The Daily Tar Heel

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Wednesday January 19th

Wilson Library tells the story of 400 years of African American migration history

A segregated bus station in Durham, North Carolina, in 1940. Photo by Jack Delano, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Buy Photos A segregated bus station in Durham, North Carolina, in 1940. Photo by Jack Delano, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

This year marks the 400th year since the first enslaved Africans were brought to North America in 1619. Wilson Library’s “On the Move: Stories of African American Migration and Mobility” examines various personal stories of African Americans through history and their experience with social and physical mobility. 

The exhibit is open until Jan. 15, 2020. 

“We’re thinking about ‘How did we get here and what has happened since (1619)?’,” said Chaitra Powell, African American collections and outreach archivist at UNC University Libraries.

Talking openly about racial issues of the past is ultimately a social justice issue, said Rachel Reynolds, exhibition coordinator for Wilson Special Collections Library. 

“Because by opening our eyes to the reality of some of our past, we can look around us now at society and understand inequalities and inequities that exist — where they come from and why something needs to be done about that,” Reynolds said.

Powell said she chose to focus on many personal stories and profiles rather than more general stories to highlight the humanity within the stories. 

“One of my other challenges was, how do I tell stories with an African American’s perspective in a collection that hasn’t always collected things from African Americans, or in our voices,” Powell said. 

Presenting people in their own words and with a photograph provides a much stronger and more immediate connection for the visitor because slavery and segregation happened to real people, Reynolds said. 

The exhibit examines six different modes of transportation, such as buses, trains, cars and airplanes and their relevance to African Americans in the past 400 years. 

“In 1947, a group of biracial social activists wanted to see if they could travel across state lines in the front of the bus. There was a federal law that said you could so would it work in practice?” Powell said. 

When they got to Chapel Hill, the cab drivers at the bus station boarded the bus and hit the protestors in the head — and the protestors were the ones that ended up getting arrested, Powell said.  

They made their bail and got out of town in the dark of night with the help of a preacher. The exhibit showcases a letter written by this preacher discussing the events of that night, Powell said. 

“This disrupts the illusion of Chapel Hill being this liberal bastion. Crazy things happen here too,” Powell said. 

Reynolds said she hopes the exhibit will allow visitors to be more empathetic to the stories that are told in the exhibit. Many of these stories have not been told sufficiently in our history, and this exhibit hopes to change that, Reynolds said. 

“Until you are aware of the serious injustices in our history, you can’t make amends and understand how much needs to be done to make things right,” Reynolds said. 

Adreonna Bennett is a former curatorial assistant at Wilson Library and current community engagement librarian and archivist at UNC-Charlotte. 

Bennett said this exhibit sheds light on a topic that many people know preliminary knowledge about, but that the nature of an exhibit allows people to find out specific information for themselves, rather than being told it in a lecture or a class.  

“The past and the present are always intertwined, no matter how much we try to separate them,” Bennett said. 


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