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'I Was Still Singing' offers digital look at Black women's history in Chapel Hill

i was still singing.jpeg
An in-person, socially-distant celebration in summer 2020 celebrated the women who created and contributed to the I Was Still Singing exhibit. Photo courtesy of Mandella Younge.

In partnership with the Chapel Hill Public Library, Chapel Hill-area historians launched a new online exhibit on the Chapel Hill Community History website to document the role of Black women in local civil rights movements. 

Led by community historian Danita Mason-Hogans, “I Was Still Singing” offers a look into the perspectives of Black women who have shaped the Town’s history.

Mason-Hogans said the University’s presence can often overshadow the history of the local community — particularly the Black community — and the exhibit seeks to focus on telling previously untold stories in the community.

“We're just learning about Ella Baker," Mason-Hogans said. "We're just learning about local people like Pauli Murray. We’re learning about the contributions that Black women have made. And always, when there's like a national history, there is a corresponding local history because there was a corresponding local movement.” 

Mandella Younge, one of the producers for the project, said the team originally planned to launch the exhibit in spring 2020 with a variety of in-person events. However, due to COVID-19, the team adapted the exhibit to engage with the community online.

The stories of the exhibit are centered around policies that impacted the Black community in Chapel Hill, Mason-Hogans said. Black women could not afford to focus on just one issue, she said, because the policy issues were and continue to be so fundamentally interconnected.

“We couldn't talk about health care without talking about poverty. We can't talk about poverty without talking about housing," Mason-Hogans said. "We can't talk about housing without talking about labor. We can't talk about labor without talking about education, which feeds into opportunity and access, and it all, you know, centers around policy.” 

Mason-Hogans and the team adopted an “inside out and bottom up approach” in their efforts to document history. This approach to historical analysis challenges the idea that only scholars in a field can document history about a community and instead centers the communities that were part of the historical movements, she said. 

Younge said the team began conducting interviews during fall of 2019. All of the women interviewed were asked to bring a story of their involvement with activism, service and the civil rights movement, Younge said, and from those interviews, the team found their central themes: “Body” (health care), “Mind” (education) and “Soul” (community organizing). 

In the “Body” portion of the exhibit, interviews with trailblazers in public health are interspersed with primary sources from newspapers, historical context and information about the timeline for key developments in public health. 

In the exhibit, Annie B. Hargett and Marjorie Land trace their experiences working in the North Carolina Memorial Hospital, recounting segregated hospital floors, inequitable treatment of nurses and patients and unclean hospital conditions, among other aspects of their experiences as nurses. 

On the website, visitors can click on pages that have been specifically designed to feature the biographies and audio interviews with Hargett, Land and all of the women who are featured in the project.

Audio interviews are prominently featured in the timelines that have been constructed for each section of the exhibit, adding depth to the historical timelines.
 Molly Luby, special project coordinator at the Chapel Hill Public Library, said this created an opportunity for people to learn more about their neighbors’ roles in shaping the town’s history.

So far, the team’s approach to the digital exhibit has prompted significant engagement from the community. In January, before the exhibit launched, the Chapel Hill History website had about 277 visitors. After the launch of the first section of the exhibit in February, the site had 3,008 visitors that month and has had 3,373 visitors in March. 

The team has created an opportunity for community members to directly engage with the exhibit through the creation of a “community journal". Younge said community members have an opportunity to submit their reflections — written pieces, artwork and more — to the Chapel Hill Public Library, which will then collect the submissions and create the journal.

Luby said the team has decided to extend community journal submissions through June to foster more engagement with the digital exhibit as part of the Town of Chapel Hill’s inaugural Juneteenth celebration. Community members, she said, have already expressed positive anecdotal evidence about the digital exhibit, saying that they are excited to learn more about their neighbors’ contributions to the town’s history.

“Every time I listen to an interview or watch one of the videos,” Luby said, “I find some new nugget that just makes me want to go down five different more rabbit holes of history and share more.”      


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