Crossing the Color Line
Crossing the Color Line: Desegregation at N.C. State, 1950-1981 explores NC State’s transition from a predominantly white institution to a more inclusive university, open to all students regardless of race. This project primarily focuses on the integration of undergraduate students between 1950 and 1981, with particular emphasis on administrative policies and early student groups.
Erin Glant works as a historic interpreter at Old Salem. She hopes to one day work at either a museum or historic site. Kelly Murray is currently working on the Student Leadership Initiative project at NC State's Special Collections Research Center. She hopes to pursue a PhD in Public History. This is Samantha Rich's second experience working with digital history; she previously contributed research to NCSU Libraries Special Collections Research Center's website, Historical State, as a part of the NCSU Libraries' Student Leadership Initiative. Amanda Smith's goal is to work with teacher development to help teachers find ways to make studying history exciting for students. She completed an internship at the National Humanities Center creating online teacher resources. All four are Public History graduate students focusing on Museum Studies at NC State. (Fall 2011)
This journal entry was written by my cousin, John Henry Westervelt, who served in the 1st New York Volunteer Engineer Regiment during the Civil War. Although his reflections cover a variety of topics, in this particular entry John discussed his feelings towards African Americans. In two somewhat contradictory paragraphs, he disapprovingly noted the unfair treatment of African-American soldiers in the Union army (whose intelligence and usefulness he praised) while at the same time insulting the South’s enslaved population and denying that he was an abolitionist.
I first read these words when I was in high school. At the time I was becoming increasingly interested not only in the history of our nation but also in my personal genealogy. My favorite historical period was the early American Republic, but I was also fascinated by the Civil War and when I learned about the journal I could not wait to read it. There were a number of interesting passages in the diary, but this entry stuck with me the most. As a high school student, I found Westervelt’s views on African Americans both troubling and confusing. How could someone who claimed to care about the rights of mankind in the same breath declare he hated a specific group of people? My coursework generally discussed racism in the South (when it was mentioned at all), so it was somewhat shocking for me to see these kinds of statements written by a soldier in the Union army. Despite my initial discomfort, the questions that Westervelt’s journal raised stayed with me as I continued my education. In both college and graduate school, I have studied slavery and race in several different contexts. As a public history student, I have also examined public memory of the Civil War as well as the way slavery is (or perhaps more correctly is not) presented by historic sites and museums. As a future public historian living in the South, it is likely that these ideas will continue to play a role in my career particularly as I am interested in working at a historic site.
When I was thirteen, I discovered a time machine in my attic. Though it did not transport me to feudal Japan or medieval Europe, it connected me with moments in time I otherwise could never have seen. Digging through a box of forgotten family belongings, I found my grandmother's, Emily Ada "Smittee" Smith, childhood photo album. Grandma Smittee made the album around 1925, when she was in her early teens. There were no labels, captions, or names, yet the photographs themselves spoke volumes. The pictures were elegant, wistful, and whimsical: mischievous children in bathing caps, girls with curls perched on horseback, and long-legged beauties dancing against a backdrop of early twentieth-century America.
Though I only knew Grandma Smittee for five years, this album had an exceptional impact on my early interest in history. From it, I began to explore more of my family history. I found photographs of two grandfathers who participated in World War I, newspaper articles about a great-uncle who served as Chief of Police for Washington, D.C., and colorful stories about American colonists and Irish immigrants. Over time, I realized that to understand these heirlooms, I needed to learn about the world from which they came. Eventually, as I uncovered more about the times in which these mysterious relatives dwelled, I began researching issues relating to gender, race, war, and immigration in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America and Europe.
Though I would not say that finding my grandmother’s photo album was the first time in which I felt drawn to study history, I did discover something I had never considered before: being a historian is like being a detective. I had to use both the evidence I found and the context I uncovered to construct a narrative. This lesson—and the tiny photo album that taught it to me—remains with me to this day.
This summer I completed an internship at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation (JYF) in Williamsburg, Virginia. During my internship, I served as a costumed interpreter in the Powhatan Indian Village. Within the Village, the Foundation recreated what the interpreters called a “dance face circle.” John White originally depicted the circle in his drawings of native people in Roanoke Island, North Carolina. JYF recreated a similar seven-post dance circle at its living history site because curators determined it was likely that the Powhatan Indians had similar circles in their villages. Although images of the “dance face circle” appear in the historical record, no evidence exists to explain what types of events (celebrations, religious ceremonies, deaths) brought native people together into the circle or to describe the sounds and movements of participants. When visitors questioned the purpose of the circle, or “totems” as misinterpreted by many guests, interpreters had to tell visitors that historians just don’t know the significance of the circle. This instantly surprised me – Why would the Foundation include an interpretive element in the Village that historians know nothing about? Historians and curators wanted to expose visitors to a variety of aspects of Powhatan life, even the things they knew nothing about! It served as a way to explain to guests that historians, archeologists, and anthropologists are still learning about Powhatan culture and that they do not know everything about native life. It was important for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and its costumed interpreters to remind the public that the interpretation of history evolves as the historical record grows. As I listened to interpreters describe the lack of historical documentation, I was reminded that public history is much more than relaying historic information through interpreters and exhibits, it is also about educating the public on how historians do history. How do we know what we know? It is my hope that our digital history sites will serve as another opportunity to show visitors how historians do history and provide visitors an opportunity to explore the excitement and challenges associated with working with the historical record themselves.
“We practiced the non-violence techniques. We told people that if they could not handle non-violence then they needed to get out.”
“There were around 200 to 300 participants in the marches with about 1,000 people surrounding us calling us names, spraying us with mosquito repellant, and black pepper. That was really hard on me because I have asthma. Those things happen, and we live through them.”
Both of these quotes are from Francis King, who in 1963 was involved in the civil rights movement in Williamston, NC. Several years ago when I was an undergraduate at Meredith College, King shared with me her experiences. King’s interview is now one of fifteen interviews, which are a part of the Williamston Freedom Movement Oral History project. This project has led to my interest in civil rights history.
I started the project as a way to research the school desegregation process in Martin County. After college I moved to Martin County and began teaching history in a local high school, which was considered the “dumping ground” because of the high percentage of African-American students. In my classes, I was able to bring in my local research by inviting people, like Francis King, with whom I had done oral histories to share their experiences. My students learned not only how history is written but also how the past continues to affect their lives.
In July 2011, a N.C. Highway Historical Marker was dedicated to the Williamston Freedom Movement using my research. I completed the public history program, with a concentration in museums at North Carolina State University in December 2011. I am currently working on publishing a book entitled Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round: The Williamston Freedom Movement 1957-1970.