N.C. history in the raw

Some time ago, a favorite high-school teacher, Myrtle Kiker, sent me a question: “What is the best history of North Carolina — one that I can recommend to a friend who wants to know more about her new state?”

I’ve been thinking about how to answer her. Two books have to be on the list for her to consider. North Carolina Through Four Centuries by William Powell is the best recent, comprehensive, one-volume history of our state. And H.G. Jones’ North Carolina Illustrated helps make history’s lessons easier to understand by accompanying them with more than 1,100 images.

But Miss Kiker’s inquiry isn’t the only thing that has me thinking about our state’s history. In Chapel Hill, the university community is celebrating 75 years of service by its Southern Historical Collection (known simply as “the Southern” to many). More than 15 million separate items are organized into some 4,600 separate groups.

Archives like the Southern, as well as those at North Carolina’s Office of Archives and History and those maintained by libraries and colleges, are gold mines for those who aren’t satisfied with getting their understanding of history solely via other people’s books.

The founder of the Southern, UNC history professor J.G. de Roulhac Hamilton, traveled all over the South persuading families to donate their personal and business records. His efforts resulted in a storehouse of firsthand experiences of Southerners who lived before, during and after the Civil War.

From its beginnings, the Southern has drawn scholars, authors and amateur historians who have searched its records seeking a more complete understanding of our history. The archive’s existence and ever-expanding collections of papers, photos and oral-history recordings are good reasons for a big celebration.

At the same time, there’s another reminder of the importance of history. During the past year, the campus suffered through an acrimonious controversy over the proper place of Cornelia Phillips Spencer in the school’s history.

Spencer (1825-1908) is widely admired for her efforts to reopen the university (which had been closed shortly after the Civil War). A residence hall is named in her honor. Her ringing of the campus bell to spread the good news about reopening is even re-enacted on occasion. And until last winter, when the university chancellor announced its discontinuance, there was an important campus award named in her honor.

The problem with Spencer, it seems, is that she was squarely on the side of those who wanted to force the “carpetbaggers and scallywags” out of North Carolina’s post-Civil War government. She saw Reconstruction as a tragedy and sought the return of order and control by the former white establishment.

Spencer’s views were not inconsistent with the version of Reconstruction that I learned in school 50 years ago. But measured by current standards, these ideas are deemed racist and unacceptable.

Dr. Jacquelyn Hall, the director of UNC’s Southern Oral History Program, told me that the archive’s founder, professor Hamilton, held a similar view of 19th-century Southern history. In fact, these ideas were widely shared by professional historians of Hamilton’s generation. Hamilton, Hall believes, was confident that the Southern’s archives would confirm that the institution of slavery had been relatively benign and beneficial for those in bondage and that the Reconstruction period had been an unnecessary imposition on the South.

We may not accept all the views of history held by Hamilton and his contemporaries, but he remains a hero. His commitment to acquiring and preserving primary documents means that the records can speak for themselves — perhaps in different ways — to researchers in different time periods.

Ironically, the papers and other materials collected by Hamilton became the basis for the research and scholarship of younger “revisionist” Southern historians such as C. Vann Woodward, who challenged the ideas of Hamilton and his colleagues. The revisionists rewrote Southern history to show the horrors of slavery and the missed opportunities of Reconstruction.

Today, Woodward’s modern successors — using the Southern Historical Collection’s records to prove their point — attack our heroes and challenge our old ideas.

How would J.G. de Roulhac Hamilton feel about all this?

I am not sure. But I bet that if he could, he would still be out on the road tracking down more material for his collection — just to be sure that future historians will have the raw material to challenge every notion, wrong-headed or not, that we may so strongly believe in today.

As Hamilton once put it, all this is part and parcel of “the eternal, ceaseless quest for truth.”

[D.G. Martin is the author of Interstate Eateries, a handbook of home-cooking restaurants near North Carolina’s interstate highways, and the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch.]

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