Building on Sixty Years of Partnership to Preserve the History of Penn Center

The first school established in the U.S. South to educate formerly enslaved people. The beating heart of Gullah cultural traditions. A sacred gathering place for those seeking justice, civil rights, and Black uplift. Since 1862, Penn Center has been the convergence point for these and many other central threads of the American experience. And since 1962, the Southern Historical Collection has been honored to collaborate with Penn Center in preserving a rich archive of materials that document Penn’s storied past.

This year we are reflecting on this legacy of preservation, sixty years in the making, and preparing the way for decades of partnership to come!  Here is an interactive timeline of the Penn Center-UNC Library partnership and some highlights of our most recent community-engaged activities:

Timeline:

 

Digitization and Access:

  • Since 2005, we have digitized around 10,000 documents, including: all early Penn correspondence, administrative records, dozens of manuscript volumes, and other papers.
  • Digitized twenty five fragile 18th- and early 19th-century photograph albums (with more than 1600 pages containing thousands of individual photographs) and hundreds of individual unmounted photographs.
  • Digitized more than 300 audiocassettes and 10 transcription discs, containing recordings of Gullah and African American musical traditions, oral history interviews, and recordings of meetings and events.
  • This year we received an National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) grant to digitize a set of at-risk films from the Penn collections.

Recent Community Outreach and Education:

  • SHC staff have visited Penn Center several times in recent years to meet with the center’s staff about ways to make the collection more readily accessible to the research public and the local communities around Penn.
  • This spring, SHC curators Chaitra Powell and Brianna McGruder developed and taught a UNC Maymester class on the history of Penn Center (AAAD 290 – “Memory Work at Penn Center“). The  class included hands on research and engagement activities during a visit to Penn Center by enrolled UNC students.
  • SHC archivist Brianna McGruder curated a digital exhibition, “Erasure and Resilience at Penn,” focused on surfacing the marginalized thoughts, narratives, and voices of local Black people who are documented within Penn’s archival collections.
  • UNC Library staff developed a LibGuide to aid researchers in navigating the two main Penn archival collections and many related primary and secondary sources.

More Information and Links:

What is a Community?

Here at CDA, our team speaks about communities a lot, working to imagine and redefine what that word implies. But what exactly do we mean when we say a Community? That question seems straightforward but there is a great deal of ambiguity in this term. When we at CDA talk about communities, we aren’t just talking about towns that exist right here, right now with a neatly registered zip code. Communities can be towns, cities, parishes, neighborhoods or enclaves, rural and urban, but they can also be identities, small groups, diasporas, and informally established. Some are “post-place” but still united by a common identity. In other words, there was a historic place, but now it’s a group of dispersed people.

This complex relationship between physical space and abstract meaning produces important discussions about identity, motivating community partners and community champions to combat what scholars like Michelle Caswell have called “symbolic annihilation.”[1] Communities that had been historically, and continually, marginalized, erased, and ignored are finding ways to increase their visibility through community-archival and cultural heritage work. This increased visibility showcases the three parts of what Caswell et al calls “representational belonging.” These three parts, we were here, I am here, we belong here, affirms the importance of a community’s existence.[2] Gaps in the narrative of underrepresented communities affect histories and have consequences for contemporary identities. By refocusing the narrative, communities control their own modes of representation as opposed to tokenism by traditional power structures.

Here are a few examples of why representational belonging is so important.  Shankleville is an un-incorporated community in Newton County, Texas. This was a “freedom colony” founded by Jim and Winnie Shankle in the postbellum period. What does it mean for the contemporary community that lives in and studies Shankleville that there are so many gaps in the narrative about the lives of Jim and Winnie? Another community example is found in Portland, Oregon. One community member talked about the invisibility of the Black community there, especially when paired with notions of gentrification and infrastructure expansions, like a light-rail that displaced large swaths of the African American community. Local organizations, like the Vanport Mosaic, use art and other media to amplify forgotten histories, but what do the historic erasure practices mean for those living in the Pacific Northwest? A final example is the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project which examines the now diasporic community previously located in Lynch, KY. As jobs in the coal mining industry dried up in the mid-20th century, families relocated physically, but they remain deeply connected to Harlan County and each other. What does it mean for miners, children and grandchildren of miners to be so far apart across the country, but to return yearly for reunions? All these communities are striving for representational belonging, internal and external confirmation that their stories matter.

This is one of our grant project data visualization maps, showing the locations of just some historic black towns and communities. There are plenty of places and communities that remain hidden and part of our work is to present as full and as rich a representation as we can based on the materials presented by communities.

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. 

Follow us on Twitter    #AiaB #yourstory #ourhistory #communityarchives #EKAAMP #HBTSA #SHC #SAAACAM #memory #community #CDAT @vanportmosaic @shankleville

[1] Michelle Caswell, Alda Allina Migoni, Noah Ceraci, and Marika Cifor, “‘To Be Able to Imagine Otherwise’: community archives and the importance of representation,” Archives and Records, 38., no. 1, (2017), 5-26.

[2] Caswell, et., al.

Juneteenth: Building on Freedom

On June 19th, 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued General Order #3 in Galveston, Texas. It read, in part:

THE SLAVES ALL FREE.

GENERAL ORDERS, No. 3. — The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, “all slaves are tree.” This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.¹

Though Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his army in April of 1865, it took some months for hostilities to cease and for word to travel to the western arm of the Confederacy. The Emancipation Proclamation, which went into law on January 1st, 1863, was supposedly difficult to enforce in Texas due to the weak Union presence in that state at the time.

June 19th, 1865 saw more confusion than celebration, but the following year marked the first-ever celebration of the Juneteenth holiday – a combination of “June” and “nineteenth” – commemorating emancipation. The Southern Historical Collection has few holdings related to Juneteenth celebrations in particular, but we have many items that recorded how Freedpeople recognized and built new lives after emancipation.

The image gallery below features two sharecropping contracts (1866 and 1868) signed by a number of Freedpeople from Green, Hale, and Marengo counties in Alabama. Click on a thumbnail to expand and learn more about the contracts.

All images from the Johnston and McFaddin Family Papers (#02489-z), Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

New Collections: Activists, Educators, Families, and War

We have over a dozen new collections that are preserved, processed, and now available for research. Some highlights:

  • New materials span from 1764 to 2010
  • Subjects geographically range from Mexico to China (with plenty of Alabama and North Carolina in between)
  • Grassroots organizing, coal mining, and educational activism are common themes
  • There are 3 Civil War photographs and 2 books containing personal sketches from much of the UNC Chapel Hill classes of 1859-1865

Click on any of the collection titles to learn more about the materials, view any digital items, and request them for use in our reading room.

Continue reading “New Collections: Activists, Educators, Families, and War”

“Before I’m 25” – Sharing Stories with Google Cultural Institute

In our ongoing quest to engage audiences in new and different ways, we are pleased to unveil a project that we have been working on for the past few months. In partnership with the Google Cultural Institute’s series on Black History and Culture, we have developed an online exhibit of original collection materials titled Before I’m 25… Stories of African American Youth.

beforeBefore I’m 25 is a multimedia exhibit that uses our diverse collections to highlight the ways African American youths have shaped Southern history. Spanning over 150 years, it examines the lives of young African Americans through the lenses of freedom, military service, the pursuit of education, entertainment, and activism.

The Google Cultural Institute allows museums and archives throughout the world to share their collections with the online using sleek, innovative technology. As part of the Google Cultural Institute’s series on Black History and Culture, The Southern Historical Collection is in good company with partners ranging from the National Museum of African American History and Culture to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Each of over forty exhibits covers one niche of Black history and culture, from Alvin Ailey to Frederick Douglass, and from Black comic books to African American inventors.

We are excited to share this digital exhibit with you and hope that it enhances discussions by and about African American youth, and how history shapes our present day.

Daniel Webster recommendation letter on behalf of former slave Paul Jennings

Paul Jennings was born a slave at Montpelier, James and Dolley Madison’s Virginia plantation home, in 1799. He served as President Madison’s personal body servant before and during Madison’s time in the White House. Jennings was with Madison when he died in 1836. Struggling financially after her husband’s death, Dolley Madison eventually sold Paul Jennings to an insurance agent for $200. Senator Daniel Webster interceded and bought Jennings from the agent for $120. Webster then arranged for Jennings to work to purchase his freedom, which Jennings obtained in 1847.

Recently, archivists in the Southern Historical Collection re-discovered a short recommendation letter written in 1851 by Daniel Webster on behalf of Paul Jennings. The letter is filed with the SHC’s Alfred Chapman Papers (#1545). We have now updated the description in the finding aid to make specific mention of this letter. Please see below for a scan and transcription of Webster’s letter.

For a more complete history of Jennings’s life, please see:
A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons, by Elizabeth Dowling Taylor (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

*****

Item description: Recommendation letter, dated 23 June 1851, written by Daniel Webster (1782-1852) about his former slave, Paul Jennings (1799-1874).

Item transcription:

Paul Jennings was a servant in our house, for a considerable time. We think him very honest, faithful and sober; and a competent dining room servant. Formerly he was body servant to Mr. Madison.

Daniel Webster
June 23, 1851

Item citation:

From folder 3 of the Alfred Chapman Papers, #1545, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.