Stories from Swift Memorial Institute: A Late-HBCU in Appalachia

I was lucky enough to join the Archival Seedlings program through UNC Libraries’ Community-Driven Archives project with the idea of assisting residents in Bristol, twin cities that span across Tennessee and Virginia, with organizing and making available some of the narratives they wanted to share with their communities and the broader world. Their stories include the history of Blackbottom, the urban-removed Black business district, and the Historic Lee Street Baptist Church that survived relocation.

Through months of conversations and technical support from UNC staff and local elders, we were able to identify project goals and methods for achieving a helpful and sustainable outcome. Unfortunately, the phrase, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” came true with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and public health crisis. For this project, the rapid spread of the virus meant I could not engage with elders in Bristol who were leading the narrative development because face-to-face conversations would certainly place those leaders in danger.

Black and white postcard featuring a three-story building with many windows and a central tower, labeled "Swift College"
Swift College, ca. 1920. Courtesy the Swift Museum

With the assistance of UNC staff through several brainstorming calls, we were able to identify a project closer to home that could be implemented with minimal contact with residents. In 2012 and 2013, I had helped conduct oral history interviews with a number of community members associated with Swift Memorial Institute, a late Historically Black College in Rogersville, Tennessee. Additionally, I had access to more formal interviews with scholars and authors on that subject matter. My project then became curating these raw interviews into something that would be useful to Swift alumni, the community, and researchers interested in their stories.

Swift Memorial Institute

In 1883, Swift College was established by the Presbyterian church as a place of learning for formerly enslaved African Americans and their children. Swift’s sister school, Maryville College, enrolled African American students alongside white students until 1901, when the State of Tennesse passed a law barring private schools from hosting integrated classes. Maryville sent its African American students along with $25,000 of its own endowment to Swift, changing its name to Swift Memorial Institute and fortifying efforts to construct new buildings and expand its curriculum. Swift also served the region’s high school students.

Shortly after Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Swift closed its doors and, in 1955, its administrative building was torn down. The remaining buildings and campus grounds now host the local Hawkins County School System’s offices and maintenance department. Throughout its 72 year history, Swift Memorial Institute has been a beacon for African American communities, offering a standard for African American education and institution building.

An African-American woman-presenting person seated in front of a sign reading "Swift Memorial Jr. College 2004 Reunion 25th Anniversary"
Stella Gudger, Founder of Swift Museum, Rogersville, TN. Courtesy William Isom, II

One of the feeder schools to the college was Price Public, a primary school located adjacent to the Swift campus. For nearly 20 years, my cousin, Stella Gudger, coordinated the preservation and restoration of this last remaining Black school in the town of Rogersville. Through her efforts and support from the community, the building now operates as Price Public Community Center & Swift Museum. In 2012, I was approached by Cousin Stella to help conduct oral histories with Swift alumni and researchers with information on the early history of the college. That work provided the content for a short documentary on the school and the large amount of stories about Swift associated with my Community-Driven Archives project.

The stories I compiled and made accessible through this Community-Driven Archives project were personally important as a mechanism for repairing some of the invisibility of Black narratives of Hawkins County, Tennessee in dominant local narratives. My own long familial history with the immediate area has propelled my interest in finding creative ways to put these narratives in front of those with roots in the area and to interject this history into the broader historical considerations of the region. By doing this work, I also came to a good understanding of the continued importance of Swift College to those who attended the school—the value the immediate community places on the HBCU’s history and the pride associated with being a “Swiftie.” With the removal of Swift’s main administrative building, elders are relying on their stories and the efforts of the Swift Museum as stewards of this special space and its lessons for future generations.

Project Support through Archival Seedlings

Entrance to a building with a sign reading "Price Public Community Center & Swift Musuem" with a fence in front draped with a sign reading "Swift Reunion, 2015, Rogersville, TN"
Price Public Community Center & Swift Museum. Courtesy William Isom, II

Through the support of UNC Libraries’ Community-Driven Archives program, I was able to convert a collection of older video files from .avi to .mp4, edit them down for content, and upload 28 oral histories and interviews to YouTube. Project contributor Amira Sakalla then worked to transcribe the nearly six hours of interview content, made possible through Archival Seedlings program funding. Coming out of this project, we were able to deliver these videos to the Price Public Community Center & Swift Museum in their preferred format, DVDs, and supply printed transcriptions neatly bound for reading. To ensure redundancy and public availability, we’re also making the interviews and transcripts available to the Hawkins County Archives and the East Tennessee Historical Society in Knoxville. For researchers based outside of the area, all materials are accessible through a dedicated webpage through the Black in Appalachia project, along with other Black history materials associated with Rogersville and Hawkins County.

An African-American woman-presenting person wearing purple and gold, Swift Memoral Institute colors, seated in front of purple and gold graduation robes and backdrop
Swift Alumn Dessa Parkey-Blair. Courtesy William Isom, II

Throughout this project and the obstacles presented by the global pandemic, I’ve learned the value of being nimble with my big ideas and plans. It has also been a healthy reminder of the importance of moving narratives off of the hard drive and into the streets, so to speak, mindful of the steady passing of elders who contributed to this body of work. In a tiny way, this project is dedicated to the late Dessa Parkey-Blair, a lifelong educator from the hills of Hancock County, Tennessee who said, “All you got to do is sit tight, listen, learn all you can, do all you can, say all you can, but be right. That’s how I do life.”

For more about the Archival Seedlings initiative on the Southern Sources blog:

Archival Seedlings: Resourcing Local Collaborators Across the American South

Community-based, in a Digital Space

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

Follow us on Twitter: @SoHistColl_1930  #CommunityDrivenArchives #CDAT #SHC

Archival Seedlings: Putting Our Values into Practice, the 2020 Edition

Throughout the harrowing challenges of 2020, our Community-Driven Archives Team has been in conversation with our Archival Seedlings program collaborators about the shifting needs and scope of their projects. We recognized early on that due to capacity challenges posed for folks juggling their archival projects with paid work, family life, and other commitments, all while facing the many challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, Seedlings needed tools, digital resources, and support for some of the especially time-consuming aspects of their work.

Here are some ways our collaboration with Seedlings participants got creative this year to resource local history initiatives with the support of our grant funds:

  • We worked with William Isom, II to hire a Black in Appalachia volunteer to transcribe over two dozen video interviews with alumni and friends of Swift Memorial Institute, a former historic African-American college in Rogersville, TN, for a history project in collaboration with the Swift Museum.
  • We helped the Tuskegee History Center in Tuskegee, AL join the Association of African American Museums so the community museum’s director, Deborah Gray, could receive online support during the COVID-19 crisis.
  • We hired a local-area videographer to film interviews with eight local elders about their life histories through Phyllis Miller’s project in Grambling, Louisiana.
  • We connected Lisa Withers and Amber Amberson to web hosting services for their digital collections. They have each decided to start an online archive to ensure community use and access of collections outside of predominately white museums, archives, and historical societies. Lisa’s project focuses on descendant communities of former North Carolina Green Book sites, and Amber is documenting locals’ memories in the small historically Black town of Smithville, Texas.
  • We worked with D.L. Grant to caption video interviews on Zoom with descendants of Prudence Curry, the first director of the historically African-American George Washington Carver Branch Library in San Antonio, TX, and with Sylvia Stanback to caption her Zoom interview with a relative about their family’s chapter of Greensboro, NC Black history during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras.
  • We worked with Whitney Peckman and her local collaborators to share her documentary video about the former historic African-American Dunbar School in East Spencer, NC with the greater community through a viewing station in East Spencer Town Hall.

Learn more about Archival Seedlings and check out some of the tools and resources that we created for the program on our website.

For more about the Archival Seedlings program on the Southern Sources blog:

Archival Seedlings: Resourcing Local Collaborators Across the American South

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

Follow us on Twitter @SoHistColl_1930 #CommunityDrivenArchives #CDAT #SHC

Archival Seedlings: Resourcing Local Collaborators Across the American South

From the beginning of our grant-funded project, we at the Community-Driven Archives (CDA) Team at UNC Libraries have endeavored to envision programs that reorient traditional archival standards, workflows, and practices to be in deeper alignment with the needs and goals of historically marginalized history keepers across the South. One of our initiatives, Archival Seedlings, aims to extend the reach of our support beyond our four pilot partners, to directly resource individual projects that amplify community histories underrepresented in dominant archives, including ours at UNC-Chapel Hill.

What Is “Archival Seedlings”?

Launched in January 2020, Archival Seedlings is a 15-month program supporting the development of small community archives projects led by individual history keepers across the South. The program emphasizes process over product, and all 10 participants, known as “Seedlings,” have participated in seven months of programmed online “how-to” workshops on topics relevant to archival and history projects. Over the course of the program, CDA team members have also supported Seedlings in developing projects of their choosing.

Community Archival Work within an Institutional Archive

Though some Seedlings participants are potentially interested in becoming professional archivists, most are not. Never intended as a professional primer, our program focuses on supporting each project’s unique needs, rooted in the specific community it intends to serve. It operates from a consideration of best practices for community care and stewardship of historical records.

What makes Archival Seedlings unique?

  • It focuses on storytelling as well as access and preservation of historical records. Because many history keepers want to preserve as well as share histories that may not otherwise be recorded or documented, our program emphasizes the value of storytelling. We hosted workshops on research methods, exhibition development, and creating a documentary to help Seedlings imagine the shapes that their stories could take.
  • It is not overly concerned with deliverables; we emphasize process over product. Each Seedlings project varies greatly in terms of scale. Some Seedlings are interviewing 1 or 2 people and sharing a few meaningful photos related to their story through a blog post. Others are conducting multiple oral history interviews, aiming to kick off a new digital community-based collection. On our end, we don’t set requirements aside from asking that Seedlings share a few examples with us from their collections, participate in workshops, and stay in touch with our team.
  • It compensates participants for their time. Though not paid an hourly rate or salary like project staff members, each Seedlings participant received a $4,500 stipend for spending time participating in our programmed webinars, workshops, and related events, and for working on their projects. This is a small way of acknowledging the time and labor that goes into making, saving, and sharing history.
  • It supports projects that benefit the communities they come from. We encourage the participants to consider the long-term availability of their project to their chosen audiences. When Seedlings consider why they embarked on these projects and who needs to access them, they often decide that their materials should stay in community rather than go to an institutional archival collection. This is one way that we challenge the historically extractive nature of institutional archives.

Leading from our Values

As with all of our community archives-focused initiatives, we acknowledge that there is no one way to do this work and that, at its heart, community-based collaboration is relational and fluid. We learn to be adaptable based on each individual collaboration and what it presents in terms of needs, opportunities, constraints, and possibilities.

As with all of our programs, our values are our compass; we emphasize the importance of developing a set of guiding principles to lead the way. Below are ours:

  • We center the needs of a diverse set of communities by listening carefully to local leaders and supporting local history keepers. Engaged communities build more representative archives and historical narratives.
  • We demystify institutional archives and support history keepers to steward their own collections and interpret their own histories.
  • We directly support and resource the work of our partners. These groups preserve and share underrepresented stories and empower communities as curators.
  • We act as a home base for history keepers, sharing archival and interpretive approaches that range from easy to complex and from affordable to high budget.

For more about Archival Seedlings on the Southern Sources blog:

Archival Seedlings: Putting Our Values into Practice, the 2020 Edition

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

Follow us on Twitter: @SoHistColl_1930 #CommunityDrivenArchives #CDAT #SHC

Storytelling through Community-Driven Archives

Our unique approach to archival workflows is one thing that sets community-driven archives approaches apart from mainstream archival methods. Traditionally, archivists stick to access and preservation and leave interpretation and storytelling to the researchers. But what happens when we listen to what our audiences want? We find ways to help them tell meaningful stories about their communities’ history.

Our Core Audiences and Understanding What Matters to Them

Within our community-driven archives (CDA) project, audience means a lot to us. This has been true since the beginning of our grant project, and it is getting clearer as we head towards wrapping it up and sharing what we have learned.

Our project strives to support and amplify historical projects by and for communities underrepresented in institutional archives. Our priority audience is community-based archive projects: groups of people who are interested in creating an archival project documenting their own community. We also work with individual history keepers: people, like family genealogists and community organizers, wanting to document and share histories currently missing from dominant archives and narratives due to legacies of injustice.

While brainstorming for what will go on our new project website (coming soon), our team looked at all the tools and resources that we have created with our project partners since the start of the grant. We asked ourselves, what kinds of resources are most useful to our core audiences?

Title page of Storytelling webinar with UNC logo
Learn about documentary storytelling in this CDA webinar with Theo Moore of Hiztorical Vision Productions.

We noticed that one of the most common resource requests that we receive from our community collaborators is for more tools about storytelling. In response, we have created new resources on topics like “the art of storytelling” and “how to create an exhibition.”

But what do we mean by storytelling and why should archives professionals care?

Making a Case for Storytelling in Community Archives Projects

Archives have historically prioritized the access and preservation of historical records over the interpretation of history, leaving the latter to researchers. For community archives projects, we believe it must be different.

Community archives projects address gaps in the dominant historical record and complicate mainstream historical narratives. Communities want their stories told on their own terms. Through building an archive, the collecting of history supports the (re)telling of it.

In many cases, the stories uncovered through community-based collections are not otherwise known. Due to legacies of racism, settler colonialism, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression, histories by and for Black, Indigenous, people of color, women, and LGBTIQ people have been hidden or silenced. As a result, beyond building their collection, many history keepers also want to broadcast the stories they’ve researched and curated through their archive. Many history keepers want to control how their community’s stories get told, rightfully questioning outside researchers’ and institutions’ motivations.

a museum exhibit with a backdrop of a church featuring men's and women's clothing on two mannequins near a table of historical artifacts
One section of the EKAAMP, one of our pilot partners, exhibition on the Eastern KY Social Club, 2018.

Our collaborators and partners share their communities’ stories through a variety of methods: exhibitions, public programs, websites, social media and blog posts, documentaries, short videos, and more.
We believe that archival professionals like ourselves working with community archives projects must consider the importance of storytelling. Through community collaboration, we have the opportunity to support both the safeguarding and sharing of stories.

Ideas for Archival Institutions

Since the beginning of our community-driven archives project, our work has extended to train and resource history keepers to share stories they uncover through developing a collection.

Oral histories easily lend themselves to exhibitions and other vehicles for sharing stories with visitors. Members of our team have trained local history keepers to conduct oral histories as a path to preserving memories. From there, we have worked with our community partners to incorporate oral history clips and collections materials into physical and digital exhibitions and short documentary videos that narrate important stories. One of our pilot partners, the Appalachian Student Health Coalition, created a web-based storytelling project that draws on video interviews and data visualizations to share its members’ contributions to rural healthcare in Appalachia.

Through our Archival Seedlings program, we help our ten resident Seedlings develop an archival collection and share their historical project with chosen audiences. For some Seedlings, the websites, videos, blog posts, and exhibits they create to highlight their collection are the only places their audiences can find those histories. While some Seedlings are working with traditional institutions and repositories to preserve and share their finished projects, others are choosing to keep their collections with history keepers in their own communities and to take on project promotion and outreach themselves.

A Black person seated in from of a sign in the background reading "Swift Memorial Jr. College Reunion"
Stella Gudger, Founder of the Swift Museum in Rogerville, TN, from Archival Seedling William Isom II’s interview with her.

One Seedlings participant, William Isom II, is compiling a collection of video interviews with alumni from the historically Black Swift Memorial Institute in Rogersville, TN into a video that will be on view in the museum located on Swift’s historic campus. In addition, one of our pilot partners, the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project (EKAAMP) has recently launched an exhibition sharing the oral histories and archival materials it collected through community-based research. These are great examples of how a collection can be “put to work” to share stories.

Storytelling Resources

Storytelling resources are available along with other related tools and trainings on our website.

For more about community-based archives on the Southern Sources blog:

What’s in an Archive? Deciding Where Your Historical Materials Will Live

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

Follow us on Twitter @SoHistColl_1930 #CommunityDrivenArchives #CDAT #SHC