Graduation is approaching and it’s time to reflect not only on my projects this semester but on my time at Preservation Chapel Hill in general. Having been here for nearly a year, I can see how I’ve learned and grown as a public historian. This semester alone, I took on several new projects, learning new skills and meeting new people along the way.
All of my projects this semester involved preserving the stories of people and places of Chapel Hill. One of the first things I did this semester was research the Hudson-McDade-Merritt House. Built in 1855 with an addition added in 1894, the house was home to A.J. McDade, the first Sunday School superintendent at University Baptist Church and the first mayor of Chapel Hill. The most interesting part of my research was trying to figure out what happened to the house which no longer sits at the corner of Columbia and Franklin Streets. The 1990s saw a heated debate between the University Baptist Church, who wanted to build educational space on the site, and community members who wanted to save the house. One plan seems to have almost gone through and the house was disassembled with the intentions of being reconstructed elsewhere; however, plans fell through and it remains unclear why the house was not reconstructed in a new location. With my research, I wrote a short article about the house for the Town of Chapel Hill’s off-campus student newsletter since so many students live in close proximity to the house’s former location but have no idea that a structure that represented Chapel Hill’s village days sat so nearby. The article, entitled “The Mysterious Case of the McDade House,” can be viewed here: http://www.townofchapelhill.org/Modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentid=18395.
One of my other main projects this semester consisted of conducting oral histories. The first was with Derrick Jones, the last resident to live in the Hogan Rogers house, a structure in danger of being demolished. Mr. Jones talked about his family and his memories of growing up in the house, as well as about structural or landscape changes that he recalled occurring at the house. His story provides a connection between the historic house and the present as well as a human dimension to why historic homes are important—for the stories they can tell us about the past. His interview is also a form of “preserving” the house even if it is physically destroyed. My interview with Derrick Jones was my first time working on an oral history project. I was excited to acquire a new skill, but must admit it was a totally new experience for me and a bit of a challenge. Learning to know when to interject or redirect someone are skills I could continue to work on.
The second oral history is part of an ongoing project to learn more about Clelue Johnson who worked as a housekeeper for Horace Williams. After his death she went on to become a nurse at UNC Hospitals, but Preservation Chapel Hill wants to know more about her life before working for Horace Williams as well as during and after. My project consisted of finding people who knew Clelue, who passed away herself in 1999, so that we can learn more about her life. I began my project by reading over the research done by a previous intern about Clelue as well as continuing more research myself. By talking with people at the Jackson Center, I contacted people in the community in order to find out who knew Clelue and who might be willing to talk about her with me. In addition to compiling contact information about people who might be helpful, I was able to conduct one interview for the project with Kathy Atwater. Mrs. Atwater was a young girl with she met Mrs. Johnson who was her Brownie Scout leader. They also both attended First Baptist Church. Mrs. Atwater shared a church directory with us she and Clelue had worked on together as part of the committee responsible for the anniversary directory. The directory also includes a photo of Clelue, allowing us to see her for the first time. Mrs. Atwater told us about Clelue’s heavy involvement in various committees at First Baptist Church. She was also able to suggest more people to talk to. I myself did not have time to follow all of the leads on this project and it will be left to a future intern.
My third project consisted of researching and writing a synopsis of three of Chapel Hill’s historic cemeteries: Barbee-Hargrave, Old Chapel Hill, and West Chapel Hill. This was part of an ongoing project with the Town of Chapel Hill to provide better interpretive and educational information to visitors of the cemeteries. Each of the cemeteries is significant for its African-American history. Barbee-Hargrave Cemetery and West Chapel Hill Cemetery were each specifically African-American cemeteries, having been established during the time of legal segregation. Old Chapel Hill Cemetery was also segregated into separate sections for blacks and whites. Efforts have been made over the years to provide for the recognition of those buried in these African-American cemeteries or sections, which often lacked the identifying markers found in white cemeteries. Signs are being designed to be placed in the cemeteries themselves and the synopses I wrote will be on the Town’s website for those who are interested in learning more about the cemeteries.
One of the other experiences this semester was with event planning. The interns planned and executed a fundraiser in conjunction with Women’s History Month entitled “First Ladies: Legacy Builders in Our Community.” The event itself went well; we had a very interesting panel of women, all leaders in the Chapel Hill community, who discussed issues such as poverty and the future of positive initiatives in Chapel Hill and North Carolina more broadly. However, attendance was very low. I think we learned the importance of careful scheduling – there were many competing events that day; venue choice – something off-campus likely would have worked better; and early publicity – the timing of Spring Break caused last-minute advertising of the event. Overall, the event allowed a chance for us interns to meet leaders in Chapel Hill and it was good exposure to event planning.
Having been here for almost a year now, I’ve really learned a wide variety of things including practical skills related to both preservation and professional development. I’ve also had valuable experiences related to the field I plan to pursue a career in and I have real-world products to show for my time here. In particular, I feel I’ve improved as a public speaker through our internship capstone presentations each semester. I feel more comfortable discussing my work in front of community members. I’ve also increased my experience with research and writing, while learning more about what preservation really is, a part of public history I’d had little exposure to before this internship. Finally, I’ve learned more about the town of Chapel Hill as an intern here then I had as a student at UNC the three previous years. I’ll be taking what I’ve learned and applying it at the next step in my career, graduate school. I’ll be going to University of North Carolina Wilmington in the fall as a Master’s student in the History department, with a concentration in public history. Ultimately, I hope to pursue a career in exhibition and interpretation at a museum or historic site. While I hope to work in a museum context, I will always remain interested and advocate for historic preservation of the built environment as well.