me. Dr. Porter’s home was destroyed twice due to these hurricanes and Princeville’s proneness to flooding. At our roundtable discussion about the project, with tears in her eyes, she explained how having to build from the ground up once only to be in the same situation 15 years later was difficult and enough to make anyone lose hope. Some of the residents interviewed hoped that their stories would serve as a narrative for Princeville and the devastation that they have been dealing with for decades due to a lacking dam and drainage system would be addressed by the State legislature. These oral histories show the side of history that is often forgotten and gives voices to those that for too long have been silenced.

Interviewees were honest about the struggles in Princeville. But equally evident is the pride and love community members have for their town.  For Dr. Porter,

“Princeville has a lot of hidden things. And I guess one other thing. I often tell my husband, because he wasn’t born and raised here in Princeville and so he’s not too excited at going back after being flooded two times. But I tell him that’s because you weren’t born and raised here. It makes a lot of difference to me.  When you’re born and raised in a place it makes a lot of difference. To me it makes the whole world of a difference.”

Our work in Princeville was part oral history collection and part training. We left three backpacks in Princeville for the community to use and we will return in a few months to gather the histories saved on recorders. Those recordings will be sent to the town and eventually there will be a plan about what to do with the new and growing collection. We discussed having a history harvest and look forward to getting community feedback and returning to Princeville.

Here is just one clip of the many poignant moments from our time at Princeville. Dr. Porter discusses the importance of documents for safeguarding memories and the devastating grief that follows when you lose everything.

We post every week on different topics but if there is something you’d like to see, let us know either in the comments or email Claire our Community Outreach Coordinator: clairela@live.unc.edu. 

Follow us on Twitter    #AiaB #yourstory #ourhistory #communityarchives #EKAAMP #HBTSA #SHC #SAAACAM #memory #Princeville #CDAT #oralhistory

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PROJECT SPOTLIGHT: EKAAMP

Bernetiae Reed, CDAT Project Documentarian and Oral Historian, reflects on her participation in the Eastern Kentucky Social Club (EKSC) Reunion and exhibit by Dr. Karida Brown of EKAAMP in St. Louis, Missouri.

Time was a blur as I traveled to St. Louis and back! Plans had been made. I would be taking selected archival items from the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project (EKAAMP) deposit collections on a road trip! I ask you, how best to see and experience America? How best to envision a different time? Nothing like it! So, off I went . . . I will spare you the intricacies of my journey, but highly recommend travelling behind trucks at night to safeguard against hitting a deer!

My goals on this journey, as Project Documentarian and Oral Historian for the Community-Driven Archives grant at the SHC, were to record events and assist with the installation of the exhibit. Two related events were taking place stemming from African American mining communities in Eastern Kentucky. The 49th Annual Eastern Kentucky Social Club gathering and the release/book signing for Dr. Karida Brown’s book, Gone Home: Race and Roots through Appalachia which included the launch of a travelling exhibit.

Figure 1: (l-r) Dr. Karida Brown, Hilton Hotel Staff, Richard Brown holding posters (Karida’s father) and Dwayne Baskin pulling program items from hotel storage

As soon as we settled into the downtown St. Louis hotel, Friday (August 31st), morning and into the Saturday afternoon, we were fanatically installing the exhibit. Tracy Murrell, an Atlanta-based artist and curator, was shepherding her vision of this exhibit to life. Tracy had been hired by Karida for the project. Use of wonderful shear wall hangings printed with photographic images transported us to the coal mining town of Lynch, Kentucky. Additionally, a throw-back-in-time couch took you to a typical home from the era.

Figure 2: Tracy Murrell and others work to install the exhibit

Many moments stand out for me. Karida opening the doors to the exhibit, Jacqueline Ratchford reacting to seeing her prom dress on display, Derek Akal talking about his current plans to become a miner, people interacting with artifacts in the collection, and so much more. People reminisced, touched, told stories, laughed, cried, and so much more . . . this was their family and a part of them! Needless to say, I videotaped only a small portion of everything that was happening. From hotel lobby . . . to each event venue . . . to brief walks in downtown St. Louis . . . to church service in the hotel . . . time flew by! Karida beamed as she signed her book. Everywhere people were greeting and hugging old friends. And a beautiful welling of emotions came in watching the young praise dancers who performed during the church service. I was captivated by their pantomime . . . brought to laughter and tears. And had a special sense of wonder for the youngest mime, not understanding how one so young could draw on life’s joys and pains so well. Finally, satisfied that the power to be moved again by this performance and the journey to St. Louis was possible with what had been recorded.

Figure 3: A high school letterman’s sweater and a pink prom dress from the EKAAMP archive set in front of images from Lynch Kentucky.

We included a clip of the praise dancers so you too could experience a piece of performance!

We post every week on different topics but if there is something you’d like to see, let us know either in the comments or email Claire our Community Outreach Coordinator: clairela@live.unc.edu. 

Follow us on Twitter    #AiaB #yourstory #ourhistory #communityarchives #EKAAMP #HBTSA #SHC #SAAACAM #memory #StLouis #CDAT #EKSC #GoneHome

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What is a Community Archive?

Community archives and other community-centric history, heritage, and memory projects work to empower communities to tell, protect, and share their history on their terms. In 2017, the Southern Historical Collection at the Wilson Special Collections Library of the University Libraries was generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for a grant to “form meaningful, mutually supportive partnerships that provide communities with the tools and resources to safeguard and represent their own histories.”  We argue that “Community archive models and community-driven archival practice address the ‘symbolic annihilation’[to quote Michelle Caswell] of historically marginalized groups in the historical record, and aim to create sustainable and accessible memory projects that address these archival absences.”[1]

So what does it mean? A whole host of complex, complicated moving parts that if done right could transform the historical record! And it wouldn’t just be the grant funded community driven archives team (CDAT) doing it, but rather a true collaboration between the CDAT and communities to keep communities in control of their narratives.

Communities can preserve their history in a myriad of ways. They can keep records in  brick and mortar buildings like the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum, or they can curate a digital archive like the South Asian American Digital Archive.[2]  Communal heritage or memory can be expressed through historic markers or murals, like the Portland Street Art Alliance’s “Keep on the Sunnyside Mural Project”[3] and through guided walking tours, such as those created by the Marian Cheek Jackson Center.[4] History and heritage can even be expressed through parades, commemorations, and community celebrations. In her article, “The records of memory, the archives of identity: Celebrations, texts and archival sensibilities” Jeannette A. Bastian notes,

the relationships between collective memory, records, community and identity as expressed through a particular celebration—a carnival— [is] located within the paradigm of a cultural archive. That paradigm theorizes that if an annual celebration can be considered as a longitudinal and complex cultural community expression, then it also can be seen dynamically as a living archive where the many events within the celebration constitute the numerous records comprising this expression.[5]

Community archival work can also be done in public libraries like the Queens Memory Project or with the support of universities like the SHC’s Community-Driven Archives project. We call our work community driven archiving because we take cues from community members on the best ways to support their memory work, we would not trample the long standing tradition of community owned and operated archives by co-opting their name.

We understand that working with communities to create archival, historical and heritage-based projects means grappling with complex issues of identity, ownership, and legacies of marginalization.  Community history has always been present; the community archives movement didn’t suddenly discover these histories.[6] We have a lot more to share about our perspective and experiences with community driven archival work, including its benefits and challenges for a large organization with a complex history like the University Libraries. With this post we are signaling that boosting community voices in all their intersectional, diverse, complicated and creative outputs is a top priority in the Southern Historical Collection these days.

This is a model we created to help us visualize the relationship between traditional archival users and community-history creators. By changing the emphasis on who is being considered essential to the archives story, you can completely change the priorities.

We post every week on different topics but if there is something you’d like to see, let us know either in the comments or email Claire our Community Outreach Coordinator: clairela@live.unc.edu. 

Follow us on Twitter    #AiaB #yourstory #ourhistory #communityarchives #EKAAMP #HBTSA #SHC #SAAACAM #memory

[1] “About: Community-Driven Archives Overview,” https://library.unc.edu/wilson/shc/community-driven-archives/about/

[2] South Asian American Digital Archive, “SAADA”, https://www.saada.org/

[3] Portland Street Art Alliance, “Keep on the Sunnyside Mural Project”, http://www.pdxstreetart.org/articles-all/sunnyside-mural-project

[4] Marian Cheeks Jackson Center “Soundwalk of Northside,” https://jacksoncenter.info/northside-stories/soundwalk-of-northside/

[5] Jeannette A. Bastian, “The records of memory, the archives of identity: Celebrations, texts and archival sensibilities,” Archival Science, (2012), 122.

[6] Yusef Omowale, “We Already Here,” Medium: Sustainable Future, September 3, 2018, https://medium.com/community-archives/we-already-are-52438b863e31.

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