The Chapel Hill Historical Society Looking to Rebuild Its role in the community.


By Laurie Paolicelli

Richard Ellington (President) and Tom Jepsen (Treasurer) of the Chapel Hill Historical Society in their current research library/facility in the Midway Center on Graham Street.

The Chapel Hill Historical Society has a long history of moving. It recently moved to small offices in the Midway (EMPOWERment) Building on Graham Street in Chapel Hill, and due to shrinking square footage much of its archives, including a nearly complete collection of bound volumes of the Chapel Hill Newspaper and Chapel Hill Weekly (1923-2011) are now stored in a climate-controlled facility outside of town. Before this they had space at the Chapel Hill Public Library, but the library needed more space for its community activities. Prior to that they were in the basement of the Chapel Hill Museum on E. Franklin Street which closed in 2010 due to funding limitations. History repeats itself.

It is uncertain whether they will find a new, more spacious home, or if the public wants an archival venue in Chapel Hill at all. It’s a fair question: mass archival digitization has changed our viewing expectations and how we access information. The Society has moved with the times and has a large volume of its collections, materials, maps, yearbooks, and other local community history items available through the DigitalNC project on the UNC-CH campus.

But its large collection of local history books as well as its bound newspapers are the source materials folks rely on when they want to know more about our town. The team at the Historical Society have worked hard to adapt materials to the digital revolution through online meetings, QR codes, digitizing files, and partnering with the University. And yet, in the end, history needs to be seen, touched and experienced, and a digital file doesn’t do that.

“The library does not have a section on Chapel Hill’s history. We’re really the primary source for much of our town’s history,” Richard Ellington notes. Ellington is the current President of the Historical Society.

The Historical Society believes that remembering and documenting not just the pleasant memories, but the difficult parts as well — is vital to understanding not only who we were but also who we are.

“If we want to be able to go home again, we’ve got to keep those memories alive,” says Richard Ellington, Board member.

UNC Student Body President Paul Dickson introduces speaker Frank Wilkinson, March 2, 1966 (photo by Jock Lauterer, via UNC).

The Speaker Ban Monument (Photo By Kami LaBerge, via DocSouth).

Chapel Hill’s history is a history of the south and it’s important that we remind people of that history. It’s bigger than nostalgia,” says Ellington, a resident of Carrboro who has published a book on that town’s history. “It’s about the state that forever changed the trajectory of the south when it chose Chapel Hill for the nation’s first public University.”

Local historian Missy Julian Fox is hopeful we can continue to tell the stories of Chapel Hill’s history. “The first pavement was laid along Franklin Street in 1921. Roughly a year later, the Carolina Coffee Shop opened its doors. Sutton’s Drug Store came along the next year, opening in 1923. It was followed by the Carolina Theatre, built in 1927. That same building eventually became the Village Theater and is now home to The Varsity. A few decades later, community pillars like Mama Dip’s, Ye Old Waffle Shoppe, and Time Out opened.”

Julian’s, 1977.

Many of these classic downtown businesses, like Julian’s, Sutton’s, Carolina Coffee Shop and Mama Dip’s, serve more than just food and services — they serve as makeshift museums, their walls overflowing with archival photos and sepia-toned snapshots of the way things used to be.

Memories on Mama Dip’s Wall.

“These businesses might not always be here and that’s the beauty of a local Historical Society — they hold the memories of the community. They’re home — vintage photo albums, video, posters, newspapers, and all. It is our hope,” Ellington says, “that we can find funding and space for a permanent home for our materials and, ideally, a place where we can have displays and exhibits that help visitors.”

Willie Mae Houk, 32 years of service at Sutton’s Drug Store, 1956-1988.

A dream of Ellington is that the historic old Town Hall building, on the corner of Rosemary and MLK, may hold this promise and would like to see leaders explore this option. In the meantime, the Chapel Hill Historical Society has continued to support the mission of the former Chapel Hill Museum by creating the “History of Hope” exhibit at the Orange County Museum in Hillsborough that chronicles the history of Chapel Hill from the 1790s to the present.

If you’re interested in helping the Chapel Hill Historical Society find larger space and expand its mission or joining the society, please reach out to the Chapel Hill Historical Society via email at, their website at and their Facebook page at

Here’s some hidden history about Chapel Hill that might surprise you:

Laurie Paolicelli is executive director for the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau, a position she has held since 2005. Laurie has worked in tourism and marketing for twenty-five years, having served in leadership roles in Houston and California convention and visitor bureaus. She is a native of the Twin Ports of Duluth, MN/Superior Wisconsin. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business and Communications from the University Wisconsin-Superior and graduate certification in Technology In Marketing from the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

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