End of an Era

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.

Derrick Jones Inteview, Still Image of Video, available at Preservation Chapel Hill.
Derrick Jones Interview, Still Image of Video, available at Preservation Chapel Hill.

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.

Image of Clelue Johnson in First Baptist Church Directory, provided by Kathy Atwater. Images available at Preservation Chapel Hill.
Image of Clelue Johnson in First Baptist Church Directory, provided by Kathy Atwater. Images available at Preservation Chapel Hill.

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.

Interviews, cemeteries, and fundraisers.. oh my!

March was an incredibly busy month. Between conducting two oral history interviews for PCH, continuing work on the cemetery project, traveling over spring break, visiting graduate schools, and planning and executing our intern fundraiser as part of Women’s History Month, I’ve been busy both at PCH and otherwise. I am excited to say that I was finally able to sit down with two members of the community and carry out oral history interviews. The first was the long awaited interview with Derrick Jones, a man who lived in the endangered Hogan Rogers House. His interview was my first time as the interviewer for an oral history. It was a learning experience for me, both in the art of interviewing and about life in the Hogan Rogers House. Mr. Jones’s interview connects the structure, important alone for its architectural style and period, with a personal story and human history. Mr. Jones talked at length about his parents, his memories of childhood and of the house itself. It is important to realize that history is not just about the buildings or objects that remain but is also about the story that can be told through those things.

The second interview was with Mrs. Kathy Atwater, a woman who knew Clelue Johnson. Mrs. Atwater was a child and young woman when she knew Mrs. Johnson, but she remembered her fondly. She had extremely useful and new information for PCH about Clelue’s involvement at First Baptist Church. Mrs. Johnson was Kathy’s Brownie scout leader and also served on many committees at First Baptist. Mrs. Atwater also made recommendations of who else we might talk to about Clelue Johnson’s life.

Since I wasn’t able to do these interviews until March, I will unfortunately not be able to work through the next phases of the oral history process, including transcription and further interviews on the Clelue Johnson project. I will be leaving behind my research, notes, and contact information though for a future intern.

Our Women’s History Month intern fundraiser took place on March 23rd and included a panel of women who are active leaders in the Chapel Hill community, followed by a screening of the film Carolina Blues. While the panel discussion was a success and was highly interesting, educational, and inspirational, the fundraising part of the event was not so successful since our turnout was low. Better luck next time, hopefully.

For the remainder of my time at Preservation Chapel Hill, I will be finishing the writing of text about three of Chapel Hill’s historic cemeteries for the Town’s website. Each of us interns will also be presenting about our time at PCH for the community and members on April 9th at the Horace Williams House. It’s hard to believe my time at PCH is nearly done!

When I’m not at PCH…

I thought that for this post I might share a few updates about my life related to public history, but not directly related to my internship at Preservation Chapel Hill. As a senior history major, I’ve, of course, been planning my future–I spent a great deal of time last semester planning and applying for graduate school in public history. This semester, I am finally hearing back from programs. So far, I’ve been accepted to American University’s MA in History, public history concentration and University of South Carolina’s MA in Public History, museum track. I am now a mixture of excitement and nerves as I think and start to decide where I will continue my life in public history after graduation. I am grateful for my internships, especially at PCH, for helping me to realize my goals for working in the field. I am also grateful for the mentor in Cheri Szcodronski, the Executive Director of Preservation Chapel Hill, for helping with the process!

Another way that I’ve been engaging with history and the public this semester has been through UNC’s history club. I am heading up the club this semester and we held our first meeting at the Horace Williams House (PCH headquarters) on February 18th. Turnout was better than hoped for and members have been very responsive to ideas for later events. This first meeting was a general interest meeting, but included a discussion by Cheri Szcodronski of historic preservation and the internship program at PCH. Later meetings will hopefully include a panel on what to do with the history major and a historically-based film screening (Lincoln, maybe!).

So, with my work at Preservation Chapel Hill, my regular coursework, and these extracurricular activities, I am constantly working with history–and I love every minute of it! Updates on my oral history and cemetery projects will be posted soon!

Moving forward, looking back

So far this semester, my work on the two oral history projects has moved forward slowly, yet steadily. I got back in touch with Derrick Jones, the Hogan Rogers House resident and hope to be recording that interview very soon! Also, I’ve met and talked with several members of the community who knew Clelue Johnson. Mrs. Clelue Johnson was a housekeeper for Horace Williams but later went on to be a nurse at UNC Hospitals. One woman I spoke to knew Mrs. Clelue Johnson once she was a nurse. She remembers living with Mrs. Clelue and her husband Mr. Williard Johnson when she was in junior high. The stories she had to tell about Clelue were so helpful and really provided insight on her character and her life. The stories also included her own accounts of attending school the first year of desegregation in Chapel Hill. That was the same year she lived with the Johnsons and she spoke highly of their support for her and the trials she faced as an African-American student in a newly integrated school.

Other people I’ve spoken to knew Clelue because they were neighbors or attended the same church, First Baptist of Chapel Hill. Many people who only knew Clelue in passing have still be helpful in suggesting others to talk to. The project is difficult at times when I feel that I’ve hit a dead end or can’t get in touch with someone; however the conversations I’ve had with interested community members have made up for any of the frustrations. I look forward to talking to more friends and neighbors of Mrs. Clelue Johnson and learning more about her life as well as theirs in the history of Chapel Hill.

Aside from the oral history projects, I have also begun a new project. I am using research done by a past intern to move toward finishing PCH’s contract with the Town of Chapel Hill to place signs in 3 of the historic cemeteries of Chapel Hill: Old Chapel Hill Cemetery, Barbee-Hargrave Cemetery, and West Chapel Hill Cemetery. I am editing the text prepared by a past intern and searching for photos to include on the signs. I am also writing text for an online component of the project, a website that will feature information about each of the cemeteries. The website will have information for researchers in addition to the signs actually located in the cemeteries.

I’m excited to continue to move forward on these projects and hope to have more updates on the oral history projects soon!

Third Time’s a Charm!

Happy New Year! It’s a new year and semester! I am a week into my third semester at Preservation Chapel Hill (formerly known as the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill). I am excited to finally carry out the oral history projects I spent time planning last semester. My first project is to interview a man who lived in the Hogan-Rogers House, a home that is in danger of being demolished. I hope to set up an appointment to finally record the full interview with him as soon as possible. My second project is to find members of the community to speak with about Clelue Johnson, an African-American woman who worked here in the historic house used by Preservation Chapel Hill as Horace William’s housekeeper.

So far, both projects are still in the beginning stages. I have finally found reliable audio recording equipment, but am still trying to set up an appointment with the Hogan-Rogers House resident. I have begun the second project by contacting Hudson Vaughan, Associate Director of the Marian Cheek Jackson Center for Saving and Making History. He was a huge help in directing me toward future contacts for the project about Clelue Johnson.

I also have gone through the research done by past intern, Sarah Thead, about Clelue Johnson. This research directed me towards a few possible leads on relatives or friends of Clelue that might be available for interviewing, possibly including members of the First Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, which Clelue attended.

From here, I am excited to go forward making contacts and moving forward with the actual interviews!

Fall Reflections

The semester is winding down and the fall internships are wrapping up. However, this is not the end of my time with the Preservation Society! I will be returning in the spring semester to carry out a couple of oral history projects, including the one I began this semester. Since the completion of the online exhibit, I have been preparing for these oral history projects by conducting preliminary interviews, creating questions, and researching technological equipment. Below is a reflection of my projects and experiences this semester. I look forward to my new projects beginning in January!

Over the course of this semester’s internship at the Preservation Society, I have acquired a few more skills and continued to learn about the history of Chapel Hill and about the field of public history. I continued my summer project, in a way, by using the images I digitized over the summer to create an online exhibit. I was able to help conceptualize the exhibit based on knowledge of the photos that were available for use. The exhibit became part of the Preservation Society’s 40th Anniversary Celebration and detailed the adaptive reuse of the Horace Williams House by showcasing examples of the different ways the house has been used by the Preservation Society in its 40 year history. The pages were divided into categories of Art Exhibits and the Music Program, Historic Exhibits, Educational Programming, and Community Events. Each category presented a few examples of that type of use. (In case you missed it in earlier posts, you can check out the exhibit here: preservation40.com.)

I thoroughly enjoyed doing the research for and designing the exhibit and feel that it was a confirmation of my career goals. I am planning on attending graduate school for public history and then pursuing a career in museums or historic site interpretation. This project was a great chance to gain experience with the skills needed to curate exhibits, including research and translating large amounts of information into a more digestible size.

There were few challenges in the exhibit designing other than a few small technical issues at first. We originally attempted to house the exhibit on a different website, but soon realized that the layout was not conducive to what we were aiming for. However, once we settled on the site and layout, the exhibit designing progressed smoothly.

Once the exhibit was finished, I began to transition into a new project. I will be conducting oral history interviews in the spring and so I began to carry out the preliminary work that would make this new project possible. I began with a preliminary interview of Derrick Jones, a former resident of the Hogan Rogers House, in order to gauge what kind of information he had to share and what time period he lived in the house. This interview was useful in preparing questions for the official, formal interview that will be carried out next semester. In preparation for all of the oral history interviews I will be doing next semester, I also researched and wrote a proposal for the equipment that will be necessary, such as an audio recorder and video camcorder. This process was challenging due to my lack of knowledge about technology and the kinds of features that would be useful for oral history interviews. Through online research and recommendations from the Southern Oral History Program at UNC, I learned a lot about the various kinds of devices that are used and wrote a proposal with several options. Hopefully, by the time I return for the spring semester the society will be ready to purchase that equipment.

In addition to my specific projects above, I did a few smaller tasks, such as design a rack card about the walking tours the Preservation Society offers and write a user survey in order to gain feedback about our annual Voices from the Grave Tour. These more isolated tasks were a reflection of the unique challenge this semester of understaffing at the Preservation Society. The former director took a new job, leaving an interim director to take over as well as continue her previous responsibilities. With so much on her plate, the interns sometimes had to handle tasks that were not originally in our work plans while also completing our individual projects with less guidance. While at times, the lack of regular supervision was challenging, I actually felt like the understaffing allowed the interns to take on more responsibility and learn new skills. I also think that the reality of working in a public history institution, especially a small non-profit such as the Preservation Society, requires the staff to be flexible and capable of carrying out multiple projects at once, as well as daily and administrative operations. Thus, I feel like I was able to get a better feel for what it would be like to be on staff at a site similar to the Preservation Society.

Overall, I am very pleased with the experience I had at the Preservation Society this semester. I feel I have expanded on the types of public history work that I have been exposed to and am proud of the final product I created this semester. I am looking forward to learning even more skills next semester as I carry out my first oral history interviews.

Official Unveiling and Next Project

As I posted previously, the online exhibit I’ve been working on is completed. You can view it yourself here: preservation40.com, but tonight Ben and I are officially unveiling the online exhibit at the Preservation Society’s Annual Membership Meeting. We will be discussing what the exhibit covers as well as why it’s important in the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill. I hope to receive feedback from those in attendance as well as from those who visit the site online.

Online exhibits have several advantages over physical exhibits in that more information can be used because there are no spatial restrictions and less time and money are required since objects do not need to be physically acquired, conserved, or displayed. Also, the most important advantage in my opinion is that is makes the information more widely accessible. Anyone with an internet connection can view the exhibit rather than only those who can travel to the Preservation Society.

Creating the exhibit was an enjoyable process and I feel it was good practice for me considering I am interested in one day being a museum curator. The process involved with curating a digital exhibit is quite different from that of a physical exhibit, but many of the underlying principles are the same. In order to create an exhibit one must take a large amount of information, condense it for practical reasons, and find themes or common threads in which to situate the information for a public audience. I hope that our online exhibit does these things well and is interesting and educational to those who see it.

Now that the exhibit is completely ready, I have been beginning a new project. I mentioned in a previous post that I might be conducting an oral history interview. I was able to contact the source this past week and do a short preliminary interview. The man is a former resident of the Hogan-Rogers House on Purefoy Road that the Preservation Society is interested in saving. We hope that his involvement could show that there are many historical reasons to save the house, but there are also personal ties of those still living in the area. Until the official interview I will be preparing questions to ask, researching the technical equipment necessary to carry out a proper oral history such as a video camera and audio equipment, and preparing for the interview in general.

I am looking forward to carrying out the interview since it will be a new experience for me. I feel that conducting an oral history will expose me to a new set of skills that will be valuable for my future career in the public history realm.