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History and the eternal, ceaseless quest for truth

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, January 17, 2005

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A few months ago a favorite high school teacher, Myrtle Kiker, sent a message to me with a question. "What is the best history of North Carolina--one that I can recommend to a friend who wants to know more about her new state?"

I have been thinking about how to answer her. Two books have to be on the list for her to consider. "North Carolina Through Four Centuries" by William Powell is the best recent, comprehensive, one-volume history of our state. Also, H.G. Jones's "North Carolina Illustrated" helps make history's lessons easier to understand by accompanying them with more than 1100 images.

Ever-expanding collections of papers, photos and recordings of oral history are good reasons for a big celebration.

Miss Kiker's inquiry is not the only thing that has me thinking about our state's history. In Chapel Hill, the university community is celebrating 75 years of service by its Southern Historical Collection or "the Southern," as it is called by many. The Southern is an archive of more than 15 million separate items organized into over 4,600 separate groups.

Archives like the Southern, as well as those at North Carolina's Office of Archives and History and those maintained by libraries and colleges are "goldmines" for those who are not satisfied to get their understanding of history solely from books that others have written.

The founder of the Southern, UNC history professor J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton, traveled all over the South persuading families to donate their personal and business records. His efforts resulted in a storehouse of first hand experiences of Southerners who lived before, during and after the Civil War.

From its beginnings, the Southern has drawn scholars, authors, and amateur historians to search its records for a more complete understanding of our history. Its existence and its ever-expanding collections of papers, photos and recordings of oral history are good reasons for a big celebration.

At the same time, there is another reminder of the importance of history.The campus is suffering through an acrimonious controversy over the proper place of Cornelia Phillips Spencer (1825-1908) in its history.

Spencer is widely admired for her efforts to reopen the university after it had closed shortly after the Civil War. A campus residence hall is named in her honor. Her ringing of the campus bell to spread the good news about reopening is even reenacted on occasion. Until a few weeks ago, when the university chancellor announced its discontinuance, there was an important campus award named in her honor.

The problem with Spencer, it seems, is that she was squarely on the side of those who wanted to force the "carpetbaggers and scallywags" out of North Carolina post Civil War government. She saw Reconstruction as a tragedy and sought the return of order and control by the former white establishment.

The version of Reconstruction that I learned in school fifty years ago was not inconsistent with Spencer's views. But measured by current standards, these ideas are deemed racist and unacceptable.

UNC history professor Jacquelyn Hall, who gave the opening speech for the Southern's celebration, told me that its founder, Professor Hamilton had a similar view of 19th century southern history. In fact, these ideas were widely shared by professional historians of Hamilton's generation. She believes that Hamilton was confident that the Southern's archives would confirm that the institution of slavery had been relatively benign and beneficial for those in bondage and that the Reconstruction period had been an unnecessary imposition on the South.

We may not accept all the views of history held by Hamilton and his contemporaries. But he remains a hero. His commitment to acquire and preserve means that the records can speak for themselves, perhaps in different ways to different researchers in different times.

Ironically, the papers and documents collected by Hamilton became the basis for the research and scholarship of younger "revisionist" Southern historians like C. Vann Woodward. These revisionists challenged the ideas of Hamilton and his colleagues. They rewrote Southern history to show the horrors of slavery and the missed opportunities of Reconstruction.

Today, the modern successors of Woodward, using Hamilton's legacy in the Southern Historical Collection's records to prove their point, attack our heroes, and challenge our old ideas.

How would J.G. de Roulhac Hamilton feel about all this?

I am not sure, except, I bet that if he could, he would still be out on the road tracking down more material for his collection, just to be sure that the historians of the future will have the raw material to challenge every notion, wrongheaded or not, that we may so strongly believe today. All this, as Hamilton once put it, is in "The eternal, ceaseless quest for truth.."

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Note: My radio interview with Professor Jacquelyn Hall about the history of the Southern Historical Collection will be available on the web at the WCHL1360 website: http://www.wchl1360.com/listen.jsp?showname=dgmartin2 (program #123).

D.G. Martin is the author of "Interstate Eateries" a handbook of home cooking places near North Carolina's interstate highways-available through Our State Magazine (800-948-1409 or www.ourstate.com). He is the host of UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This week's (January 23) guest is Chuck Stone, author of "Squizzy the Black Squirrel."

Programs coming up:

January 23: Chuck Stone, Squizzy the Black Squirrel

January 30: Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities

February 6: Sheila Kay Adams, My Old True Love

 
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History and the eternal, ceaseless quest for truth

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