All Hands on Deck at Hobson City’s Museum: Interview with Pauline Cunningham

In August 1899, the determined leaders of Mooree Quarters, the Black neighborhood of Oxford, Alabama, formed a separate town: Hobson City. It would be the first incorporated Black municipality in Alabama and the second in the nation.

Black and white images of road signs, with one priminent sign reading: Welcome to the Historic Hobson City
Still image from Hobson City: From Peril to Promise by Hiztorical Vision Productions, www.hiztoricalvp.org, Courtesy Theo Moore

Over the next several decades, Hobson City developed into a magnet for Black excellence and entertainment in the South. Today, Mayor Alberta McCrory wants to share the remarkable history of Hobson City and other historic Black towns in Alabama at the Hobson City Museum.

Group of femme-presenting Black people wearing white gloves around a table covered with historical objects, which they are wrapping in white paper
Left, front to back: Pauline Cunningham; Michelle Robinson (Spelman College). Right, front to back: Bobbie Jean Wright; Dories Jennings; Mayor Alberta McCrory. Packing museum collections at Hobson City Museum at Town Hall. Courtesy UNC CDAT

Through a partnership with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries’ Community Driven Archives (CDA) project, Hobson City Museum hosted a workshop in March 2020 that focused on caring for museum collections. Three UNC Libraries staff members provided training to residents of Hobson City and nearby Anniston on how to clean, handle, store, and inventory plaques, textiles, trophies, and photographs that document the contributions of local leaders such as James “Pappy” Dunn. Town Hall Clerk Pauline Cunningham was the Hobson City coordinator for the workshop and also participates in another CDA archival training program called Archival Seedlings.  I met with Pauline over Zoom to reflect on our collaboration in March and the future of the Hobson City Museum.

Room filled with museum cases and an array of plaques, trophies and other historical items
Trophies, plaques, and other museum items at the Hobson City Museum at Town Hall. Courtesy UNC CDAT

Conversation with Hobson City, Alabama Collaborator Pauline Cunningham

Q: What is the purpose of Hobson City Museum?

Pauline Cunningham: To be educational and show the history of Hobson City and who was all involved in making a change in Hobson City.  We started with [James] “Pappy” Dunn because he invested so much time, money, and energy in making a change for Hobson City.

Q: Who do you see as the visitors, and what kind of information do you hope they get out of it?

PC: We want people from all over—all over the United states, all over the world—to be able to come, see, learn, and understand the struggle that Hobson City has had in the past; and maybe in due time we’ll also show the struggle that’s happening right now.  Not because of COVID-19, just because of the economy.

Q: What was the museum’s goal for the workshop in March, and was it met?

Group of femme-presenting Black people around a table with computers and putting photographs and papers into folders.
Left: Dories Jennings. Right, front to back: Gina Young; Pauline Cunningham. Describing museum collections. Hobson City Museum at Town Hall. Courtesy UNC CDAT

PC: Not knowing anything, I feel like we learned so much. We learned how to archive, how to clean with the right agents.  We learned how to do so many things. How to preserve. It was so educational. I think my downfall is going to be, the people [who] were there this year to learn, [they] might not be there when [COVID-19] is over. I plan to try to write everything down and to make what we call a SOP [Standard Operating Procedures] for the military—how to do each step. I would love to add a DVD to it with all the videos that we had when learning from the different presenters [our series of how-to webinars through the Archival Seedlings program].

Q: The workshop happened as COVID-19 cases started to spread nationally. How did COVID-19 affect the museum in March?  How has it continued to affect the museum?

PC: It really went to a standstill. I’m older. I’m in that population that you don’t need to be out there unless you have to be, so it really went to a standstill; that’s the bad thing. The good news, I guess, will be once I start doing the SOP [manual], maybe somebody else can pick it up and keep doing some things; but right now, we’re at a standstill because of COVID-19.

Q: What do you think is the number one challenge going forward with skills gained through the workshop?

Two femme-presenting Black people, one seated cleaning a trophy, the other person, standing, looking on.
Sitting: Pauline Cunningham. Standing: Bobbie Jean Wright. Cleaning museum collections. Hobson City Museum at Town Hall. Courtesy UNC CDAT

PC: The memory that I won’t have if I don’t write it down. And the challenge is going to be getting the right people to continue to help with the museum, even though it doesn’t seem like a large project to some people. But it’s getting that volunteerism to come out and help—to work for the City, to get the City up and running—and I believe those that decide to do it, they’ll do it from the heart. So that’s going to be my challenge: to find the right people to make it continue to go.

Q: Should those people be in the community or people outside?

PC: Both really. Reality: when you guys were down in March, everybody there except for two people were from outside [Hobson City]…including myself [Pauline is a resident of nearby Anniston, AL.].

Q: What is the number one challenge of the museum?

PC: Space…availability for the museum. The challenge is going to be to utilize the space the best way to display or to show what we want to. Part of it [is] going to be the videos of people talking about the history, and some of the pictures, and some of the stuff we’ll just scan to make the rotating [slideshow] and voice behind it—where it came from, who donated it, and why it’s important—that sort of thing. That’s the challenge—putting [in] the right mix for such a small space.

Q: What was your favorite part of the workshop?

A peek inside a box filled with items wrapped in paper
Plaques in the museum collection labeled and stored. Hobson City Museum in Town Hall. Courtesy UNC CDAT

PC: I have two: One was archiving and learning how to do it right, so you can go back and find it on your archive list and where you stored it. And two was the cleaning of the artifacts. That to me was very critical because I would have messed it up! Because I would have used some regular cleaning detergent type stuff. So that—those two—how to store and clean and archive, that was tremendous. I loved it. I loved it.

Q: What question do you wish I asked you? Is there more you’d like to say?

PC: Just that I want to make sure I’m able to put the SOP [manual] together on how to do each thing. If I die tomorrow, somebody else can pick up the ball and run with it and know how to do it right. If I can pull all that together, I would love it. It’s a win-win for the City and for the education provided to us.

Want to learn more about Hobson City?  Visit the town website and watch the documentary Hobson City: From Peril to Progress, 27 min, by Hiztorical Vision Productions.

Read more about our work in collaboration with Hobson City, AL and other members of the Historically Black Towns and Settlements Allliance (HBTSA) on the Southern Sources blog:

Next Stop: The Great State of Alabama

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

Wilson Library Exhibit Tracks Worldwide, Historical Travels of Southerners

An American traveler in the 1850s journeyed the globe not by plane, but by boat and train, without telephone, radio receiver, or photo identification. A 15.5-by-10.5-inch passport from 1855 reads “nose — small, chin — large, hair — gray,” among other physical descriptions. The passport belonged to William Elliott and his daughters, who traveled to Paris before photography was in common use.

That passport, along with letters, photographs, maps, diaries, account books, and menus spanning the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, are part of Southerners Abroad: A Look at Southerners’ Travels Around the World. The exhibit opened in Wilson Library’s Southern Historical Collection (SHC) August 8, and will run through October 15, 2008.

Drawing on the SHC’s unique holdings, Southerners Abroad explores the wide variety of Southerners’ experiences abroad, shifting the traditional focus of the SHC away from the geographical southeastern United States to the world at large.

“I personally want people to know the Southern Historical Collection has more than they would think,” said UNC junior and student assistant Kelli Landing. Landing worked on the exhibit with Barbara Ilie, research and instructional services assistant; Robin Davies Chen, assistant manuscripts reference librarian; and Matt Turi, manuscripts reference librarian.

Landing’s favorite exhibit material comes from the Turner sisters, North Carolinians who were working and studying abroad in the 1930s and 1940s – when passports did include photographs. “I love that as women they traveled by themselves. That’s unusual,” Landing said.

One of the Turner sisters’ passports is displayed in the exhibit and is a window on gender relations at a time when most travelers were men. The passport contains a space for writing one’s name, and beneath it, blank spaces following the phrases “accompanied by wife” and “minor children.” These spaces are filled with X’s, emphasizing her position as a woman traveling without male accompaniment.

Other items in the exhibit include colorful menus offering hearts of lettuce and brains “as you like them” for $1.50; hand-tinted photographs given to American missionary to Japan, John C. Calhoun Newton; and letters describing hyenas and lions on the camp of Egyptian army engineer Samuel Henry Lockett.

“Traveling back then-in the nineteenth century-there were many things to fear,” said Barbara Ilie. “I encountered someone who feared yellow fever. Others had issues with loneliness. I had someone waiting literally for the monthly mail boat. The technology difference is astounding.”

Southerners Abroad is free and open to the public. The exhibit is on view in the Southern Historical Collection on the fourth floor of Wilson Library on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill. The Southern Historical Collection is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. For exhibit information, contact Matt Turi, 919-962-1345.