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A modest proposal to learn from our history

By Wallace Kaufman
Posted Thursday, May 14, 2009

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Chatham County, NC - The danger of not knowing history, including the history of your own neighborhood and county, are considerably greater than simply repeating history and its misfortunes. Posts about the latest controversy--liquor by the drink--reminded me of this fact and suggested a modest remedy.

Back in the 60s I grandly thought I had a lot of insight about the character and characters of my new home. Chatham at that time was a very rural, almost entirely agricultural county with tens of thousands of acres of young pines growing like a modesty blanket over the eroded hills and valleys. As I recall the population of about 30,000 had not increased since before the Great Depression when its main crops had been cotton, tobacco and rabbits and the gentry of eastern Chatham conspired to keep most of the industry in western Chatham, and elections often involved richer white folks conspiring with certain leaders of poorer black folks to pay for votes, and poorer whites knowing which richer whites could allow them into politics, and both races knew what lines could be crossed and where and when. I had enterd the scene somewhat like the self-important politician of whose speechifying it was said that he tried, Samson-like, to slay his opponents with the jawbone of an ass.

Apologies, I write as if I knew this then. I learned it. I wish I had learned it right away. Therein lies the seed of my proposal.

A good project for the CCCC, an arts group, the libraries, or even the planning board would be to put on an annual Chatham history introduction for newcomers (everyone invited, of course). Let older residents talk about specific topics and issues still evolving. Each topic should be a mix of concrete, personally lived examples and good reliable data. Just the facts, m'am, because getting into the why should be for other forums. Information before confrontation or reconciliation. Call the sessions, "Welcome to the Chatham Experience."

I offer a few examples that spring to mind:

Alcohol. Chatham's transformation from dry to wet is one. We learned some lessons along the way.

Population and Changing demographics. The county has dealt with several waves of newcomers. What brought people to Chatham. Don't forget what convinced others to move out.

Education. The school system and various measures of progress in education (or lack thereof). What have been the major changes in offerings, facilities, mix of faculty and staff, and what concrete data measures changes in student achievement? What changes did the schools deal with well and poorly.

Zoning and planning--compare old texts with new, recall the various debates and arguments; find out who was for and against and why; present maps of the results.

Transportation: road usage, paved/unpaved, travel times over the decades of development, etc.

Employment: what people did to sustain their lives in Chatham. Wage levels, kinds of occupations. Diversity of occupations.

Taxes: How did Chatham citizens react to their tax burden and on whom did the burden fall? Real per family tax collections adjusted for inflation.

Housing: affordability, quality, kind and what people expected from housing.

The natural environment: How did people use the land and what did they get from it, expect from it? Where were waters better, worse? Compare maps and aerial photos to demonstrate changes.

Recreation and citizen organizations: what did people do for leisure? Who organized recreation and social activity? What organizations came and went and what did they do?

And much more. I can even see a Chatham Experience Bus Tour. In fact, this kind of tour and history should be a requirement for anyone running for county commissioner or hoping to be appointed to the planning board. (Okay, not mandatory, but having attended should be considered a fundamental qualification.)

This kind of history might do much to provide a common understanding of the county's trajectory through history, the engines of its current controversies, and a common vocabulary. It should be a natural project for a foundation grant or funding from Archives and History, the Arts Council, or North Carolina Council for the Humanities.

Writer, Consultant, Mediator

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