Fire Fighters

When an arsonist tried to destroy a storied social justice center, the staff at Wilson Library made sure its archive would live on.

When an arsonist tried to destroy a storied social justice center, the staff at Wilson Library made sure its archive would live on.

When an arsonist tried to destroy a storied social justice center, the staff at Wilson Library made sure its archive would live on.


By Claire Cusick
Photos By Jeyhoun Allebaugh

n the morning of March 29, 2019, Susan Williams thought all was lost. Williams, the librarian at Highlander Research and Education Center, had just learned that a building on Highlander’s property had burned to the ground. It was the office.

Decades’ worth of materials and records that had been stored there were destroyed. A symbol (later determined to be associated with white supremacy) had been spray-painted onto the parking lot. Williams’ first reaction was hopelessness.

But then she snapped into a more productive mode. “I have to get the stuff off this site, somewhere safe, out of the library,” she recalled thinking to herself. “It was something I could do.”

She pulled herself together and made a phone call. More than two years later, remembering it still makes her cry.

“I called Steve. And he told me, we’ll come tomorrow,” she said, choking up. “I was so overwhelmed that he could come the next day, and he took so many things that are really important.”

Steve Weiss, curator of the Southern Folklife Collection at the Wilson Special Collections Library, told Williams that he would immediately travel to New Market, Tennessee, to relocate Highlander’s video collection as soon as possible. The next day. A Saturday.

Weiss asked Aaron Smithers, the collection’s assistant at the time, if he would be willing to join him. “There aren’t a lot of people who would have made that decision the way Steve did in that moment,” Smithers said. “I went home and got a change of clothes and we left.”

A sense of urgency

Williams and Weiss had already discussed digitizing Highlander’s large collection of videos — holdings that spanned much of the 20th century, most of it on now-obsolete technology: reel-to-reel tapes, U-matic tapes, VHS tapes. A generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation allows the University Libraries to digitize outdated materials from several entities. The Highlander project had been planned for the summer of 2019, but the fire accelerated the timeline.

Since 1932, the Highlander Center has offered training to support grassroots organizing in the South. Rosa Parks attended a workshop there in the months before she helped spark the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. Because education is Highlander’s focus, other entities have stepped in to archive and store its materials. Many of its records are held by the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Photos of some of the librarians from the Southern Folklife Collection that are working to preserve a collection of video and other materials recovered from the Highlander Research and Education Center.

Highlander Center footage of Rosa Parks

Over its history, amateur videographers captured workshops, trainings and celebrations at Highlander and activists at work along the U.S.-Mexico border and in Selma, Alabama.

Weiss calls Highlander’s video collection a national treasure. “I think of it as a collection that really speaks to the changing South, from the 1930s to the present,” he said. “Highlander has been a force for positive change over many years, starting with the labor movement, and then the civil rights movement, and then, moving on to Appalachian people’s struggles in the 70s. In the current century, they’ve been working with Latinx immigrants. This collection underlines the changes in our history.”

Thankfully, no one was hurt in the fire, which is still under investigation as an act of arson. But Highlander lost important documents, speeches, artifacts and memorabilia.

When Weiss and Smithers entered Highlander’s 200-acre property on the morning of March 30, it was through a guarded gate. The office building was still smoldering. There was a feeling of urgency.

“The urgency was the uncertainty over those materials and what might happen in the intervening time,” Weiss said. “It was best to get those materials out of there as soon as possible.”

Together with Williams and Caroline Rubens, an archivist at Appalshop in Whitesburg, Kentucky, they spent the day packing boxes. They didn’t hurry, nor did they linger. Weiss and Smithers were back in Chapel Hill that night.

Weiss said he felt some trepidation leaving Highlander, driving the Library’s cargo van along mountain roads back to the interstate. “That was the most nerve-racking part. I was thinking, I hope we don’t encounter anyone.”

The 80 boxes, safe inside Wilson Library, contained more than 1,300 tapes in various formats.

Thanks to the Mellon grant, a team was already in place and able to begin preserving the collection right away. “We were able to integrate this really amazing collection into the grant work that we’ve been doing,” Weiss said.

Group photo of librarians from the Southern Folklife Collection

More than a dozen archivists, AV specialists and student assistants in Wilson Library helped to digitize and preserve records from the Highlander Center. Back row, L to R: Steve Weiss, John Loy, Erica Titkemeyer, Bradshaw Lentz; Front row, L to R: Dan Hockstein, Melanie Meents

Journey of a tape

The work began with an examination of each tape, explained Melanie Meents, audiovisual assistant. She or a colleague checked the item and its box if it had one, logging its particular format, labeling and any internal filing system that Highlander had created. She looked for information about a tape’s creation and contents.

“I would also typically look to see if it’s moldy or dirty,” Meents said. “There will sometimes be telltale signs that it hasn’t been living in the greatest space, but with Highlander, it was all in pretty good shape.”

The team also checked for problems, such as the tape sticking to itself, and conducted spot checks to see if the tapes’ contents matched their descriptions and if there were duplicates. They assigned call numbers to the items, repacked them and shipped them via FedEx to a digitization vendor. Within a few months, the vendor returned the items, along with the digital files on hard drives.

Then came quality control of the digital files, Meents said. “That is when we had the opportunity to get our eyes on the material, which is the really exciting, fun part.”

Librarian holding a tape.

Melanie Meents catalogs a tape from the Highlander Center archives.

What they found, what they created

Quality control means checking the newly created digital files to make sure that they contain standard code required for databases and digital preservation. The team uses software that shows a graphic representation of the audio-video signal and watches about 20 seconds at the beginning and end of each file. If they find a glitch, they check with the vendor to determine whether the error was part of the original tape.

Among Highlander’s tapes, they found a lot of workshops — folk music workshops, youth summer workshops, storytelling workshops. Footage of folks in Mexico working with textile workers who were trying to unionize. Footage of the civil rights pioneer Septima Clark (1898-1987) at a commemorative dinner in California. Footage of Highlander cofounder Myles Horton, who died in 1990. A performance by Appalachian folk singer Sara Ogan Gunning (1910-1983).

All of it came back to UNC-Chapel Hill, is on servers, and is now fully online and available to researchers. It’s officially called Collection No. 20361, Highlander Research and Education Center’s Audiovisual Materials, 1937-2008.

Meents said she likes thinking of all the scholarly and documentary work that will come as a result of digitizing. “None of these items would be accessible if it weren’t for the detailed work the whole team puts into it.”

Erica Titkemeyer checks the newly created digital files.

Erica Titkemeyer checks the newly created digital files.

Rubens, who helped Williams, Weiss and Smithers pack up Highlander’s collection, said that moving-image materials have potential to create even more impact than paper or sound-only items do. “[If] you can watch someone talking about the effects of strip mining on their property while standing onscreen with stripped mountains behind them, it offers you the chance to connect with that story and that history and that person.”

But these collections are often more at risk than paper collections, because tapes suffer more in the absence of climate-controlled storage. “It’s more expensive to digitize a film than it is to digitize a piece of paper,” Rubens said. “These materials need special storage, climate-controlled storage. I think it’s important for people and funders to understand that.”

Susan Williams is thrilled that the fuller story of Highlander is now safe, visible and accessible. Myles Horton and Rosa Parks may be the names that are remembered in connection with Highlander, but they didn’t act alone.

“These materials help show that change happens through the efforts of a lot of people,” Williams said. “We need to both remember that and be inspired by that. There were meetings and workshops and gatherings that brought people together around a common goal. Everybody can contribute, and we don’t get anything without us all working together.”

Help preserve special collections like the Highlander Archives at UNC Libraries

Gifts to support Wilson Special Collections Library count toward the Campaign for Carolina’s bold goal to raise $50 million for the University Libraries by December 2022. The University Libraries’ archives tell stories that help us understand the human condition. Through the study of our past, we can build a stronger future.

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