Collection’s Correspondence Unearths Valuable Information about Early 20th Century Apache Students

The Stephen Beauregard Weeks Papers, 1746-1941 (collection #00762) is composed of correspondence, diaries, notebooks/logs, and other volumes related primarily to the history of southern education and religion. Documents cover a wide array of subjects, such as southern Quakers and slavery, the Methodist church in North Carolina and the South, 18th century Moravians in North Carolina, and the formation of the Southern Historical Association.

The collection’s creator, Stephen B. Weeks (1865-1918), was a white North Carolina educator and historian who at the beginning of the 20th century also worked as the superintendent of the San Carlos Boarding School for Apache Indians in Arizona. Coverage of his time and role there largely consists of correspondence between 1899 and 1907. These letters illuminate valuable biographical information about Apache students and their families, as well as provide contextual insight into the nature of other Native American boarding schools at the time.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs, an agency of the Department of the Interior, first initiated their paternalistic campaign for assimilation-through-education in the 1870s. Boarding schools operated both on and off reservations, but each generally shaped its policies and practices from Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School’s (1879-1918) model. This institution’s guiding slogan was “To civilize the Indian, get him into civilization. To keep him civilized, let him stay” (Native Heritage Project, 2012). Government agents and educators believed it to be in the best interest of Indigenous peoples to “advance” through Americanization, and from this understanding developed an oppressive educational system which forcibly removed them from their families—sometimes as young as five-years-old. These schools then sought to strip Indigenous students of their native identities and culture. A framework as such did not tolerate students’ remnant adherence to Indigenous language, religion, and/or other customs. Failure to comply was often severely punished in the form of physical and emotional abuse. Beatings, labor, confinement, as well as sexual abuse, malnutrition, and disease were common experiences among students.

Below are two photos courtesy of the Cumberland County Historical Society. They capture Carlisle’s mission to replace Indigenous culture and their precedential setting for successive boarding schools with parallel ideologies. Visit the Cumberland Historical Society’s digital collection of more than 3,000 related images for larger views.

Of particular note regarding the series of letters uncovered from the Southern Historical Society’s collection is evidence of an imposed coding system used to identify students. These tag bands, as they were called, were placeholders in the forced transition from Apache to English names. They appear throughout Stephen B. Weeks’ correspondence in various combinations of letters and numbers, such as TE 18, SB 55, and CJ 18 (see Box 17). Government agents instigated this tag band system first by dividing the Apache population into bands—each allocated with a corresponding letter—and from there assigned individuals (married men first) an identifying number.

Seen in this 1903 letter from an agent of the U.S. Indian Service to Stephen B. Weeks is introduction of a new Apache student and her family. Her grandfather is referred to by tag band CJ 28 and her father by English name David Norton. The agent suggests the student be assigned the name of Tina Norton, illuminating the name replacement practices common among such boarding schools.
Another instance of referral to Apache students by their tag band, in this case TA 36.

It’s important to note that this arbitrary system not only undermined Indigenous practices, autonomy, and decision-making, but also inflicted profound emotional harm on students and other Apaches subjected to it.

Keith H. Basso (1940-2013), a notable linguistic anthropologist, focused his research on the Apache people and has many publications which discuss these findings. In his collection of essays Western Apache Language and Culture (1992), Basso frames language as “everywhere a symbolic form without parallel or peer” and posits that “the activity of speaking—of enacting and implementing language—is surely among the most-meaning filled of all” (p. xii). Language is core to one’s identity, both individually and collectively as a people. To remove and replace it with something foreign is to severely deconstruct the person.

Photo courtesy of Goodreads.

Basso goes on to explain that central to Apache language in particular is its significance of placenames—a value transferrable to the significance of more generalized proper nouns. Apaches intimately relate to their environmental landscape, geographic locations often holding noteworthy power in the exchange of stories and resulting sociocultural understandings about the world. These placenames facilitate tribal morality and standards of social interaction. Basso elaborates, “the character of these meanings—their steadier themes, their recurrent tonalities, and, above all, their conventionalized modes of expression—will bear the stamp of a common cast of mind. Constructions of reality that reflect conceptions of reality itself, the meanings of landscapes and acts of speech are personalized manifestations of a shared perspective on the human condition” (p. 140).

From this groundwork, Basso extrapolates that Apache placenames set precedent for the weight of other proper nouns, such as individuals’ names. Outsiders’ neglect of this Apache reality is rooted in an uninformed and over-simplified “view of language in which proper names are assumed to have meaning solely in their capacity to refer […] as agents of reference” (p. 143). Apache students with tag bands and, later, English names were primed for total loss of their native heritage with the initial loss of their native names.
Powerful insight from an Apache woman, known as Mrs. Annie Peaches and who was Basso’s first Apache teacher in 1959, further conveys this tragedy. She observes that “If we lose our language, we lose our breath. Then we will die and blow away like leaves” (p. xiii-xiv).

This collection’s listings of tag band identifiers, as well as Apache students’ English names, provide exciting new pathways into genealogical research and promote discussion about the detrimental effects of deracination practices imposed on Indigenous peoples nationwide. Note that findings listed from Box 17 (see above) may not be a comprehensive account, so we invite you to look through other boxes in the series for even more information on early 20th century Apache students at the San Carlos Boarding School. You can access the Finding Aid for the Stephen Beauregard Weeks Papers, 1746-1941 through this link https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/00762/ or visit the Research Room at Wilson Special Collections Library for in-person access to its abundant correspondence.

Additionally, listed below are several links to related collections from the National Archives and Records Administration which provide avenues to supplementary research, as well as resources for more contextual information about the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ boarding schools and Kevin H. Basso’s book on the Apache language. Finally, linked at the bottom is information about a Minneapolis based nonprofit working to collect and connect digitally dispersed Native American boarding school records. Please check out their website below for more information about how to help with this initiative.

Resources/references:

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.

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

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 and the 1930s. Correspondence and other materials cover subjects such as the American Methodist Episcopal church, medical practices, and courtship during the early twentieth century.

Also of interest is the collection’s documentation of family travel—most notably a trip taken in the backdrop of the Depression’s darkest years. J. McNeill Smith Jr. (1918-2011) traveled with his mother, Roberta Olivia Andrew Smith (1894-1995), to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. The Fair’s motto of “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms” was purposefully optimistic in light of the ongoing economic challenges across the country.

J. McNeill Smith Jr.’s guidebook to the fair
A notecard describing the inspired purpose of the institution as it relates to the Technical Ascent of Man and its host of exhibits for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.

Other trips documented in the collection include Minnie Smith’s (sister of J. McNeill Smith Sr.) trip to Europe in 1913, J. McNeill Smith Sr.’s and Roberta’s 1916 honeymoon in New York, and a 1921 trip to Cuba.

The collection finding aid is available online at https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/05800/# and the materials are open for research in Wilson Library.

Items related to the Chicago World’s Fair can be found in boxes 11 (postcards), 13 (letters), 23 (guidebook), and 25 (travel and exhibit ephemera).

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

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 and the 1930s. Correspondence and other materials cover subjects such as the American Methodist Episcopal church, medical practices, and courtship during the early twentieth century.

Also of interest is the collection’s documentation of family travel—most notably a trip taken in the backdrop of the Depression’s darkest years. J. McNeill Smith Jr. (1918-2011) traveled with his mother, Roberta Olivia Andrew Smith (1894-1995), to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. The Fair’s motto of “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms” was purposefully optimistic in light of the ongoing economic challenges across the country.

J. McNeill Smith Jr.’s guidebook to the fair
A notecard describing the inspired purpose of the institution as it relates to the Technical Ascent of Man and its host of exhibits for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.

Other trips documented in the collection include Minnie Smith’s (sister of J. McNeill Smith Sr.) trip to Europe in 1913, J. McNeill Smith Sr.’s and Roberta’s 1916 honeymoon in New York, and a 1921 trip to Cuba.

The collection finding aid is available online at https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/05800/# and the materials are open for research in Wilson Library.

Items related to the Chicago World’s Fair can be found in boxes 11 (postcards), 13 (letters), 23 (guidebook), and 25 (travel and exhibit ephemera).

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.]

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

 

Factory Workers in Rocky Mount Fight for “A Day On, Not a Day Off”

Today, as the world celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let us remember King’s full legacy – not just his legacy in the struggle to end racial segregation, but also his commitment to economic justice, his staunch opposition to the Vietnam War, and his advocacy for the American worker and deep involvement in the labor rights movement. Let us remember that in the days preceding his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, King was working with union leaders and black workers during a citywide sanitation strike. In his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, delivered before a meeting of the AFSCME union in Memphis, the night before he was killed, King said,

Mann’s Chapel AME Church choir performing during the 2009 MLK Day celebration at Bloomer Hill Community Center, Whitakers, NC

“You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth.”

There is also a story about labor embedded in the history of the observation of the annual Martin Luther King holiday. When MLK Day was first observed in 1986, it was not a paid holiday for the great majority of American workers. But this has changed slowly over the last three decades. A 2018 Bloomberg poll reported that 43% of workers in the United States marked the day as a paid holiday – an all time high. A new resource in the Southern Historical Collection (SHC) sheds light on how one group of workers in Rocky Mount, N.C., fought to secure a paid holiday from their employer, so that they could celebrate MLK Day with their community.

Saladin Muhammad of Black Workers for Justice speaking at the 2005 MLK Day celebration at Bloomer Hill Community Center, Whitakers, NC

In January 1990, a group of 210 workers at the Consolidated Diesel Company plant in Rocky Mount signed a petition calling for the company to grant a paid holiday for Martin Luther King Day. Three workers went to deliver the petition to the plant’s human resources manager, but he was not in his office because he was out attending a MLK Day breakfast (an event the employees could not attend because they were working). At first, management told workers that they would never agree to grant a paid holiday because it would cost the company too much money. So the workers organized the CDC Workers Unity Committee and carried on an advocacy campaign, handing out flyers and buttons to their co-workers, and working with the Rocky Mount Ministerial Association to organize a Juneteenth rally in support of their cause. After eight months of negotiations, the company agreed to establish a paid holiday for MLK Day. In 1991, labor organizers joined with leaders of the local African American community to host the first MLK Day celebration at the nearby Bloomer Hill Community Center in Whitakers, N.C. Every year since, the workers have come together for “A Day On, Not a Day Off,” to sustain Martin Luther King Jr.’s original vision of service and action.

The SHC’s newly processed James Wrenn Papers documents the workers’ efforts to establish a paid holiday, it includes programs and leaflets from many of the MLK Day celebrations from 1991 to the 2010s, and contains VHS and digital recordings of several of these MLK Day events. The collection also documents Wrenn’s work with the People’s Coalition for Justice, the Carolina Auto, Aerospace & Machine Workers Union-UE 150, and the Bloomer Hill Community Center in Whitakers, N.C.

For more information on the James Wrenn Papers, collection #5625, please check out the online finding aid: https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/05625/

Urgent Preservation: Extending the Work of Cherokee Linguists Robert H. Bushyhead and Jean Bushyhead Blanton

Linguists believe that there are only a few hundred native speakers of the Cherokee language left. In 2005, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) estimated that only 980 spoke Cherokee and “the average age of the speakers [was] over 50.” More recent estimates suggest that the number of fluent speakers may be as low as 200. The United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture, an organization which tracks threatened languages, lists Cherokee in North Carolina as “severely endangered.” In 2004, in response to the loss of native speakers, the EBCI opened the New Kituwah Academy, a Cherokee immersion school aimed at revitalizing the language for current and future generations.

Today we are proud to announce the opening of an important new collection of Cherokee resources which will allow us to contribute to the preservation of this beautiful but endangered language. Over the last few months the staff of the Southern Historical Collection has been collaborating with the family of Cherokee linguists Jean Bushyhead Blanton and Robert H. Bushyhead (a daughter-father team) to collect, process, and make available their extensive archive of papers, audio, and video recordings from their Cherokee language project. The Bushyhead Family Papers is now available to researchers. In fact, some of the audio in the collection has already been digitized and you can stream it through our website.

The digitized audio recordings include instruction on how to say various words and phrases in Cherokee (such as the days of the week or names of colors), the Pledge of Allegiance translated from English to Cherokee, and a performance of the Cherokee legend “Yonder Mountain.”

Robert H. Bushyhead
Robert H. Bushyhead

Robert H. Bushyhead was born in 1914 and raised in the Birdtown community of the Qualla Boundary. As a young child, his entire family spoke the Kituwah dialect of Cherokee. When he was seven years old his father enrolled him in a government boarding school in Cherokee, North Carolina, where his teachers forced him to abandon his native tongue for English. Bushyhead and his friends were punished if found speaking Kituwah, “as violently for speaking the Cherokee language as they would have if they caught us smoking or chewing,” he recalled. This forced assimilation was an experience shared by many Cherokee children, and is a major factor for the threatened existence of the language.

In the 1960s, Robert Bushyhead began documenting the vocabulary and grammar of his native Kituwah. In 1991 he started working with his daughter, Jean Bushyhead Blanton, to create a Cherokee language curriculum for classroom instruction. Recognizing the importance of seeing as well as hearing language instruction for K-12 students, they decided to develop a series of videotaped lessons. The Bushyhead Family Collection in the Southern Historical Collection consists largely of those recorded lessons, on more than 100 videotapes and 300 audiocassettes.

Robert H. Bushyhead once said, “Cherokee has a flow, it has a rhythm that is beautiful. And once you lose that rhythm, then, of course, you’re lost.” Bushyhead died on July 28, 2001, but his voice is not lost – it will be preserved as a living teaching and research tool at UNC Libraries.

Oral History Resources

Oral History Resources ­­

Oral histories are an essential part of most Community-Drive Archives work. Through oral histories, we are able to hear directly from people who have important stories or memories to share. Oral histories enable different ways of thinking about and learning from the past, and often present perspectives that are not well represented in traditional museums and archives.

One of our key partners at UNC-Chapel Hill is the Southern Oral History Program (SOHP). Since its founding in 1973, the SOHP has done groundbreaking work, creating a vital record of Southern history. The SOHP is often recognized as one of the leading oral history programs in the country. They are also a terrific resource for learning more about doing oral history, whether you are a seasoned professional or if you’re getting ready for your very first interview.

Here are several resources that we have found helpful when planning or preparing for oral histories:

  1. Bernetiae Reed, one of the Community-Driven Archives project staff members, is an experienced oral historian and offers an essential bit of advice for anyone considering oral histories: just get started.

“Don’t wait! Ask your questions now. If you procrastinate that opportunity can pass by and that story, that connection, or that moment could be gone forever! Pull out your recorder during special moments. Seek that person with things you want to know or that person with memories you want to capture. Your actions allow these words to be heard by future audiences! Start with those family stories that you have grown up hearing, connect with community members who have recollections that need to be preserved, and then go on from there. The most important factor in successful oral history capture are a communicative interviewee and an engaged interviewer.”

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

As you continue on your work with oral histories, no matter where you are in the process, get in touch with us if you have any questions or just have stories to share.

The Community-Drive Archives Project at UNC-Chapel Hill is supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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What’s with all the Backpacks?

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

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

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

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

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