Have you ever heard of Candi Carawan, Anne Romain, and Zilphia Horton? These women were activists and performers during the Civil Rights Movement. Thanks to a new grant awarded to the Southern Folklife Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill, the voices of these women will soon be available for everyone to hear.
The Southern Folklife Collection recently received a $986,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for the digitization of rare audio, visual, and motion picture resources in Wilson Library. Once digitized, the high quality recordings will become available to the public via online streaming.
“The materials document the music, art, and culture of women living in the American South,” says Steve Weiss, Director of the Southern Folklife Collection. Musicians like Elizabeth Cotten, Alice Gerrard, Hazel Dickens, Ola Belle Reed, and Betty Jonson will be given new life through the digitization process.
Preserving these archives is not enough. “It is critical to share these rich cultural and historical treasures with the public for education and enjoyment,” says Weiss.
And therein lies the challenge. The Southern Folklife Collection has some incredible archives, but has not been able to make them available to the world. The grant will help to change that.
“Thanks to the Mellon Foundation, we will be able to solve problems of preservation and access for thousands of valuable items in volume, and deliver them online,” says Weiss.
How to do that? By using the grant money to figure out a better way to preserve and organize the data on a large scale, and to make these digitized recordings available via online streaming.
For example, the digitized collection will feature recordings from the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. From the 1930s to the 1960s, this school focused on adult education based on the principle of empowerment and helped to mobilize civil rights activists and labor movements in the southern United States. Activists working with the school included Martin Luther King, Jr., members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Guy and Candie Carawan, Septima Clark, and Rosa Parks. Recordings in the collection feature voices such as Esau Jenkins, Septima Clark, Rosa Parks, Miles Horton, and Zilphia Horton. The collection also features folk music, protest songs, labor songs, and African American religious songs.
This unique collection, documenting the struggle for civil rights in the American South, is currently accessible only at the rare books library at UNC-Chapel Hill. Moreover, because the collection is so valuable a piece of American history, access is restricted. Which means that, in order to access it at all, you’d need to apply for and be approved to even look at the documents and recordings.
The Mellon grant breathes new life into this collection, making it available to the public and removing barriers to access like location, credentials, etc.
We are at a crossroads in the American South right now. The voices of hate at times seem louder than the voices of love. These voices—of women who chose love over hate, who chose to fight for the rights of all—need to be heard. And now they will be.
Melissa Geil is a freelance writer and English teacher. Although originally from New York, she moved to North Carolina the first time for college (go Tar Heels), and now she is back to stay. She enjoys reading, hiking, and gallivanting around the triangle with her family.