Connecting UNC Summer reading to Primary Sources

Wilson Library launched a Twitter campaign at the beginning of the semester to support campus programming surrounding the UNC summer reading initiative. This year’s book, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, argues that current problems with mass incarceration are built on the country’s history with systems of slavery, racial terrorism, and Jim Crow. The book is very powerful for those who read it because of Stevenson’s combination of historical documentation and first-hand accounts of systematic injustice. During his address in Memorial Hall back in August he described how working with people who have been denied equal treatment in the legal system changed his life. He hopes students at UNC feel empowered to change things that they see as unfair or unequal.

The SHC’s Chaitra Powell was impacted greatly by reading Just Mercy. She said that she saw that, “All of these themes are housed in the materials of the Southern Historical Collection in one context or another.”  With help from all staff representing all the collections in Wilson Library, Chaitra created the @WilsonReads Twitter account. They made an extra push at the beginning of the year to post four times a day from August 16th to September 17th highlighting images from material held at Wilson Library. Each post used #justmercysyllabus hashtag, which was selected to indicate that these primary sources can help scholars dig deeper into the issues mentioned in the book. During this time the Twitter made 126 collection posts, received 52 retweets, favorites, and mentions, and gained 20 followers.

Chaitra also co-facilitated a student discussion on Just Mercy. Student perspectives on the book illuminated how close to home many of these issue are to them. She said, “They shared their concerns about police brutality, horrendous prison conditions for women, children, and the mentally ill. Students spoke from direct experience about how the criminal justice system has or has not impacted their families and the way that their parents talked to them about the police.”  She left feeling hopeful that the students had really engaged with the message of the novel: “Overall, the reactions from the students indicated a willingness to look beyond the headlines, the politicians, and stereotypes to understand what is happening in society, as well as work to seek solutions to these very serious problems.”