Langston Hughes in Chapel Hill, December 1931

December 1931: Langston Hughes (left) and Anthony Buttitta standing on Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill. From Contempo Records (#4408), Southern Historical Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill.
December 1931: Langston Hughes (left) and Contempo co-publisher Anthony Buttitta standing on Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill. From Contempo Records (#4408), Southern Historical Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Chapel Hill has seen its share of notable visitors throughout its history. Some of these notables have been welcomed to town with open arms, others…not so much. In December 1931, writer Langston Hughes received one of these colder varieties of welcomes to the Hill.

Hughes had been invited to Chapel Hill by Milton “Ab” Abernethy, one of the publishers of a short-lived journal of literary and social commentary called Contempo, based in Chapel Hill. Abernethy, an avowed communist who, before settling in Chapel Hill, had been expelled from State College (now North Carolina State University) for publishing some rabble-rousing words about the college administration, is quite an intriguing figure in his own right – perhaps we’ll add more about Abernethy in a later post.

Although only lasting from 1931-1934, Contempo was able to build a strong reputation among critics for expanding the boundaries of literary work in the 1930s and was able to attract submissions from the likes of William Faulkner, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, Erskine Caldwell, Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), e.e. cummings, William Carlos Williams, and many other luminaries of the day.

[The Southern Historical Collection is proud to be the home of a 720 item collection of Contempo Records (#4408) which includes letters to and from authors, typescripts of literary works, photographs, clippings and other items. The photograph above-left comes from this SHC collection.]

Throughout October and November 1931, Abernethy and Hughes corresponded to discuss including some of Hughes’ work in the December 1 issue of Contempo. The publishers had decided that this December issue would be a special issue on the events surrounding the case of the Scottsboro Boys – a special issue that would include opinion pieces on the case from those in the literary community, as well as poems and other works in response to the Scottsboro case. Hughes submitted several items to Abernethy for publication, including: a poem called “Christ in Alabama,” an accompanying drawing called “Black Christ” by artist Zell Ingram of Cleveland, Ohio, as well as an essay he called, “Southern Gentlemen, White Prostitutes, Mill-Owners, and Negroes.”

These titles alone would have caused a stir in the American South of the 1930s, but the content was also quite daring. The essay began with the sentence, “If the 9 Scottsboro boys die, the South ought to be ashamed of itself — but the 12 million Negroes in America ought to be more ashamed than the South.” The poem, “Christ in Alabama,” was even more pointed. Click here to view an image of the front page of the December 1931 issue of Contempo.

The publication of the Scottsboro issue of Contempo was timed to appear several days before Hughes was to visit Chapel Hill for a public reading. Citizens of the town of Chapel Hill were incensed. UNC President Frank Porter Graham and Chapel Hill town officials received a flood of letters denouncing Hughes as “sacrilegious” and calling for his engagement to be canceled (to put it softly). Graham did not interfere and the reading went on as planned.

Later, during Graham’s hard-fought 1950 Democratic primary in the campaign for U.S. Senate, the Hughes case was used quite effectively by Graham’s opponent, Willis Smith, as an example of Graham’s longstanding left-leaning (read: Communist) tendencies.

There is more of this story to discover in several of the SHC’s collections, as well as in various resources in the North Carolina Collection. There are letters and clippings relating to Hughes’ visit in the Guy Benton Johnson Papers, the aforementioned angry letters written to Frank Porter Graham in the Frank Porter Graham Papers, and other items. This is definitely an episode in Chapel Hill’s past that deserves further scholarly treatment – and it just so happens that we’ve got the raw material for said treatment right here in the SHC stacks!

“What is it that binds us to this place as to no other?”

Mrs. Charles W. Bain Letter, 1917 (Collection #1327-z)
Mrs. Charles W. Bain Letter, 1917 (Collection #1327-z)

Individual collections of manuscript material preserved in the Southern Historical Collection range in size from giant collections of more than half a million items all the way down to single-item collections. Our smaller collections, due to the way that they have been cataloged over the years, are referred to as “z-collections” (or simply “z’s”). Often, these z-collections contain items with extremely rich content – lots of bang for the buck. Some researchers enjoy these collections because they are so digestible, especially if your time in the SHC is limited. In fact, they’re great for student projects too! However, because of their small size, our lil’ z’s often get the short shrift. So, through this blog, we intend to highlight some of these great z’s from time to time so that others may enjoy them as much as we do.

It may not be the most representative of the z’s, but here’s one that jumped out at me today – as z’s are wont to do sometimes (“Pick me, pick me!”). It’s cataloged as “The Mrs. Charles W. Bain Letter, 1917” (Collection #1327-z). A note dated July 1947 written by SHC staff gives this endearing description of the letter:

“September 17, 1917, A letter to Mrs. Bain from Mrs. Elizabeth W. Blackwell, whom she met in 1917 at Atlantic City. Mrs. Blackwell was a young Northern woman living in Chapel Hill during the War between the states. She left in 1862, through the kindness of Southern friends, to join her relatives in the North. In the intervening years she had longed to meet someone from Chapel Hill, which she had always loved and hoped to see once more. Mrs. Bain was the first person she had ever met from Chapel Hill since. This letter gives a brief account of her sojourn and departure. At that time she was Mrs. Fry.”

Transcript of the letter:

September 17, 1917.

My dear Mrs. Bain

Your picture postals of the University Buildings, gave me a great deal of pleasure; and I thank you sincerely for remembering me so kindly.

I received also a synopsis of ‘Battle’s History of the University,’ which I have read repeatedly; and each time with interest; seeing always some reminiscence of that long ago; I think I told you, that I left here in July 1862.

My son, Mr. James Woods Fry, was born in December 1862. I was then, just twenty-three years old; so, you can imagine how deplorable my situation would have been, to have been down there among strangers; in, at that time, a hostile country.

I owe my restoration to my home and family, to Mr. John Pool who lived on the Chowan River, Mrs. Joseph Pool, whose home was in Elizabeth City, was a refugee resident of Chapel Hill. Mrs. Pool had a daughter in the North, from whom she could not hear; this fact, made her sympathize with me, separated from my home.

She loaned me her horse and buggy, with which we drove through the state; leaving the team at Mr. John Pool’s handsome home.

In all these years, I have met with very few connecting links with Chapel Hill, although in my travels I have always scanned the registers in the hotels thinking I might see some familiar name. This time, at Atlantic City, I neglected to do so; but, my niece, knowing my interest, told me of your name, for which I was very glad.

Some years ago, I spent six weeks at Palm Beach. I thought then, I might possibly meet some one from North Carolina, or, see the name of some student on the Register: I have the Catalogue of the period I tell you of; but as usual, I was disappointed.

My niece sends her regards to you; and I wish to present mine to your sister. Thanking you again for your kindness, I am, yours most cordially,

Elizabeth W. Blackwell

…[additional sheet inserted]…

I inferred from some remark you made, that Mr. Samuel Phillips’s mother was still living; if that be the case, she must be a very old lady. I, myself am in my seventy-ninth year.

When I was seventy-six, I was as active as a much younger woman; but unfortunately a paralytic stroke made me, as you saw me; is affected my speech, and also my left foot; but I am thankful that I still have the use of my hands; otherwise I would not be writing this.

If I was sure, Mrs. Phillips was living, I would certainly write to her.

Gratefully yours,

Elizabeth W. Blackwell.

In July 1888, I was married to Mr. John G. Blackwell, after being a widow for many years.

New Book Examines the Life of Chief Justice Susie Sharp (1907-1996); Biographer Anna Hayes to Speak at Wilson Library 9/11/2008

From left to right: Justices J. Will Pless Jr., Susie Sharp, William H. Bobbitt, R. Hunt Parker (Chief Justice), Carlisle W. Higgins, I. Beverly Lake, and Joseph Branch
From left to right: Justices J. Will Pless Jr., Susie Sharp, William H. Bobbitt, R. Hunt Parker (Chief Justice), Carlisle W. Higgins, I. Beverly Lake, and Joseph Branch

Susie Marshall Sharp (1907-1996) of Reidsville, N.C., attorney and jurist, was elected chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1974, becoming the first woman elected chief justice of a state supreme court in the United States. A graduate of the North Carolina College for Women and the University of North Carolina School of Law, Sharp began the practice of law in Reidsville in 1929. She served as Reidsville city attorney, 1939-1949; North Carolina superior court judge until 1962; and as supreme court justice, 1962-1979.

Sharp’s family background, her career as an attorney, judge and politician, and her previously unexamined private life are recounted in a new book by Anna Hayes, Without Precedent: The Life of Susie Marshall Sharp.

Published by the University of North Carolina Press, the book will be launched Sept. 11, in Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The free public program will be at 5:45 p.m. in the Pleasants Family Assembly Room. For program information, contact Liza Terll (919-962-4207). A full event notice is available from the main UNC Library website.

In writing Without Precedent, Hayes drew heavily from the personal and professional papers of Susie Sharp which are preserved in the Southern Historical Collection (SHC). The SHC will exhibit several selected items from the Sharp Papers in the lobby of Wilson Library during the book release event. The photograph above will be among those displayed.  Join us September 11, 2008 to view other items from the Sharp papers and to hear a great presentation.

SHC In the News: SHC to Join SFC on Film Grant; Wilson Accessibility

There have been two very nice articles published in recent weeks highlighting the work of the Southern Historical Collection and our partner collections throughout the Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library.

The first is an article by the UNC General Alumni Association covering two newly-awarded grants for film preservation that were awarded to the Southern Folklife Collection and the Southern Historical Collection (both headquartered here in the fourth floor penthouse of Wilson Library). These grants will provide critical funds for a project that will allow over 2,350 hours of rare film to be made available to the general public.

The second article is a piece by Ashley Bennett of UNC’s student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, discussing some of the great work going on in Wilson Library (and particularly in the Southern Historical Collection) to make our collections more accessible to our patrons

We really appreciate the great press and are excited to see these projects unfold.

Wilson Library Exhibit Tracks Worldwide, Historical Travels of Southerners

An American traveler in the 1850s journeyed the globe not by plane, but by boat and train, without telephone, radio receiver, or photo identification. A 15.5-by-10.5-inch passport from 1855 reads “nose — small, chin — large, hair — gray,” among other physical descriptions. The passport belonged to William Elliott and his daughters, who traveled to Paris before photography was in common use.

That passport, along with letters, photographs, maps, diaries, account books, and menus spanning the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, are part of Southerners Abroad: A Look at Southerners’ Travels Around the World. The exhibit opened in Wilson Library’s Southern Historical Collection (SHC) August 8, and will run through October 15, 2008.

Drawing on the SHC’s unique holdings, Southerners Abroad explores the wide variety of Southerners’ experiences abroad, shifting the traditional focus of the SHC away from the geographical southeastern United States to the world at large.

“I personally want people to know the Southern Historical Collection has more than they would think,” said UNC junior and student assistant Kelli Landing. Landing worked on the exhibit with Barbara Ilie, research and instructional services assistant; Robin Davies Chen, assistant manuscripts reference librarian; and Matt Turi, manuscripts reference librarian.

Landing’s favorite exhibit material comes from the Turner sisters, North Carolinians who were working and studying abroad in the 1930s and 1940s – when passports did include photographs. “I love that as women they traveled by themselves. That’s unusual,” Landing said.

One of the Turner sisters’ passports is displayed in the exhibit and is a window on gender relations at a time when most travelers were men. The passport contains a space for writing one’s name, and beneath it, blank spaces following the phrases “accompanied by wife” and “minor children.” These spaces are filled with X’s, emphasizing her position as a woman traveling without male accompaniment.

Other items in the exhibit include colorful menus offering hearts of lettuce and brains “as you like them” for $1.50; hand-tinted photographs given to American missionary to Japan, John C. Calhoun Newton; and letters describing hyenas and lions on the camp of Egyptian army engineer Samuel Henry Lockett.

“Traveling back then-in the nineteenth century-there were many things to fear,” said Barbara Ilie. “I encountered someone who feared yellow fever. Others had issues with loneliness. I had someone waiting literally for the monthly mail boat. The technology difference is astounding.”

Southerners Abroad is free and open to the public. The exhibit is on view in the Southern Historical Collection on the fourth floor of Wilson Library on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill. The Southern Historical Collection is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. For exhibit information, contact Matt Turi, 919-962-1345.