Announcing the Availability of Newly Digitized Audio from the Howard N. Lee Papers

May of 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of Howard Lee’s election as the first African American mayor of Chapel Hill. In commemoration of this historic event and in recognition of Lee‘s political legacy, we have digitized and made accessible a selection of audio content from the Howard N. Lee Papers in the Southern Historical Collection. These include recordings of speeches from Lee’s political campaigns for mayor of Chapel Hill and lieutenant governor of North Carolina; several political and community organizing events throughout the 1970s; campaign radio advertisements; family interviews; and even songs Lee performed with the Len Mack Trio while stationed with the United States Army in South Korea from 1959-1961.

Howard Lee is sworn into office as mayor of Chapel Hill, 1969

A mayoral portrait of Howard Lee from the 1970s

This week, as we commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we invite you to listen to Howard Lee’s 1980 speech which celebrates King’s monumental contributions to the Civil Rights movement. Lee’s message remains relevant today. Positioned at the start of a new decade, Lee frames the 1980s as a period during which “conservatism will sweep across the land like we have not experienced for many years […] a conservatism which will say ‘Let’s maintain the status quo. Let’s not rock the boat’” (Audiocassette 46, side 1). These words hold significant weight amidst our own current sociopolitical climate, especially as we, too, enter a new decade forty years later.

Lee adds, “There seems to be an attitude of hopelessness, a willingness to throw up hands in despair, a willingness to become slaves to pessimism and doubt. [But] this system can be saved […] It can be built, not so much on the melting pot form of like a soup, but more in the form of a stew, where people can come together and maintain their identities” (Audiocassette 46, side 1).

Howard Lee delivers a speech, circa 1970s

Related to these poignant considerations are observations made in his analysis of “The Black Experience in Politics” just a few months later. Lee suggests the two broad groups — majority white and minority black — generally share different political priorities and attitudes. The responsibility of the black politician thereby becomes a “dual leadership” in the “constant struggle of trying to communicate with the black community without alienating both the black community and the white community” (Audiocassette 48, side 1). “Politics,” Lee says, “is a game of exchange” (Audiocassette 48, side 1). He laments, however, that regarding the vote, “if somebody has to be sacrificed, […] you sacrifice the minority” (Audiocassette 48, side 1).

But Lee’s words call us to action, to a movement steeped in King’s legacy of racial reconciliation. And he reminds us that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day “must be more than just a celebration. It must be a commitment […] a renewed commitment to justice, to freedom, to equality, and above all, to human rights for all people” (Audiocassette 46, side 1).

This vast collection of now accessible digital materials from Howard Lee’s collection is an excellent resource available to you via the online finding aid at https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/05609/. The materials that are not accessible online are available for use in the Wilson Library reading room. We are grateful for the generous support from our audiovisual preservation team for digitizing these materials. This work is a part of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funded grant initiative, Extending the Reach of Southern Audiovisual Sources.

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Vacationing Amidst the Weight of the Great Depression: The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair

This gallery contains 3 photos.

We are pleased to announce the availability of a new collection: the Smith and Andrew Family Papers (#05800), a new collection documenting two white families from Rowland, N.C., Salem, Va., and other locations across the South between the late 1800s … Continue reading

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Working on the Railroad: A New Collection Offers a Glimpse into the Lives of Those Who Rode the Rails

The Southern Historical Collection preserves large holdings of manuscript materials related to labor and workers, trade unions, industrial relations, labor activism, and more. Known primarily for our collections documenting the piedmont textile industry in the 20th century, we have acquired several new collections that shed light on the lives of those who have labored in other industries – including black coalminers in eastern Kentucky, North Carolina hog farmers, and rural health practitioners in Tennessee.

A new collection, the Laurinburg & Southern Railroad Company Records (#5768), documents the long history of a unique short-line railroad that runs from Raeford to Laurinburg, N.C. The “L&S” collection is primarily an archive of the company’s business records (such as company correspondence, board minutes, financial and legal files, or records of track repair and maintenance) but it also reflects on the lives of those who worked for the company over the years.

The Laurinburg & Southern Railroad Company was incorporated in March 1909 by N.G. Wade, D.M. Flynn, J.F. McNair, J. Blue, A.L. James, and J.A. Jones. J.F. McNair served as its first president until his death in 1927. Over its history, the railroad was primarily used for hauling freight, but it has also offered passenger and mail service. L&S has included several subsidiaries, including the Red Springs & Northern Railroad, Robeson County Railroad, Fairmont & Western Railroad, Franklin County Railroad, Nash County Railroad, Yadkin Valley Railroad, and Saltville Railroad (in Virginia). The company operates a railroad car shop, a track maintenance crew for hire, and a large fleet of rail cars for leasing to other railroads. In 1994, L&S was sold to Gulf & Ohio Railways. Now in limited operation, these days L&S moves about 7,500 cars annually with three locomotives, focusing on shipments of feed, fertilizer, chemicals, and glass.

The L&S collection contains some wonderful images from its 100+ year history. We’d like to share a few, centering the lives of workers, with the hope that it will inspire you to check out the collection and learn more about life on the rails.

L&S railroad shop employees, circa 1891.

L&S employees and executives on a locomotive, circa 1940.

Track construction crew, April 1959.

Track maintenance crew, undated.

Railroad crew (on locomotive) and shop crew, 1980. Pictured: Johnnie Watts, Gene McLeod, Les Ingram, Jimmy Gibson, James Gautier, A.B. Chavis, Ronald Brigman, Simon Peay, John Campbell, Roosevelt McCoy, Alfred McCoy. Photo by Mac Connery.

L&S locomotive in the garage in Laurinburg, 1975.

L&S “hostesses,” 1966. Pictured are Scottie Warren of Macon, GA, and Kathy Cody of York, SC., both juniors at St. Andrews Presbyterian College.

Railroad crew led by engineer Juddie McNeil, 1980. Based on other documents in the collection we believe conductor John Rogers and brakeman Leon Butler round out this crew.

Accident report, 1976. A tractor trailer truck did not slow down at a railroad crossing and was struck by an L&S freight train, despite the crew putting the train “into emergency.”

Photographs from the accident report, 1976. The truck’s trailer was split in half by the oncoming train, scattering its load of mattresses and linens over a 200 square yard area. The driver was not injured.

Retirement ceremony for long-time shop mechanic John Campbell, January 28, 1981.

Retirement of shop mechanic John Campbell, 1981. In honor of his service to the company, L&S christened railroad car LRS-7225 “The John Campbell” and painted his name on the side of the car.

Employee manuals and timetables.

L&S delivery truck drivers, circa 1990.

[Post-script: We would like to recognize the work of our former colleague, Borden Thomas, in making the L&S collection a reality here in the Southern Historical Collection (SHC). Borden worked in our department from 2015-2017 as an undergraduate assistant. One day Borden mentioned that she was the descendant of founding L&S president J.F. McNair, and that her family still had a large archive of the company’s records. Borden took on the Herculean task of organizing and culling the records and then donated the collection to the SHC.]

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2019 BlackCom Challenge: Community Driven Archives Team edition 

I don’t know how many of you have been a part of a grant funded project but we here on the Community Driven Archives Team can attest to how stressful it can be. We’ve got relationships, timelines, and deliverables to manage and sometimes it can be hard to find time to talk about the value of this work and how it is impacting us as individuals. We were grateful for the friendly challenge from the Black Communities social media team in the lead up to the conference this fall. 

Graphic for Promote Black Communities Challenge

    

All four of our pilot communities have ties to African American communities so this challenge was right in our wheelhouse. What follows is some information about who we are and why we chose to represent Black Communities in this way. 

Who: Chaitra Powell, Project Director 

Why: I chose to make my piece about Lil Nas X for a few reasons. I love the way that the music video for his single, Old Town Road, visually references Black cowboys. These cowboys are the Buffalo Soldiers and homesteaders that founded Black towns in the Western States which are related to our work in Historic Black Towns and Settlements. Lil Nas X’s identity is the perfect example of how Black communities are not monolithic and even if we must talk about ourselves in aggregates to fight systemic inequalities, we can’t erase the experiences of the individual, especially young people. Lastly, the controversy around his genre-defying hit single is a reminder to deny the myth of a post-race society and see how race is still being used to exclude people from membership and resources. 

Link to Chaitra’s video

Who: Sonoe Nakasone, Community Archivist 

Why: I wanted to highlight the role archives can play in sharing the rich history and stories of Black communities that have often been excluded from textbooks and prominent institutions.  Archives can also empower those communities to share their history in their own voice. 

Link to Sonoe’s video

A large black dove shape with three poems written on its body, on a blue background

Three Haiku poems inspired by work in Black Communities, written by Sonoe Nakasone

3 "word poems" written over 9 bright colored hands

Three “word poems” inspired by work in Black Communities written by Sonoe Nakasone

Who: Bernetiae ReedProject Documentarian and Oral Historian 

Why: Here was an opportunity to tell about the Community-Driven Archives grant by showcasing the four focal groups of the grant: HBTSA (Historic Black Towns and Settlement Alliances), ASHC (Appalachian Student Health Coalition), EKAAMP (Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project), and SAAACAM (San Antonio African American Community Archives and Museum). Video clips from events and places were used to provide content and serve as reminders of the importance of our work. 

Link to Bernetiae’s video

Who: Lindsey TerrellGraduate Student  

Why: One of the first things I was able to do on this grant is to travel and meet with the residents of Princeville, North Carolina for an Archivist in a Backpack training. Flood-prone Princeville was impacted heavily by Hurricanes Floyd & Matthew and although the residents have suffered immense loss, they have remained resilient and eager to tell their stories in hopes that it will effect positive change. One of the residents we had the pleasure of engaging with that day was Milton “The Golden Platter” Bullock, former member of The Platters. In highlighting this lovely performance by Mr. Bullock, I wanted to show how these communities have been finding and sharing joy even throughout ongoing trials. 

Link to Lindsey’s video

Who: Leah Epting, Graduate Student 

Why: It’s always been said that that to “put it on the map” is to make something known, to say that it’s important. I get a little misty every time I work on this project for SAAACAM and see all the names and places important to Black History appearing on the map of San Antonio. So I wanted to try and communicate that feeling.  

Link to Leah’s video

I am extremely grateful to all my team members who took this assignment seriously and stretched their comfort levels to share an authentic part of their interpretations of this work. In the best-case community driven archive scenario, institutions will change communities for the better and communities will change institutions for the better – this exercise demonstrates that we are well on our way. 

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Fighting for clean land, energy, and industry since 1974, a story of the East Tennessee Research Corporation

Around 1973, the Appalachian Student Health Coalition (ASHC) recognized that groups working in the east Tennessee area needed additional legal services not initally provided by ASHC. Thus, in the ASHC’s spirit of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comforted” the East Tennessee Research Corporation (ETRC) was born in 1974. 

Founded by Vanderbilt law grads and former members of the ASHC, John Williams and John Kennedy, and funded primarily by The Ford Foundation, this organization was a public interest law firm which provided legal and technical assistance to rural community groups in east Tennessee. With the hiring of attorney Neil G. McBride, the group set about collaborating with organizations such as Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM)–now “Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment”) to build a strong alliance that centered the environmental and social but also intersectional interests of the Tennessee Valley in its work. 

ETRC proved to be a powerful instrument for this cause, going on to resist forces which would negatively impact the region. One of their earlier battles was for enforced regulation of weight limits on trucks being used to transport coal throughout the area. This group also put pressure on coal companies who were mixing different coal qualities together—a practice that, at the time, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) said was “standard.” Another meaningful success was waging a vigorous campaign to prevent James F. Hooper III’s placement on the TVA Board of Directors—something for which Hooper later filed a libel lawsuit against them. Later, they received some well-deserved satisfaction in closing this loop when President Jimmy Carter nominated the infamous “green cowboy,” David Freeman, to be Chairman of the TVA. 

Watch two clips of Neil McBride (left) and John Williams (right) discuss ETRC resistance to James Hooper III and the subsequent libel lawsuit he filed against them

One of the foremost issues they dealt with was that of strip mining. The complicated relationship of mining to the region became especially apparent during the debates surrounding the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 (MSHA). Because coal fields in the region were major employers, many people were wary of measures intended to crack down on the industry. However, some citizens were extremely concerned about the effect strip mining was having on the region’s landscape and water supply. Despite resistance, the MSHA was enacted into law by President Carter in November of 1977. 

Although the ETRC was no longer in existence as of 1978, their successes laid the groundwork for future progress in the South. In fighting these battles both in and outside of the courtroom, they planted themselves squarely in the longstanding but often overlooked tradition of activism in Appalachia. 

newspaper article from the Saturday, June 4, 1977 edition of The Washington Star entitled “Getting Things Done Quietly In Appalachia

“Ralph Nader, longtime politician and Neil McBride’s former employer, wrote about this work in the Saturday, June 4, 1977 edition of The Washington Star.”

You can find out more about the East Tennessee Research Corporation in the Neil G. McBride Papers, 1977-1989 in The Southern Historical Collection. You can also listen to the Southern Oral History Program’s 2010 interview with McBride here as well as read his and John Williams’ description of their worhere on the Appalachian Student Health Coalition Archive Project website. 

Contributed by Community Driven Archives Grant Research Assistant, Lindsey Terrell

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John McFerren of Fayette County, Tennessee — in his own words

Contributed by Community Driven Archives Grant Project Documentarian and Oral Historian, Bernetiae Reed

One of our pilot communities for the community driven archives grant is the Appalachian Student Health Coalition. Members of the coalition are historically and currently dispersed across the country and have lived extraordinary lives, often intersecting with some of the most courageous, hard working, and brilliant people that the world has never heard of. Dana Ellis, a coalition member in 1973-1975, worked with local community activists in West Tennessee (Fayette County) and introduced us to John McFerren’s story.

John McFerren is a World War II veteran and local legend. Both he and his deceased wife, Viola, played strong roles in civil rights actions surrounding Fayette County, Tennessee. In Robert Hamburger’s book “Our portion of hell: Fayette County, Tennessee; an oral history of the struggle for civil rights,” John McFerren’s words are revealing. 

“In 1959 we got a charter called the Fayette County Civic and Welfare League. Fourteen of us started out in that charter. We tried to support a white liberal candidate that was named L. T. Redfearn in the sheriff election and the local Democrat party refused to let Negroes vote.”

Five African American men in suits

Four Freedom Fighters counsel with Attorney J. P. Estes, Source: Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries, Memphis, TN https://www.memphis.edu/tentcity/movement/fayette-timeline-1958.php

 ”We brought a suit against the Democrat party and I went to Washington for a civil-rights hearing. Myself and [James F.] Estes and Harpman Jameson made the trip. It took us twenty-two hours steady drivin. We met John Doar  . . . they told us they wasgonna indict the landowners who kept us from voting . . .”

John Doar was  assigned to create civil litigation, Fayette County is included. Source: Taylor Branch Papers #05047, Southern Historical Collection, UNC-CH, Series 4, Folder 598, https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/05047/

Just after that, in 1960, in January, we organized [timeline] a thousand Negroes to line up at the courthouse to register to vote . . . this county it was 72 percent Negroes . . . So in October and November they started putting people offa the land . . . they took your job . . . in November, we had three hundred people forced to live in tents on Shepard Towles’s land . . . White Citizen’s Counciland Ku Klux Klan started shooting in the tents . . . ”  

An African American family loading household items into a flatbed truck

Photo courtesy of Ernest Withers – In September 1960, after the crops were gathered, white landowners in Fayette and Haywood counties forced black sharecroppers off their land because they were trying to vote. Source:  http://orig.jacksonsun.com/civilrights/sec4_tent_city.shtml

“Tent City was parta an economic squeeze . . . Once you registered you couldn’t buy for credit or cash.”

“. . . I went into business the first of 1960, to supply the Negroes . . . had to haul everything I bought from other towns . . . the White Citizen Council in our district chased me just about every time. I had a ’55 Ford with a Thunderbird motor in it and two four-barreled carburetors on it. And it would run about 135. The sheriff told me one day, he says “Every time we get after you, I just sees two balls of fire goin over the hill. . . “ 

a black car parked on the grass

1955 Ford Thunderbird BYT568.jpg. (2015, June 21). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 14:50, February 13, 2019 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:1955_Ford_Thunderbird_BYT568.jpg&oldid=163946028.

During and after the late 1950s, John Doar, in his role within the Justice Department, was very involved with civil rights struggles across the South. Additionally, Black veterans were often in the forefront. Re-entry into their marginalized communities after service created a will to act. John McFerren fits this mold. But of note here, the meeting with Doar in DC probably acted as a significant catalyst for the massive voter registration events afterwards; which in turn, lead to the development of Tent City and garnered national attention, including support from Martin Luther King Jr 

A white man walks toward the camera with a crowd of policemen behind him

John Doar walks toward protesters during unrest that followed the 1963 funeral of slain black leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, Miss., Newspaper, Taylor Branch Papers #05047, Southern Historical Collection, UNC-CH, Series 4, Folder 599, https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/05047/

You can learn more about Tent City, Fayette County, and John McFerren on the University of Memphis website, Tent City: Stories of Civil Rights in Fayette County, TN. We also have some mentions in the Taylor Branch Papers here in the Southern Historical Collection.  John Doar Papers in Princeton’s Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library will open to researchers in June 2019 and the University of Maryland’s Thurgood Marshall Law Library has historical publications of the United State Commission on Civil Rights, which could also shed light.

An African American man standing in front of a crowd of African American men

Early photo of John McFerren smiling as he stands outside his grocery store” , Hamburger, Robert.1973. Our Portion of Hell: Fayette County, Tennessee: An Oral History of the Struggle for Civil Rights. (Photo by Michael Abrams)

 “McFerren stated the Justice Department “brought suit against the big landowners, but yet and still they did not break the boycott against me. They did something and then left and did nothin’ more.”  

 

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On the Road: The Community Driven Archives Team travels to Shaw, Mississippi, February 2019 

Chaitra Powell and I spent the last weekend of February traveling to Shaw, MS to conduct an Archivist in a Backpack Training and archival techniques workshop. We collaborated with a group working to preserve and share the history of the town of Shaw, specifically the civil rights case Hawkins vs. Town of Shaw. We met the group at the Delta Hands for Hope, pictured below, which runs programs for students and community members, but is also the base of operations for the Hawkins Project.  

 The power behind this community work is the team of Dr. Timla Washington and Jenna WelchTimla, pictured below second from the right, is currently the Community Development Coordinator in the office of Congressman Bennie G. Thompson.  

Jenna, pictured below, is the artistic director and co-creator of the company StoryWorks, which combines investigative journalism with documentary theatre.  

These dynamic women have spearheaded an enormous project that combines archival materials, art and theatre, public health policy, and a myriad of other areas to tell the story of Shaw. Their work highlights the legacy of institutional racism incorporated into town infrastructure, and the failure of equitable legislature, despite a court victory for the African American population in Shaw.   

Before this trip, I had little knowledge of Hawkins v. Town of Shaw, and I certainly didn’t know that it was the first court case that used statistics to prove discrimination. Yet I quickly realized that Shaw, MS was in an area with numerous Civil Rights activities, for example, the site (pictured below) of a Freedom School, run by local farm workers and SNCC activists in 1965. 

We flew into Jackson which is about a 2 hour drive to Shaw, so we spent a little bit of time exploring the city with Timla, Jenna, and Gloria Hawkins. While we didn’t make it to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, we did see the Medgar Evers home and observe an oral history interview with one of the lawyers on the Hawkins v. Town of Shaw case in 1967. Gloria Hawkins is one of the daughters of Andrew and Mary Lou Hawkins, even though she was a teenager during the case, she has a file with the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission Database.    

What I didn’t realize until that tour was that Mrs. Mary Lou Hawkins was shot and killed in 1972 by a police officer, or that the Hawkins’ home was firebombed twice after the case. In the 1979 fire, Andrew Hawkins Jr., 28, and two of Gloria’s daughters, ages 8 and 11, were murdered.  

Newspaper clipping from the McComb, MS “Enterprise-Journal” March 18, 1979 reporting the house fire and deaths. 

On Saturday we were a little concerned that the weather would affect attendance to the workshop as it had been heavily raining Friday night. It was surreal to stand in the streets of Shaw and see that all the work that the Hawkins case had accomplished could not combat the legacy and strength of discrimination. The Hawkins case had mandated more robust sewer, water, and street light infrastructure as well as paved roads for the African American part of town. That was in the 1960s and early 70s.  

Infrastructure quality remains so poor in 2019 that entire sections of the town are unable to get out of their houses because of the flooding. That body of water on the edge of the neighborhood, pictured above, is a frequent occurrence, as is the flooding of homes and streets  

However, those who came to the workshops were some of the most dedicated people I have ever met. One woman, Enda Earl Moore, is the last surviving member of the court-mandated bi-racial planning commission. Mrs. Moorepictured below sitting right, took part in an oral history training session that Chaitra facilitated as part of the larger Backpack training. In this activity, pairs of participants practiced interview questions and then the group gathered to talk about what went well, and what to improve. 

Chaitra also led an imaginative description activity where one person described their childhood room and their partner drew it. This opened conversations about the language and detail used in archival descriptive work, perspective, and how this leads to access of information.  

I led one section about born digital material and another on reading archival documents. We talked about consistent file names and using conventions to ensure that files are understandable by multiple parties, as well as raising awareness of LOCKSS, file migration, and format.  The second section I led was reading archival documents, which Timla had asked for specifically. I worked with colleagues in Wilson Library to create an easy to follow set of guidelines that presented questions to “ask the documents.” Participants looked at photos and the minute books and read the document, answering questions about format, audience, and purpose. All the activities provoked important conversations about access, preservation, and ownership of narrative and voice. 

 It was an exhausting schedule, but I wouldn’t change it for anything. I was moved by the warm welcome, and by the first day I almost forgot that I had to fly back to NC. We were invited back immediately, and I was sad to leave this place. Shaw has a history full of turmoil, closed businesses and dilapidated homes dot the streets. But it’s impossible to walk away from this place and these people without feeling their infectious determination and wanting to stay and be a part of their work. The power of place is startling in this townThe materials and resources from the Community-Driven Archives are only a small portion of this overall project, but I’m so glad we get to be a part of this work.  

Contributed by Community Driven Archives Grant Research Assistant, Claire Du Laney 

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A New Project in Wilson: Untangling the Roots: Surfacing the Lived Experience of Enslaved People in the Archives

These posts are written by Lydia Neuroth, a first year graduate student in the School of Information and Library Science and a 2018-2020 Carolina Academic Library Associate (CALA) for the Southern Historical Collection and Archival Technical Services.  

This semester we launched a new project in Wilson Special Collections Library. Situated within Archival Technical Services and the Southern Historical Collection, my CALA project explores the ways people access (or don’t access) collections about slavery.  

We recognize that we are one of many institutions who are thinking about barriers to access, particularly when it comes to records of the enslaved. For us, our biggest hurdle is how these materials are described in our finding aids. In many cases, we are dealing with collections that have been described years ago and suffer from a lack of identified slave related content, or description that is just downright discriminatory. University of Minnesota Libraries and Princeton University Archives (just to name two) have acknowledged these legacy issues of description and begun implementing strategies and solutions that surface materials previously difficult to discover through traditional keyword searches in their collections. We benefit from their efforts and transparency about their process. I spent a great deal of my first few weeks on this project scanning the field and culling scholarship on this topic. I have read more articles about finding aids than I care to admit. The literature is helpful for grounding us in the context of the archival field. It also helps us to compare and contrast our particular issues to those of other institutions.  

Many institutions have partnered with teams in the digital humanities field to create digital databases or other web platforms that circumvent (for the most part) issues that are inherent to finding aids.I consider projects like UNC-Greensboro Libraries’ Digital Library on American Slavery and Maryland State Archives’ Legacy of Slavery in Maryland some of the more robust examples offering multiple portals and access to thousands of documents about slavery in their collections. The Virginia Historical Society’s Unknown No Longer Project has existed in some capacity since the 90s, and their online database was created in 2011. These projects are impressive and interesting. Many researchers have praised their capabilities of aggregating similiar information into a single access point. Unfortunately, they don’t offer the solutions we need for some of our more specific problems. Our manuscript collections are varied in content and format type. Letters, diaries, and wills don’t lend themselves to easy data collection in the ways that court records or runaway slaves ads do. It is challenging to boil down our material into data points that can be searched within a database. It is forcing us to think outside the box, literally and figuratively! 

VHS’s database allows you to search records by location. These were the results from a search I conducted for Morven Plantation in Albemarle County, Virginia.

In order to be successful, our project must be rooted in understanding our users and their various needs. Many people use our collections including undergraduates, graduates, faculty, scholars, genealogists, community members, and library staff. Some of them have been using archival finding aids for years, others have never stepped foot in a special collections library. We are asking ourselves: how do we build a system that is useful to each of these constituencies and their differing needs? Do we focus on one group? Or do we try to accommodate them all? 

Most of our work is conducted behind the scenes therefore we rely heavily on the expertise of our research and instructional team who staffs our reading room. Our conversations with them have illuminated one group on which to focus: undergraduates. We’re thinking through ways to include them in our understanding of barriers to access. Survey-style questionnaires, focus groups, one-one-one interviews, and usability studies are just some of the research methods we’ve discussed. We’re interested in gaining feedback on specific challenges they’ve encountered in the reading room or online. User feedback is an important component to this project we want to be intentional about how we listen.

To be honest, we have not yet defined an outcome of this project. The last semester was so very exploratory: understanding our collection, understanding our users, and understanding what has already been done in the field. In many ways, we are still struggling to wrap our own minds around the problems and how we can address them through practical, sustainable methods. Ultimately, we hope that our investigation will inform a comprehensive solution that will address multiple barriers to accessing these materials whether they be description, primary source literacy, physical access, or anything else that limits a user’s ability. 

That’s a lot to cover, and it’s only the highlights. Perhaps I’ll wrap up by reflecting on our experience choosing a title for this project. We gathered several images and asked a few Wilson colleagues to describe words or phrases that came to mind. As project leaders, we remained in the background and listened while our peers meditated on the heaviness that is the reality of American slavery. It was a powerful exercise. We compiled a list of these phrases and extracted four potential titles. To gather further input, we circulated our top four choices among the entire Wilson Library staff and asked them to choose their favorite. The result? Untangling the Roots 

Colleagues in Wilson Library help us pick a project title from a collection of images.

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