History is Present at the Library


By Ellie Heffernan

The Chapel Hill Public Library continues looking to the past to inform the present.

The library will host, starting Sunday, an exhibit about local women who participated in the civil rights movement. “I Was Still Singing: Stories from the Women Who Changed Chapel Hill” will feature portraits of the women, written narratives and some short documentaries.

The exhibit represents a continuation of the library’s efforts to commemorate community history, said Library Director Susan Brown. The project will also launch just in time to celebrate both Black History Month and Women’s History Month.

The work underlying the project was led by community historian Danita Mason-Hogans and a steering committee of women with “deep roots in Chapel Hill,” said Molly Luby, special projects coordinator at the library.

“The goal of this exhibit is to educate and inspire local people and to honor the women who have contributed so much to the Chapel Hill community,” Luby said in an email. “The exhibit was created from dozens of oral and video histories, primary source documents and photographs, and many meetings with our community elders to listen and learn about our history.”

Community Historian Danita Mason-Hogans

The project got its start after the library collaborated with other major community organizations to place a marker commemorating the Chapel Hill Nine on West Franklin Street. The marker recognizes the group of nine students who initiated Chapel Hill’s first sit-in demonstration against segregated lunch counters at what was then Colonial Drug Store and is today West End Wine Bar.

“From that work, we found that many other people want to share their stories of the civil rights movement in Chapel Hill,” Brown said. “And so, after we did the program with the Chapel Hill Nine and the marker and all of that, some of the ladies stepped up and said, ‘We’d like to share our stories.’ And so that’s what the community history team here at the library has been doing for the last couple of years.”

The exhibit will open virtually at https://chapelhillhistory.org with “Meet the Women” that will allow space for visitors to leave a message of gratitude or share their own memories. New sections of the exhibit will open throughout March.

The library has been leading other history projects with local organizations, including the creation of a “Re/Collecting Chapel Hill” podcast that focuses on the community’s untold histories.

“What we are thinking about are ways that the library can assist those groups and collaborate with those groups,” Brown said. “And that’s what we’re trying to figure out. This collaborative approach that we can all leverage each other’s strengths and interests to tell our community’s history.”

As part of that approach, the library is considering establishing a community history lab. One of its proposed partners is the Chapel Hill Historical Society. The partnership idea is largely theoretical right now, Brown said, especially since the library isn’t open to the public due to COVID-19.

As proposed, the history lab would offer community archiving services, expanded access to the society’s collections and a physical workspace for Chapel Hill residents to collaborate with various organizations on local history initiatives, according to a society newsletter.

The society’s unique collection includes issues from now shuttered print newspapers, maps, periodicals and other materials, said president Sarah Greer, who is eager to partner with the library. The two organizations have many shared goals, she said, and the society is physically housed on the library’s property.

Greer said she envisions the proposed lab as a way of making the study of Chapel Hill-Carrboro history more inclusive by shining a light on stories and communities that have traditionally been ignored.

For the collaboration to succeed, the society said it would have to address some challenges, such as securing additional funding through membership fees and donations and ensuring that there is enough physical space continuously available. The lab would need room for computers that provide access to digital collections, book inventories and space for various administrative functions and small meetings, among other things.

For now, the society has asked those interested to contact chhistoricalsociety@gmail.com with suggestions about what a community history lab could look like. These suggestions could range from the topics to be covered or the format in which the topics could be accessed.

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