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 tenants 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.

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

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. 

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

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.”  

 

Getting to know Navassa, a historically Black community in Brunswick County, North Carolina

Navassa, NC is one of the towns in our Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance (HBTSA) grant partnership. Located near the Brunswick River and Cape Fear River, Navassa is part of the Myrtle Beach metropolitan area and is less than 20 miles from the coast.   

Photograph of the Navassa town sign. Three flags, the North Carolina flag, American flag, and a third flag, stand behind the town sign.
https://portcitydaily.com/local-news/2018/07/27/minutes-from-wilmington-via-i-140-navassa-is-now-poised-for-a-development-boom/

UNC Libraries has several interesting collections that encompass the history of this small town. Importantly, these collections provide important documents that speak to the current environmental, ecological, and public health conversations that are occurring in Navassa after the EPA findings of neglect and dangerous practices of the Kerr-McGee Chemical Corp Superfund.  

EPA officer stands on plastic sheeting with more than a dozen soil and rock samples to check for contamination.
https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3267787/North-Carolina-s-contaminated-town-Former-rice-farmers-struggle-survive-poisoned-land-decades-abuse-corporations.html.

Two important pieces of Navassa’s history are highlighted here. The first was the construction of a railroad in 1867 that connected isolated areas near the North Carolina coastline to urban regions like Charlotte, NC. Photographs and other documents about the two railroad companies, Atlantic Coastline and Seaboard Airlines, can be found in the Wilson Special Collections Library at UNC.  

black and white photograph of a railroad station. Pictured are the railroad tracks, the station and station platform, and a few buildings of the town in the background
“Halifax County: Weldon (Seaboard Air Line/Atlantic Coastal Railway), circa December 1971
Black-and-White Print,” North Carolina Railroad Station Photograph Collection, circa 1896-1977 (bulk 1953-1976). Collection Number P0073. Wilson Special Collection Library, UNC

The second piece of history is the creation of a guano fertilizer factory, which links this small North Carolina town to a small, uninhabited island in the West Indies. According to the Navassa, NC town website,  

Some prudent businessmen led by Donald McRae realized the distinct advantages of locating a fertilizer factory at this location.  For years the turpentine industry had been shipping their products to the West Indies without having a product to bring home upon their return.  In 1856 large guano deposits were discovered on Navassa Island a small barren island about 15 miles off the coast of Jamaica.  McRae and his business partners made arrangements to have the returning ships loaded with the guano and consequently built the Navassa Guano Factory in 1869, which is named after the island…A small village sprung up around this fertilizer factory and in 1885 the U.S. Postal Service name this village Navassa because of the huge fertilizer plants at that location.  

Wilson Library has in its collection some of this documentation about the fertilizer and guano industries, available in the “Iron Station (N.C.) Papers, 1852-1878” and the “Marion Butler Papers, 1862-1938. The North Carolina Digital Collection at the State Library of North Carolina also has some documents that add texture to Navassa’s historic record. Documents, like the 1882 “Annual report of the North Carolina Agricultural Experiment Station” provides evidence of the long term chemical and ecological abuse of the area.    

The town of Navassa is much more complex than the legacy of Brownfields and ecological harm cause by chemical companies. Did you know that there is a strong Gullah-Geechee connection to this county?   

Image of a dilapidated church. The white paint is peeling off of the exterior walls and the door is barred, but the stained-glass windows are still intact, and the reds, yellows, and blue panes are vibrant.
https://www.starnewsonline.com/news/20170624/navassa-church-has-rich-history

This 140-year-old chapel in Navassa, in Brunswick County, was the worship center of many former slaves after the Civil War. Today a group of locals hopes to preserve it along with their Gullah-Geechee heritage.  

Even though there isn’t a collection at UNC devoted to Navassa, NC you can piece portions of its history together from diverse sources. The town is growing and as infrastructure improves, parks, new business ventures, and a community center are rising.    

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

  

     

Dyann Robinson and the Tuskegee Repertory Theater, 1991

Dyann Robinson is the heart and soul of the Tuskegee theater scene. She founded the Tuskegee Repertory Theater in 1991 and established a permanent home for the theater company in the former post office in downtown Tuskegee. Robinson’s impressive career as a dancer and choreographer started with her casting in the original Broadway production of Bubbling Brown Sugar in 1976.   

 

She also worked as a member of Maurice Bejart’s Ballet of the Twentieth Century, in Brussels Belgium. Check out this Huffington Post article on visual history of 20th century ballet to see Robinson’s national and international peers of elite ballerinas looked in the 1970’s and 1980’s. For a special treat, you can go to the New York Public Library and track down photographs and a videotape of a young Dyann Robinson dancing in New York City. Robinson brings her world class training and discipline to all her community theater work (writing, producing, directing, and acting) in Tuskegee, Alabama. She also sees the immense power of theater to transmit the cultural legacy of African Americans.  We are proud to house filmed versions of several of Tuskegee Repertory Theater’s productions:

I can personally attest to the toe tapping nature of Dyann Robinson’s lyrics and Bill Perry’s musical arrangements when I saw a live performance of “Booker T’s Towns” in Orlando, during the Zora Festival earlier this month. The story is told from the perspective of husband/wife pairs of each town’s leaders during their attendance at the National Business League Conference in 1913. Isaiah T. Montgomery’s wife sings about “clearing the land” when explaining how town founders transformed a swamp into a bustling black town in 1898. The Booker T. Washington sings about “getting new life” when he is spending time with these community leaders and learning about their accomplishments. the whole play builds a world where real people existed and made important contributions. It wasn’t lost on me that Hamilton was playing in same theater on the same night as Booker T.’s Towns, people that can turn history into musical theater are remarkable, and this post is a tribute to people doing it on every scale.

“Booker T.’s Towns” tells the story about HBTSA’s (Historically Black Towns and Settlements Alliance) founding towns, Eatonville, FL, Tuskegee, AL, Mound Bayou, MS, Grambling, LA, and Hobson City, AL

 

“Here is your Heart”: Reflections on Travel to Eatonville, Florida

Members of the grant team, Chaitra and Bernetiae, made their way to Orlando last weekend for the 30th annual Zora! Festival.  

Chaitra and Bernetiae in front of the Eatonville town crest, after our archivist in a backpack workshop

We started off in Macedonia Baptist Church on Friday morning listening to longtime Eatonville supporter, landscape architect and our community champion from the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum, Everett Fly, give a talk on historic preservation in San Antonio. We never get tired of him recounting how an oral history interview led to the discovery of a slave burial ground near the campus of Texas A&M in San Antonio.  

Zora Neale Hurston grew up in Eatonville and featured its residents in several of her stories. For the past 30 years community members have hosted an arts and literary festival to honor the writer and her legacy.

Afterwards, we made our way to Eatonville Town Hall to prepare for our archivists in a backpack workshop. Our community champion from Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance, Dr. Michelle Robinson, arranged for us to work with historically black college and university (HBCU) students and professors from Spelman College, Prairie View A&M University, Tuskegee University, Grambling State University, Texas Southern University, Mississippi Valley State University. They will be using the backpacks to surface stories in our selected black towns. Our learning outcomes for the session included showing them the power of inter-generational and community driven gathering of cultural assets to surface stories and bring about change as well as oral history techniques, tools in the backpacks, and digital preservation best practices. The students were amazing and we can’t wait to see what kinds of projects their explorations yield.      

The rest of our time in Eatonville/Orlando was full of good food, positive people, fun activities, and reveling in all things Zora!

Highlights include a rare performance of Dyann Robinson’s stage musical, Booker T.’s Towns at the Dr. Philips Center for the Performing Arts, Dr. Deborah Plant’s reflections on the release of Hurston’s New York Times best selling manuscript, Barracoon, and a banquet capped off with conversation between Alice Walker and a Zora biographer, Valerie Boyd. The title for this blog post comes from Ms. Walker’s comment on the impact of Zora’s work. She said [Zora’s writing] gives you your heart, in a world where people eat hearts, she gives us our own to hold and we should always cherish that gift.

American Wit and Humor at the Dawn of Mass Media: The Billy Arthur Collection

The Fall 2017 Southern Historical Collection undergraduate student assistant, Ayush Dagar, UNC class of 2020, wrote this blog post. Ayush also provided research support and transcription work for other projects in the Southern Historical Collection during his semester on staff.

Radio personality Ted Malone and Chapel Hill, NC writer and photographer Billy Arthur (holding camera). Portrait taken at the Wilmington, NC Azalea Festival. Hugh Morton Photographs and Films (P081)
Radio personality Ted Malone and Chapel Hill, NC writer and photographer Billy Arthur (holding camera). Portrait taken at the Wilmington, NC Azalea Festival. Hugh Morton Photographs and Films (P081)

While many may remember Billy Arthur (1911 – 2006) for his size – he played many roles in his life: politician, hobby shop owner, vaudeville performer, mascot, newspaper editor, Pulitzer Prize hopeful, but through and through he was a comedian. I discovered Billy Arthur while doing research in the Southern Historical Collection on North Carolina politicians and was struck by the incredible diversity of his talents and occupations.

Undated photograph of Arthur, presumably middle-aged. Found in series 6, folder 1.
Undated photograph of Arthur, presumably middle-aged. Found in series 6, folder 1.

During his time at The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Arthur was voted the “Wittiest Man” in his fraternity (Series 3, Folder 35). While chief editor of Jacksonville’s (N.C.) News and Views newspaper, their motto was “The Only Newspaper in the World That Gives a Whoop About Onslow County” (Series 3, Folder 35) And his is the only collection in the Southern Historical Collection that includes the “American wit–20th century” Library of Congress subject heading.

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