Historically black college, Confederate museum forge bond

By Michael Paul
June 24, 2011

The Museum of the Confederacy and historically black North Carolina Central University would appear to be strange, well, confederates.

The university in Durham, N.C., is the nation’s first state-supported liberal arts college for African-American students. The museum chronicles a history painful to many African-Americans.

Connotation begot isolation.

"What people think is if you’re studying the Confederacy, you must be a racist. And that’s bad labeling," said S. Waite Rawls III, president and CEO of the Museum of the Confederacy.

But as a practical matter, the pairing of the museum and the college is logical if not imperative. Four out of 10 residents of the Confederate states were black. The history of African-Americans is inextricably tied to Confederate history.

Four graduate students from North Carolina Central are sorting through that history in the archives of the Museum of the Confederacy, as part of a five-week internship program between the school and the museum.

Until July 8, they will sift through boxes and folders of letters, legal documents and other items from the family of Jefferson Davis, with a particular focus on his wife Varina and daughters Winnie and Margaret.

As part of what is a long-term project, they are arranging and summarizing each piece of archival material. Eventually, each abstract will be typed and filed as a Word document easily accessible to researchers.

Eric Richardson, a North Carolina Central graduate student who has been researching at the museum for a decade, invited library manager Teresa Roane to the school to address an archival arrangement and description class. Roane told the class that the museum library needed lots of attention.

Richardson approached Rawls about partnering with North Carolina Central. Rawls and Percy Murray, then-dean of graduate studies at NCCU, were enthusiastic about the idea.

Richardson, 47, is director of the project and supervises fellow interns Torren Gatson of Wilmington, Del., Michael Verville of Durham and Ronnika Williams of Benton Harbor, Mich. He calls the partnership "a huge step in the right direction."

Roane, sitting near the interns in the intimate confines of the library, has been watching as they discover tasty nuggets of African-American, women’s and Richmond history. "I’ve been smiling for two weeks," she said.

"We’ve just developed this really wonderful relationship with North Carolina Central because they’re a really open-minded campus," Roane said.

Rawls says the partnership with North Carolina Central benefits both institutions.

The graduate students — whose fields are library science, public history and English — are gaining the practical knowledge and experience that comes with poring over documents and reading 19th-century handwriting. The museum gains the labor of interns who know what they’re doing.

Gatson said his internship has challenged his perceptions as a Northerner.

"From my experience, you come in with an open mind, but you have a set idea of what you’ll see," he said. But in reading the letters and other documents, "you learn that everything is much more complex than meets the eye."

Rawls hopes the program can help purge the subject matter of its stigma.

"The Civil War and the Confederacy are inextricably entwined with issues of race historically," he said. "The study of the Civil War and the Confederacy … should not be inextricably combined with the 21st-century issues of race. They shouldn’t carry that baggage."

©2011 Media General Communications Holdings, LLC.

On The Web:   http://www2.timesdispatch.com/news/2011/jun/24/tdmet01-michael-paul-williams-historically-black-c-ar-1129928/


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