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Bobby Allen, professor of American studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, talks about UNC’s Community Histories Workshop (CHW). Established in 2016, the CHW works with local communities to recover, preserve and share the memories, stories and materials that reflect the multi-layered histories of place. By helping to connect past to present CHW believes that communities can envision more just, inclusive and democratic futures.

A program of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies, you can find out more about CHW at:

Below is a transcript of the video: Conversations at Hickerson House: Bobby Allen and the Community Histories Workshop

My name is Bobby Allen and I teach American Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill and I’ve been at the University for 39 years. I’m also the faculty lead for the Community Histories Workshop.

What is the mission of the Community Histories Workshop?

I think at its simplest, the Community Histories Workshop (CHW) works at the intersection of place and history and experience. In particular, the Community Histories Workshop works with partners and local communities to take iconic structures, historical structures, in those communities that are in the process of being repurposed and to make those repurposing activities a catalyst for community history and community archive.

Tell us about the campus partners and people involved in the Community Histories Workshop.

All of the work that we do in the Community Histories Workshop is is collaborative. That’s where we start, and so we begin the collaboration within the Community Histories Workshop by bringing together faculty, staff, students, graduate students. We have a performing artist- in-residence this year. We have a senior fellow who for 12 years was the director of the Ackland Art Museum. So, we bring all of these experiences and perspectives to bear upon all the projects that we do. We’re also uniquely positioned to do this work because of the place we occupy in a great public research university. And so, we have partners across campus whom we mobilize in relation to the projects that we’re working on. The best example, the longest running of our partnerships, is with the library, and particularly with Wilson Library in its southern historical collection and North Carolina collection. We work with those folks almost every day and have since the moment that we began.

What are some of the Community Histories Workshop’s current projects?

The CHW currently has two major ongoing projects, both of which are around the repurposing of iconic sites. One is in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and it is around the repurposing of Rocky Mount Mills which is the second oldest mill in the state of North Carolina. It was built in 1818 and operated until 1996. It is now being repurposed as apartments, commercial space, retail, leisure by Capitol Broadcasting, which also did the American Tobacco complex. So, the work that we’re doing for them is the kind of standard scope of work that we do on all of our projects. That starts with asking the question: where is the material history of this place? Where does it survive? How can we locate it? What shape is it in? How can we get it into a form that more people can access and use it? We ask, where are the materials relating to the history of the mill that are not in archives, that may be in shoeboxes under someone’s bed or in the attic or in the garage. We also ask where is the intangible heritage for these sites, meaning, where are the stories and the histories and the memories of people who can make the connection between Rocky Mount as it is today and Rocky Mount as it was 20, 30, 40 years ago. We’re also very keenly aware that the histories and the stories of a place like Rocky Mountain Mills are multiple. This is a multi-vocal history that we want to try to recapture and we’re particularly sensitive to voices and stories that have not been given the opportunity to be heard, and we want to try to bring those stories and those memories back into the experience of history that people will have at Rocky Mount Mills.

The second project that we’re working on is with the City of Raleigh, and with the Dix Park Conservancy board. It’s about the repurposing of another iconic site in North Carolina – Dix Park. This is a 308-acre site that sits within less than a mile of downtown Raleigh. It was, for 150 years in the 18th and early 19th century, a plantation in Raleigh – the Hunter plantation. Then, in 1856, the state of North Carolina founded the North Carolina Asylum for the Insane on that site, what became known as Dix Hospital. Dix Hospital was the first and primary insane asylum for the state of North Carolina between 1856 and its closure in 2012. This 308-acre site, the hospital, 80 other buildings on the site, a 900-person cemetery are all being repurposed as what the City of Raleigh is calling a destination park. Meaning that they want Dix Park to be to Raleigh what Central Park is to New York. So, this is a very ambitious long-term plan to make a statement about the relationship of landscape to city in the City of Raleigh. What the CHW is doing, in conjunction with the Dix Park Conservancy board and the City of Raleigh, is again to try to recover the material history of this place. Where does that lie and how can we get access to it? We’re focused right now on the early history of the hospital between 1856 and 1917, because we can access an extraordinary resource for understanding that moment of the history of that place. There are publicly accessible patient intake records that run from the very opening of the hospital and its first patient, right up to 1917 when a 100-year embargo on the release of patient information falls into place. So, we’ve had a team of undergraduate students and graduate students and staff making, first a spreadsheet, and now a database of all 7,400 individuals who became patients at the Dorothea Dix Hospital between its opening and the end of 1917. We think this is the first comprehensive database that’s ever been done of a 19th-century insane asylum in the United States. So, in addition to refining that database and making it more useful, we are also asking the question of ourselves and of our colleagues: having such a resource entails significant ethical and professional responsibilities on us. How should this be used? By whom should it be used? And for what purpose? And so, we’re working with colleagues and the department of social medicine, the Center for Bioethics, the medical school, the department of philosophy, medical anthropologists, to both help us come to terms with this unique resource but also to help us understand what the ethical implications of this kind of work are.

What type of community partners will you work with in the future?

The work that the CHW has done to this point over the last two and a half years has all been work that’s come to us. It’s been someone who represented an organization in a community, that saw an opportunity to mount a community history and community archiving project, knew about the work that we were doing, and came to us to talk to us about the possibility of extending our work there. So, I suspect that as our work develops that it will be in part a result of responding to these opportunities and these serendipities that have certainly benefited us to this point.

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