A New Project in Wilson: Untangling the Roots: Surfacing the Lived Experience of Enslaved People in the Archives

These posts are written by Lydia Neuroth, a first year graduate student in the School of Information and Library Science and a 2018-2020 Carolina Academic Library Associate (CALA) for the Southern Historical Collection and Archival Technical Services.  

This semester we launched a new project in Wilson Special Collections Library. Situated within Archival Technical Services and the Southern Historical Collection, my CALA project explores the ways people access (or don’t access) collections about slavery.  

We recognize that we are one of many institutions who are thinking about barriers to access, particularly when it comes to records of the enslaved. For us, our biggest hurdle is how these materials are described in our finding aids. In many cases, we are dealing with collections that have been described years ago and suffer from a lack of identified slave related content, or description that is just downright discriminatory. University of Minnesota Libraries and Princeton University Archives (just to name two) have acknowledged these legacy issues of description and begun implementing strategies and solutions that surface materials previously difficult to discover through traditional keyword searches in their collections. We benefit from their efforts and transparency about their process. I spent a great deal of my first few weeks on this project scanning the field and culling scholarship on this topic. I have read more articles about finding aids than I care to admit. The literature is helpful for grounding us in the context of the archival field. It also helps us to compare and contrast our particular issues to those of other institutions.  

Many institutions have partnered with teams in the digital humanities field to create digital databases or other web platforms that circumvent (for the most part) issues that are inherent to finding aids.I consider projects like UNC-Greensboro Libraries’ Digital Library on American Slavery and Maryland State Archives’ Legacy of Slavery in Maryland some of the more robust examples offering multiple portals and access to thousands of documents about slavery in their collections. The Virginia Historical Society’s Unknown No Longer Project has existed in some capacity since the 90s, and their online database was created in 2011. These projects are impressive and interesting. Many researchers have praised their capabilities of aggregating similiar information into a single access point. Unfortunately, they don’t offer the solutions we need for some of our more specific problems. Our manuscript collections are varied in content and format type. Letters, diaries, and wills don’t lend themselves to easy data collection in the ways that court records or runaway slaves ads do. It is challenging to boil down our material into data points that can be searched within a database. It is forcing us to think outside the box, literally and figuratively! 

VHS’s database allows you to search records by location. These were the results from a search I conducted for Morven Plantation in Albemarle County, Virginia.

In order to be successful, our project must be rooted in understanding our users and their various needs. Many people use our collections including undergraduates, graduates, faculty, scholars, genealogists, community members, and library staff. Some of them have been using archival finding aids for years, others have never stepped foot in a special collections library. We are asking ourselves: how do we build a system that is useful to each of these constituencies and their differing needs? Do we focus on one group? Or do we try to accommodate them all? 

Most of our work is conducted behind the scenes therefore we rely heavily on the expertise of our research and instructional team who staffs our reading room. Our conversations with them have illuminated one group on which to focus: undergraduates. We’re thinking through ways to include them in our understanding of barriers to access. Survey-style questionnaires, focus groups, one-one-one interviews, and usability studies are just some of the research methods we’ve discussed. We’re interested in gaining feedback on specific challenges they’ve encountered in the reading room or online. User feedback is an important component to this project we want to be intentional about how we listen.

To be honest, we have not yet defined an outcome of this project. The last semester was so very exploratory: understanding our collection, understanding our users, and understanding what has already been done in the field. In many ways, we are still struggling to wrap our own minds around the problems and how we can address them through practical, sustainable methods. Ultimately, we hope that our investigation will inform a comprehensive solution that will address multiple barriers to accessing these materials whether they be description, primary source literacy, physical access, or anything else that limits a user’s ability. 

That’s a lot to cover, and it’s only the highlights. Perhaps I’ll wrap up by reflecting on our experience choosing a title for this project. We gathered several images and asked a few Wilson colleagues to describe words or phrases that came to mind. As project leaders, we remained in the background and listened while our peers meditated on the heaviness that is the reality of American slavery. It was a powerful exercise. We compiled a list of these phrases and extracted four potential titles. To gather further input, we circulated our top four choices among the entire Wilson Library staff and asked them to choose their favorite. The result? Untangling the Roots 

Colleagues in Wilson Library help us pick a project title from a collection of images.

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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 

  

     

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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

 

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“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.

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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/

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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.

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Alexander Hamilton in Wilson Library

Signature from Alexander Hamilton letter, 15 October 1792.

Everyone around here is excited about Hamilton, now playing at the Durham Performing Arts Center. Did you know that you could also find Hamilton in Wilson Library? 

The Wilson Library special collections include a handful of original materials from Alexander Hamilton. These include correspondence in the William Graham Papers, a financial document in the Stephen Lee Papers, and a first edition of the Federalist Papers. 

But by far the most interesting item we have come across is a letter from Hamilton to John Steele, dated 15 October 1792. In the letter, Hamilton speculates on the upcoming federal elections, offering his opinions on possible Vice-Presidential candidates, including John Adams, George Clinton, Aaron Burr, and Thomas Jefferson. 

One line in particular stood out: “My opinion of Mr. Burr is yet to form.” 

Detail from Alexander Hamilton letter, 15 October 1792,

The letter is part of the William Gaston Papers in the Southern Historical Collection. Gaston acquired the letter as part of his effort to assist Hamilton’s son, John C. Hamilton, who was writing a biography of his father.

To learn more, read the full letter or a transcript. 

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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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