Community Histories Workshop Joins CURS

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Kessell History Center, Loray Mill, Gastonia, NC

Kessell History Center, Loray Mill, Gastonia, NC. Photo courtesy CHW.

The Center for Urban and Regional Studies (CURS) is pleased to announce a new partnership with The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Community Histories Workshop (CHW). CURS looks forward to expanding its support of the humanities by assisting CHW in capturing and archiving community histories. These histories can be key components of economic and community development efforts, such as the adaptive reuse of historic sites.

Launched in July 2016 and led by Robert Allen, faculty director and the James Logan Godfrey Distinguished Professor of American Studies, and Elijah Gaddis, co-founder and assistant director, CHW is dedicated to developing and testing innovative models for community engaged digital public history and humanities that benefit local communities across the state and region. In the process, this work contributes to the University’s commitment to engaged scholarship, to the reinvention of graduate training and to the integration of digital approaches and materials in undergraduate teaching and research. An outgrowth of the Digital Innovation Lab, CHW will extend and broaden its the public digital humanities work as a new program of the CURS. CHW formally joined CURS on July 1, 2017.


About the Community Histories Workshop (CHW)

CHWThe seeds for the CHW were planted when Allen served as co-principal investigator for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded Carolina Digital Humanities Initiative (2012-2014) and as the founding director of the Digital Innovation Lab (2011-2016). His collaborative project with Wilson Library, Going to the Show, launched in 2009, documents and illuminates the experience of movies and movie-going in North Carolina from the introduction of projected motion pictures (1896) to the end of the silent film era (circa 1930). Through its innovative use of more than 750 Sanborn® Fire Insurance maps of forty-five towns and cities between 1896 and 1922, the project situates early movie-going within the experience of urban life in the state’s big cities and small towns. The project won the American Historical Association’s Rosenzweig Prize for Innovation in Digital History in 2010.

Gaddis, assistant professor of history at Auburn University, is the first graduate of the UNC American Studies Ph.D. program, and a recipient of the 2017 Graduate Education Advancement Board Impact Award. CHW offers opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students to gain valuable experience in digital public humanities through its graduate and undergraduate research fellowship program.

The mission of CHW aligns with the UNC-Chapel Hill’s recently launched “Humanities for the Public Good” initiative, funded by a $1.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The announcement of the program singled out the work of the Digital Innovation Lab (DIL) and CHW as models of public humanities:

Past efforts at Carolina include the creation of one of the most ambitious public humanities projects in the University’s history — Digital Loray — an onsite and online history center that documents the story of the Loray textile mill in Gastonia, NC. UNC’s new Community Histories Workshop furthers this type of innovative work, benefiting the state and the region. The Mellon funding will allow the University to support the development of new and expanded digital humanities projects that align with the goals of “Humanities for the Public Good.”

Collaboration within UNC-Chapel Hill and partnerships with external organizations are hallmarks of CHW’s approach. CHW is partnering with the UNC Southern Historical Collection on several community-based projects, and OASIS (Office of Arts and Sciences Technology Services) is working with CHW to develop a software platform for collaborative community history and archiving projects.

A signature focus of CHW is the intersection between the adaptive reuse of iconic historical sites and community history and archiving initiatives, connecting the site’s future with its past. Its approach grows out of the three-year collaboration between Allen and Gaddis on the DIL’s Digital Loray project. Working with the property developer, Preservation NC, the Gaston County Museum of Art and History, and local volunteers, the DIL made the preservation and repurposing of one of the largest cotton mills in the South, Gastonia’s Loray/Firestone Mill, a catalyst for an open-ended community history initiative. This included: the location of a postdoctoral fellow as the University’s “public historian in residence” at the mill; the planning and implementation of the Alfred C. Kessell History Center at the site; and the creation of a digital archive of more than 2,500 photographs, maps and other historical materials.

This project led directly to CHW’s next “long-tail” public humanities initiative grounded in a major adaptive reuse development: Capital Broadcasting’s redevelopment of the Rocky Mount Mills property, site of the second oldest and longest operating cotton mill in the state (1818-1996). The history of the mill is intertwined with that of UNC-Chapel Hill: the Battle family, which owned and operated the mill for the better part of two hundred years, also included Kemp Plummer Battle, president of the university from 1876 to 1891, in addition to many other family members who attended UNC. The papers of the mill, and of the Battle family, are held by the UNC Southern Historical Collection.

Exploring Digital Rocky Mount Mills at the Feb. 2017 History Harvest

Exploring Digital Rocky Mount Mills at the Feb. 2017 History Harvest. Photo courtesy CHW.

Funded by a grant from Capital Broadcasting, CHW’s first project, Closing Stories, gave former workers in the mill an opportunity to share and preserve stories of the last decade of the mill’s operation through twenty-three short-form oral history interviews — at a time when a significant number of African Americans entered the textile workforce for the first time. A February 2017 History Harvest attracted community members to the Braswell Memorial Library to have photographs, home movies and other memorabilia of the mill and mill life scanned and added to the Digital Rocky Mount Mills archive.

The next phase of the Rocky Mount Mills project will unfold over the next eighteen months. It will include development of K-12 learning units produced by local teachers through a collaboration with Carolina K-12, a unit of Carolina Public Humanities. The mill was operated by slaves from 1818 to 1852. A collaboration with the Southern Historical Collection will test software tools for slave genealogy, using Battle family slaves as the test case.