History and Legacy of the Community Histories Workshop: A Reflection
In the summer of 2016, my American Studies colleagues Elijah Gaddis, Seth Kotch and I imagined the formation of a working group with the goal of connecting the university with local communities to recover, preserve, and share the memories, stories, and materials that reflect the multi-layered histories of place. Grounded in our experiences at the intersection of digital humanities and public history, we believed that helping communities connect past to present could support more just, inclusive, and democratic futures.
Having been heavily involved in digital humanities administration since 2011 (as Co-PI of the Carolina Digital Humanities Initiative and Director of the Digital Innovation Lab), I was eager to step away from this role but still very much committed to mobilizing the university’s institutional expertise and resources to stimulate what are sometimes called “long-tail” public history and humanities initiatives in North Carolina. I knew that Elijah and Seth shared this commitment. Elijah, who was at the time finishing his PHD program in American Studies (he became the first person to be granted this degree), and I had first worked together in a graduate seminar and subsequently through his involvement in the Digital Innovation Lab. I had known Seth from his work with the Southern Oral History Program, and I had chaired the search committee that recommended him to be hired as the first assistant professor of digital humanities at UNC.
The administrative status of such a working group within the university was much less well-formed in our minds than our programmatic intent. But I think we all imagined a focused and nimble studio space (in the virtual sense of space: we had no illusions that the university would provide us with actual space) that could both seek out and respond to strategic opportunities. As someone who had taught at the university for more than 30 years and devoted almost half of that time to administration at one level or another (including serving as Associate Dean for Honors for twelve years), I perhaps had done the most thinking about “where” in an institutional sense such an entity might most productively be lodged. Despite the fact that we all were in the same department, it was clear that it could not (and should not) be an academic unit with faculty appointments, degrees, and a line on the administrative flow chart. However, there was nothing stopping us (beyond the approval of our department chair) from offering courses linked to our programmatic work. We would, however, need some–however notional–institutional infrastructure to enable us to take in and spend funds, hire graduate and undergraduate students, and handle basic technology. As we were fledged from the nest of the Digital Innovation Lab, we turned to it and its director Dan Anderson to provide us with an institutional launching pad (to mix metaphors), which brought with it the very welcome involvement of Will Bosley as our administrative manager and technologist. After two years in this arrangement, the UNC Center for Urban and Regional Studies kindly offered us a new administrative home, office space, and highly qualified and experienced staff in grant administration, budgeting, HR, and communication.
Why did we hang up our shingle as the Community Histories Workshop? In short because it could fly under institutional radar; it suggested a quasi-persistent but relatively flat organizational structure. We could not constitute ourselves as a center or an institute without higher level (and very onerous) administrative approval and oversight. The term “lab” might have been borrowed from our colleagues in the sciences, but it had already been taken (by me) with the Digital Innovation Lab. Studio might have been a contender, but we didn’t think of it and it isn’t really a “thing” at UNC (sadly). Working group denotes a contingent formation, active only so long as its participants share their enthusiasm for the object of the group. Working groups aren’t typically programmatic; they talk.
Workshop sounds and is more purposive. It makes does things. It makes things. It takes on projects. It has focus and direction. It is not dependent upon the research agenda of a particular scholar (which is the case with some labs in the sciences), but that can certainly be one strand of its work. Being led by a tenured faculty member facilitates pursuing grant funding and gifts from foundations, individuals, and companies. It is permeable: contributors can join us for the duration of a project, span several projects, or participate for a single semester. We can adopt our own modes of affiliation to reflect this loose structure: graduate fellows; undergraduate fellows, faculty fellows, etc. Contributors to the workshop can
The projects we’ve taken on have come to us by a kind of opportunistic serendipity, but they have all involved working at the intersection of the adaptive reuse of iconic local sites, on the one hand, and public history and public humanities on the other—our role has been to making the former a catalyst for the latter. Work around the repurposing of a cotton mill in Gastonia, NC, that Elijah and I did through the Digital Innovation Lab between 2013 and 2016 brought us to the attention of the developers of the second oldest textile mill in the state: Rocky Mount Mills. At the Loray Mill in Gastonia, we had arranged for a “public historian in residence” to design and plan a history center for the repurposed 430,000 square foot space. We also created digital exhibits for the center and a digital archive of thousands of historical images. In Rocky Mount, under a gift from developer Capitol Broadcasting and a grant from the National Archives, we undertook an oral history project with former workers, organized “history harvests” of family memorabilia, and conducted a slave genealogy workshop. In 2018 we were approached by the Triangle Land Conservancy, which asked us to document the 200-year history of an agricultural site in eastern Wake County that will be preserved as much-needed public green space as Research Triangle development relentlessly proceeds apace. Elijah was asked by property developer Rory Dowling to lead a community conversation around the repurposing of a long-segregated historic school in Winnsboro, S.C., which will become municipal offices and meeting spaces.
Because our work is very much project-based, who we “are” as the CHW depends largely on who is working on what projects. We have had two full-time project managers, but much of our work has been and is being done by (paid) graduate and undergraduate “fellows.” Elijah and I serve as (unpaid) co-directors. One of the luxuries and privileges of being a senior faculty member at a research university such as UNC (This fall marks the beginning of my 41st year here) is that I have a great deal of latitude in what I devote my professional time to, and I can immerse myself in open-ended and multi-dimensional projects that express themselves in different ways over a long period of time. Since July 2019, I have been in what the university calls “phased retirement,” which means that I essentially have moved to a half-time appointment (this is to say that teach only one course per term and receive half what had been my fulltime salary. That I’m still essentially putting in the same number of hours as I did before I “retired” is my choice).
Although I think we implicitly shared a sense of common purpose and approach to professional practice across our projects in the first year of our work under the CHW banner, by the fall of 2017, we felt the need to articulate an explicit set of values and norms that we would share publicly and ask all participants to adopt. We brought in Ina Dixon, an American Studies PHD student with experience in community-based adaptive reuse projects; and Jerry Bolas, public arts consultant and former Director of UNC’s Ackland Museum; to lead a seminar-long self study, which led to the adoption of a CHW Statement of Principles in February 2018. These principles clearly derive from our work in adaptive reuse and a corresponding focus on space and place, but they apply more generally, I think, to project-based work in public history and public.
The impact of our work has been greatly amplified by organizational partnerships we’ve developed within and outside of the university: on campus, the American Studies Department, of course, Wilson Library, the Digital Innovation Lab, the Odum Institute for Social Science Research, the N.C. Digital Heritage Center, and Innovation Carolina. Beyond the campus: Preservation North Carolina, the Gaston County Museum, Braswell Memorial Library in Rocky Mount, Triangle Land Conservancy, Duke University, and the City of Raleigh. We’ve also very productively partnered with commercial developers.
The work of the CHW between 2016 and 2018 was shaped by two intensive and long-term public humanities projects connected with very high-profile adaptive reuse developments: the Loray Mill in Gastonia, N.C., and Rocky Mount Mills in Rocky Mount, N.C.