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Wednesday February 1st

Chapel Hill Public Library honors forgotten family history of Harriet Smith

The Chapel Hill Historical Society hosted Kim Smith on Sunday, Feb. 19th, for a presentation on five Orange County African-American Families whose rich histories provide insight into how freed African American families lived in North Carolina after the Civil War. Smith has spent three years extensively researching these families, with heavy reliance upon Reverend Dr. Pauli Murray's memoir, Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family.
Buy Photos The Chapel Hill Historical Society hosted Kim Smith on Sunday, Feb. 19th, for a presentation on five Orange County African-American Families whose rich histories provide insight into how freed African American families lived in North Carolina after the Civil War. Smith has spent three years extensively researching these families, with heavy reliance upon Reverend Dr. Pauli Murray's memoir, Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family.

Held at the Chapel Hill Public Library, the event featured speaker Kim Smith, a Duke University scholar who spent three years researching Harriet Smith and her family. The exhibit, called Harriet’s Progeny, gave voice to five African-American families — Harriet’s descendents — who were silenced by slavery.

“I pronounce their names slowly because they have been forgotten and I hope when you leave here, you will remember them,” Smith said.

Sarah Geer, president of the Chapel Hill Historical Society, opened the presentation by discussing the memoir that sparked Kim Smith’s interest, “Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family.”

“This book tells the story of (Harriet Smith’s) family from slavery to her remarkable success,” Geer said.

“Proud Shoes,” written by Pauli Murray, tells the tale of Harriet Smith’s oldest daughter, Cornelia.

“Three years ago I hadn’t even heard of Harriet and then I took a class and read her book and was completely moved beyond words after that,” Smith said.

Smith’s presentation included timelines, letters written between family members, pictures of the house the family grew up in and personal anecdotes she gathered — all of which highlight the inequality and poor treatment African-Americans and people with mixed racial backgrounds experienced during the 1800s.

Throughout the presentation, the crowd was engaged with the complex and convoluted timeline and history of the family that Smith pieced together.

“Over the course of my research, I discovered dozens of individuals related to Harriet, whose accomplishments and names have been omitted from history books,” Smith said. “I found them in fading paper trails and overgrown graves where countless of individuals like Harriet remain forgotten.”

Richard Ellington, a member of the Chapel Hill Historical Society’s board, recounted the time when he visited the former home of the family.

“I had the privilege of going into the family house and it was amazing to essentially see the original house that was constructed with its 18-inch floor boards,” Ellington said.

Smith concluded her presentation by introducing William Gattis, a Carborro resident, and Annie Mae Gattis Burnett, a Pittsboro resident — two of Harriett Smith’s great-great-grandchildren.

“I never dreamed I would be sitting in the same room as Harriet’s great-great-grandchildren and learning about the family from the inside out,” Smith said.

She and the Chapel Hill Historical Society plan to continue sharing oral histories. They hope that the exhibit will help North Carolina families better understand their past through the stories of families such as Harriet Smith’s.

“They are really the people helping connect the roots of the past to the limbs of the present,” Smith said.

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