Southern Sources: A Symposium Celebrating Seventy-Five Years of the Southern Historical Collection
The Southern Sources: A Symposium Celebrating Seventy-Five Years of the Southern Historical Collection was held 18-19 March 2005 in the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The symposium offered a time to reflect on and discuss the value, use, and future of archives in exploring the southern past.
In 2005, the Southern Historical Collection (SHC) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, forerunner of many repositories of historical materials throughout the region, celebrated seventy-five years of collecting, preserving, and promoting the use of all kinds of historical documentation, hoping to make the South's often painful, sometimes glorious past a partner in building a richer and more harmonious present and future.
In the 1920s, J.G. de Roulhac Hamilton, professor of history at Chapel Hill, began using his many personal, family, and professional contacts throughout the American South to gain contributions for what he hoped would become a treasure house of documentary memory. His was the first concerted effort of this kind on a regional scale and so he was able to lay the foundation for an enormous and priceless resource for scholars, students, amateur, and family historians, and the merely curious. In 1930, the university officially established the Southern Historical Collection and Hamilton never looked back-he and his successors have left that to the thousands of researchers who have used the collection.
Today, the SHC, or the Southern, as it is often called, holds more than fifteen million items in over 5,100 collections ranging in size from a single item to half a million and dating from the mid-eighteenth century to yesterday. These massive holdings of intimate family letters, business correspondence, diaries, oral histories, scrapbooks, photographs, sound recordings, financial records, literary manuscripts, and items in many other formats reveal the lives of farmers, homemakers, tradespeople, industrial workers, plantation owners, enslaved people, entrepreneurs, educators, politicians, activists, lawyers, physicians, and many thousands of mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters. Researchers from around the world come to the Southern each year to delve into this immense trove of the past, and the results of the hours spent in the Southern's search room are hundreds of books and dissertations, many family histories and community reports, lectures, presentations and incalculable enriched conversations with colleagues, friends, and relatives. Visitors read about the lives of slaves on southern plantations from Louisiana to Virginia. They find reflections of the inner lives of women all through these centuries. They review the inside stories of political affairs from the 1830s or look through the extensive records Senator Sam Ervin kept of his activities in the Watergate hearings. They follow the creative arc of the work of writers such as Walker Percy and Shelby Foote through their correspondence with other writers and successive drafts of their works.
Visitors dig into the history of their own families, making discoveries that can be shocking or satisfying, but that are frequently liberating in some way. People read their great-grandparents' love letters for the first time. They hear interviews in which their relatives talk about the pains and pleasures of life in mill villages or mansions. They find rapscallions and great souls in their backgrounds.
Communities get help understanding episodes in their pasts, some still painful and haunting-the pre-Civil War social structure of Natchez; the transition from slavery to freedom on South Carolina sea islands; the Wilmington, North Carolina, race riots of 1898; or the Klan-Communist killings in Greensboro in 1979. Historians and community members use the Southern's sources to view history freshly and honestly and thus open the past as a tool for building a better future. Martin Luther King, Jr. called C. Vann Woodward's Strange Career of Jim Crow the "historical Bible" of the civil rights movement, and this book would not have been possible without Woodward's extensive work in the Southern on the papers of Tom Watson, Georgia journalist and politician of the late nineteenth century.
In his 2004 National Book Critic's Circle-nominated book Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story, Timothy B. Tyson writes:
It's true that we must make a new world. But we can't make it out of whole cloth. We have to weave the future from the fabric of the past, from the patterns of aspiration and belonging-and broken dreams and anguished rejections-that have made us. What the advocates of our dangerous and deepening social amnesia don't understand is how deeply the past holds the future in its grip-even, and perhaps especially, when it remains unacknowledged.
Indeed, the past has consequences. And when the past is buried the result is often havoc, confusion, pain, and fear. Remembering it carefully and courageously, on the other hand, can bring hope and guidance for the future.
Tim West, Director of the Southern Historical Collection
Texts of scholarly papers presented in conjunction with Southern Sources and edited by Laura Clark Brown: