Back Ways in the News!

Our collaborative research project with Harvey’s Chapel was recently featured in the Herald Sun and News and Observer:

“Jim Crow forced rural black churches to move. A UNC project is finding the roads back.” – Catherine York, Herald Sun, 12/26/2017

“The roads to history – all history.” – Editorial Board, News and Observer, 12/29/2017



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Back Ways Revisted on Press Record

Listen to Field Scholars Rachel Cotterman and Carol Prince discuss this year’s progress on the Back Ways Project on the SOHP’s podcast, Press Record!

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Placing the History of Harvey’s Chapel


Head and foot stones in the original Harvey’s Chapel cemetery

Last week I took a walk out to the former Harvey’s Chapel AME church site in the woods on the southwest side of Hillsborough, led by Harold Russell–a lifelong member of the church and community historian–and Tom Magnuson–one of the founders of the Backways project and the director of the Trading Path Association. Starting on a small path, we quickly veered off into the forest, guided by Tom’s GPS and keen eye for the subtle signs of former habitation. I’ve been walking in the woods for Backways a lot recently, and my gaze is beginning to train itself towards small piles of milky quartz, fence lines, chimney stones, and the slight depressions of overgrown roadbeds cut into the earth that give us hints of places once called home. The woods around the former chapel site are full of these signs, indicating that far from being “untouched” forest, this place is host to many layers of human history and social life.

img_8369Harvey’s Chapel grew out of a “brush arbor” worship community, establishing their first fixed location in these woods in 1892. After moving locations twice, the congregation built a chapel about 2 miles from the original site in the 1940s, where they continue to gather today. Many of the current members are descended from the founding group of black families. The Backways project reached out to Harold Russell after we learned that Harvey’s Chapel was forced to move from the original site in the 1930s when the road on which it was located fell into such a state of disrepair that the congregation could no longer access the church. We are currently working to uncover more information about the process that led to the closure of this road, as well as to understand more about the experiences of the people who lived, worked, and worshipped along it, and I will share more on this blog in the coming weeks and months.

img_8375The former church site sits high up on a ridge, overlooking the calm and shallow water of Crabtree Creek. Many of the graves in the cemetery are marked with head and foot stones without visible inscriptions, although a few have engraved markers. One of the last people buried in the cemetery was Eddie Haithcock in 1935. Mr. Russell’s ancestor, John Wesley Thompson, is buried nearby. The outline of the church foundation is still visible, the entrance marked by two large milky quartz stones.

Mr. Russell was born after the church moved from this initial site, but the church community continued to baptize children in the creek for some years afterwards. When we approached the creek he told me with a big smile, “I think I was baptized here.” We found a spot that looked as if it had once been dammed for a baptismal pool, and a terraced area on the bank above that had been lined with quartz.


Harold Russell at the entrance of the former church

It’s hard to put into words the power of connecting to places like this that have been written off the map. I recently moved back to the neighborhood where I grew up, about a mile away from Harvey’s Chapel. Learning more about the layered histories embedded in the landscape I call home has been a deeply meaningful experience, and I can only imagine the significance of this place for the members of Harvey’s Chapel whose ancestors worshipped, celebrated, mourned, and were laid to rest here. Mr. Russell’s dedicated work to preserve the Chapel’s history is a testament to the power of black place-making, and it also hints at the forces that have attempted to erase black and rural places from public memory: when Mr. Russell was researching the former site, he discovered that it wasn’t included in the public land records, and had to go through an extensive process to get it entered using the original deeds. He describes the process here:


You can listen to Darius Scott’s complete interview with Harold Russell in the SOHP archive and read Mr. Russell’s history of Harvey’s Chapel on the church’s website.

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Setting Inequality in Stone: Race and “Good Roads”

HARRIET M. BERRY (1877-1940) Champion of good roads. Her intensive lobbying led to 1921 law creating modern state highway system. Born 8 mi. N. North Carolina Division of Archives and History, 1986Driving south along NC Highway 86—just as the road leaves the forests and fields between Hillsborough and Chapel Hill and enters city traffic over I-40—there is a small historical marker commemorating Harriet M. Berry, one of the leaders of North Carolina’s early 20th century “Good Roads” movement. Beyond this relatively inconspicuous sign (as a native of Hillsborough, I’ve probably driven past it thousands of times), the average Orange County resident will encounter few legible markers of this pivotal Progressive Era project. The state highways and county roads that we drive on every day, however, are themselves a material archive, physically embodying a set of distinctly political and racialized decisions made in the 1910s and 20s about which roads to fix more permanently on the map.

As I’ve oriented myself to the Backways project as a new Field Scholar this fall, I’ve spent some time in another kind of archive: the Southern Historical Collections in UNC’s Wilson Library. Working my way through Harriet Berry’s personal collection, I’ve sought to better understand how North Carolina’s Good Roads movement helped shape the landscape of rural segregation. One of the greatest challenges of doing this kind critical historical work of public infrastructure is uncovering the power structures and social relations embedded in policies that are conceived and promoted as scientifically objective and socially neutral. Rather than an explicitly racially-motivated practice of disinvestment from black roads and communities, the Good Roads archives tell a story of strategic neglect, a process couched in a narrative of equality that nonetheless had distinctly racialized consequences: literally concretizing the interests of a white political and economic elite in an emerging infrastructural landscape that persists to this day.

At the beginning of the 20th century, roads in North Carolina were maintained on the county level through a system of periodic mandatory labor by local residents. Most roads were dirt or gravel, and in the Piedmont the iconic red clay gave way to florid rivers of impassable mud with each rain. Culvert technology was next to nonexistent, and early roads were primarily constructed along ridges to avoid the most extreme sites of erosion. Harriet Berry—and the other citizens, politicians, and highway engineers who rallied behind the Good Roads movement—sought to uplift the state’s residents and economy by surmounting these barriers to transportation and commerce through a new, “modern” system of road maintenance. They joined together to establish the first State Highway Commission and secure federal funding to build hard-topped roads throughout the state. Though they faced multiple political hurdles, the Good Roads advocates achieved ambitious goals in a relatively short period of time, creating a vast network of new and improved roads before the arrival of the Great Depression.

good roads convention

“Make the World Safe for Democracy” – 1918 Good Roads Convention

Much of the key historical documentation from North Carolina’s Good Roads movement can be found in the records of the Good Roads Institute, an annual conference held throughout the 1910s. Perusing the transcribed speeches, I was immediately struck by the grandiose rhetoric of the presenters. The impassioned advocates frame road development as the key advancement necessary to bring a region “lagging behind” into its full “birthright” as part of the nation’s future.[1] The wartime context is evident in the prevalent language of Empire, as the speakers describe domestic infrastructure as one front on which America’s campaign to establish itself as a global power can be waged. Additionally, road development is explicitly framed as a populist campaign that will positively impact all the state’s residents: “Highways constructed and maintained by the State mean ‘equal rights to all, special privileges to none.’”[2]

How can we reconcile the Good Road movements’ language of equality with the numerous interviews in the Backways collection that attest to the systematic exclusion of black communities from public road development projects throughout the 20th century? Is it possible to pinpoint the systematic nature of neglect in the public record? The Backways project continually confronts this challenge as we work to integrate oral histories and archival research.

Perhaps the simplest way to begin to answer this question is to examine who assumed leadership positions within the Good Roads movement, as well as who was considered a citizen worthy of equal protection in the eyes of the state during this era. The NC Good Roads Association was primarily composed of property-owning whites in positions of political and economic power, documented in Harriet Berry’s personal letters inviting delegates from boards of trade and chambers of commerce to attend the Institute.[3] In Orange County, the law that established a Good Roads Commission specified that this board would be composed of “nine qualified voters” from the county[4]—a category that would have largely excluded black North Carolinians during the height of Jim Crow when poll taxes and other forms of voter intimidation had effectively reinstated disenfranchisement.

While the proponents of this program strove to create a scientific and objective system of determining which roads would receive renewed investment (based primarily on population size and various metrics of economic significance), the reality was much messier—and much more political. The Harriet Berry archive contains numerous letters from local politicians and citizens written to the newly formed state agency, advocating for the improvement or closure of particular roads. In a letter to the Governor advocating for the improvement of a road in McDowell County, Berry herself acknowledges that the allegedly scientific measures established by the commission are subject to revision and exception for roads with particular significance due to their “scenic” attributes or other qualities.[5] The archive suggests that the issue was not (or not only) that white leaders intentionally wrote black roads off the emerging highway maintenance maps, but that black communities were largely prevented from advocating that they be put on in the first place.


Road construction chain gang (from Ingram, Tammy. Dixie Highway: Road Building and the Making of the Modern South, 1900-1930. UNC Press Books, 2014.)

The fact that many black roads were excluded from the Good Roads modernization process is thrown into particularly harsh relief by the fact that black North Carolinians provided the vast majority of the labor that built the new roads. In the early 20th century, vagrancy laws and other Jim Crow attempts at re-enslavement had filled the prisons with black men, and the early Good Roads documents attest to an intentional centrality of convict labor in the construction process. This institutional marriage of “corrections” and transportation reached it height when the State Highway Commission and State Prison were merged into a single department between 1933 and 1957.

What the Backways collection tells us, however, is that while the relationship between race and roads in North Carolina is a story of both neglect and more explicit forms of violence and exploitation, it is also much more than that. In “off-the-map” spaces, black communities carved out places for congregation, survival, and resistance, circumnavigating the violent gaze of white supremacist vigilantes and the Jim Crow state. As I move forward with collecting additional oral histories for the Backways archive, I’m working to hold both these realities in tension: the worlds of possibility that black folks forged out of these acts of overlooking, as well as the brutal reality that the exclusion of black roads from the new landscape of “modern” infrastructure literally paved inequality into the red clay soil of our state.


Close-up of a 1925 Orange County road map – with hand-drawn colors indicating which “class” roads would be designated for maintenance purposes (Moore, Coyle. Map of Orange County [1925]. North Carolina Collection Maps, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)


Map key – colors for Class A, B, & C


[1] Good Roads Institute Proceedings, 1918, folder 44, in the H. M. Berry Papers #2259, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


[3] Good Roads Institute Proceedings, 1918, folder 44, in the H. M. Berry Papers #2259, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

[4] North Carolina General Assembly. 1911. For Good Roads in Orange : Chapter 600 of the Public Laws of North Carolina. Raleigh, North Carolina.

[5] Letter to Governor Doughton, folder 33, in the H. M. Berry Papers #2259, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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“Back Ways” on Press Record

In honor of Black History Month, Press Record — a podcast by the Southern Oral History Program at UNC — featured “Back Ways.” In this episode, you’ll hear American Studies scholars Seth Kotch and Kimber Thomas discuss the project; you’ll hear geographers Darius Scott and Betsy Olson describe how oral history helps geographers map the rural south; and you’ll hear historian Ashley Farmer give advice on how to find “back ways” out of difficult moments during interviews.

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Looking at Rogers Road

782posterframe_finalRogers Road maintains a central place in the memory of families gathered around it. For decades, they have grown and lived around the road just outside Chapel Hill’s bustling education and college sports-focused center. Perhaps, few communities in the city can collectively recount as rich a history as the residents of Rogers Road.

Now in her nineties, Gertrude Nunn tells the story of growing up in the area where her family had a truck farm. She is also able to recite the founding of Rogers Road as such: “And they came from Durham County—my daddy and his brother, Sam Rogers—rode a wagon, and they came to where Rogers Road is today. And so, therefore, it’s named Rogers Road, because that’s how it got started.” Listen to Gertrude Nunn below.

The history of Rogers Road has not been all good nor progressive. By the account of residents, the community has suffered major setbacks. They narrate a strand of the road’s story that has become well-known in Chapel Hill and in the statewide environmental justice network—one relating to the landfill.

When the neighborhood was chosen to accommodate the landfill, the city of Chapel Hill made a number of promises: paving Rogers Road, city water and sewer connectivity, and the construction of a recreation center. Recollecting the moment following the landfill placement, community leader and retired law enforcement official David Caldwell says: “Our elders felt, ‘Well, maybe we did make the right decision in letting them come.’ Because we could see, ‘Hey, they are keeping their word.’ But after that, that was about it. [Laughs] That was the last of it.” Alongside steady unfulfilled promises and harmful effects of the landfill, decades of grassroots activism and organizing occurred. Listen to David Caldwell below.

Despite its struggles, Rogers Road is still close-knit.  In 2013, forty-one years after the landfill’s placement, it was finally closed. Between the time it opened and then, residents came together via sincere senses of shared belonging and pride though under ongoing grave circumstances. The landfill’s impacts, including the jeopardized heritage of residents, were severe and perhaps will outlive the waste site itself. David Caldwell relayed that “[m]ost of the kids have left, because the history of the landfill and the promises made and not fulfilled.”

Infographic by Darius Scott

Click to enlarge

In a well overdue attempt to ameliorate the experiences of Rogers Road citizens, the Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Orange County governments have provided sewer hookup options and funded a community/recreation center that had been promised decades ago. That center opened in November 2014. This past summer, it hosted a summer camp that was well-attended by dozens of neighborhood kids each day it was open showing that despite a trying past, the future of Rogers Road remains united.


Interactive Bike Demo at 2015 Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association Summer Camp. Photo by Darius Scott.

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Black Main Streets

Black main streets, prior to urban renewal, were bustling centers of culture and business. Not unlike the rural roadways in rural African American communities, development, in the form of urban renewal, came unevenly on and around these sites. Below are two clips from individuals who lived in urban Savannah, Georgia and experienced the fall of West Broad Street, a culture and business hub for Black Savannah. The interviews were recorded via the Remembering Black Main Streets project.

Union Station, once central to Black Savannah (GA) on West Broad Street was demolished to make way for Interstate 16.

Union Station, once central to Black Savannah (GA) on West Broad Street was demolished to make way for Interstate 16.

Leroy Beavers, resident of Savannah, talks about experiencing urban renewal’s impact on West Broad Street:


Floyd Adams Jr. was the first African American mayor of Savannah, Georgia. He remembers the irrevocable loss of black historical sites in the city:

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Reviewing the Transcript

For an oral historian, one of the most exciting times is reviewing the transcript for the first time. Slightly apprehensive but mostly eager, you turn on the audio and read along to get a better sense of what you and the interviewee covered during your time together. The first-glance-at-the-transcript experiences are well underway as we near the end of Back Ways preliminary interviewing. For me, this process has been especially enriching. It bolsters my belief in the transformative potential of this work.

I was drawn to both oral history and study of the South as a result of growing up hearing older family members recount their own youth in the place we call home, Vance County, North Carolina. I have always been struck by the stories of community and kinship these family members told. Additionally, I have been moved by the personal recollections of major events that I learned of in school, such as, school desegregation or the assassination of Martin Luther King. There was something, I knew, in hearing from everyday people, like my grandparents, recollections that could transform and enliven my understanding of times long gone. I carry this sentiment with me today. Just last week, I presented at the Southeastern Division of American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting and drew attention to the oral histories of black school principals who experienced school desegregation attempts. As a field scholar at the Southern Oral History Program, I consider the transformative potential of oral history when I sit down to conduct an interview. When I read a transcript for the first time, I have learned not to underestimate how much an oral history may alter my knowledge of the past.

After collecting oral histories for Back Ways, I see that certain richly recounted topics and hardships of African American life in the rural south—black-run farms and underfunded schools—are not specific to stories told in my family. As African-Americans attempted to survive in a hostile rural South, limited options were available and a certain way of life emerged. As one interviewee, Hattie McCauley, said while reflecting on tenant farming: “And I think that’s why a lot of families left the South, because there was nothing for them to do but tenant farming. And, as I say, I think they even rented you the horse, the animals! I mean, how could you get ahead?” Despite recurring subjects such as farm life and particular economic limitations, the oral histories we have collected detail deep, multi-faceted, and extremely individualized memories that likely reflect those held by many in this area and through out the United States. With Back Ways, we have the opportunity to have unconsidered sentiments and recounted experiences of community and hardship heard by many scholars and community members who would not hear them otherwise. The preliminary interviews and transcripts remind me of the transformative potential integral to a project like Back Ways.

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Orange County Connections

Opening slide of IAAR Graduate Student Brown Bag Series presentation

Opening slide of IAAR Graduate Student Brown Bag Series presentation

One of the joys of doing work with communities local to the Southern Oral History Program is the number of connections that spring up. After attending a presentation on the progress of Back Ways via the UNC Institute for African American Research Brown Bag series, a geography colleague in attendance realized that her parents live just down the road from Harvey’s Chapel, a church located out in the county (Orange) with a rich history that had been touched on in the presentation.

Through email and face-to-face interaction, we have had the opportunity to learn about academic work involving diverse subjects like children’s books and participatory mapping, as well as longstanding personal ties that all soundly relate to the nearby rural Orange County communities with which Back Ways works. We are grateful for those who have and who will make personal connections with the project. As we progress with coding, designing, and planning for the digital component of Back Ways, we are reminded to respect the local relationships and community ties that help make Back Ways an important endeavor. We look forward to learning of more Orange County connections as the project develops.



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Presenting Back Ways


Ray Family Cemetery on what is now the property of Peter Kramer in Rural Hillsborough, NC

Back Ways explores the rural South by following the paths southerners created to visit one another, to shop and trade, to reach homes and churches, and to avoid one another.  The project began with a provocative premise: did white-run municipalities in the Jim Crow South deliberately neglect roads that led to and from important black institutions? And if so, did the eventual decline of those roads harm those communities?

Answering this question requires a new kind of oral history and archival research: seeking out records that might indicate neglect rather than aggression, maps that might show the appearance and disappearance of roads and other features, and oral narratives that delve deep into space and place.

It also demands thinking hard about how we present our research. Oral historians have long been at the forefront of digital humanities work, even if they didn’t name it as such. This project requires pushing still farther into the digital realm and exploring ways to represent human voices among built and unbuilt environments. This blog will serve as a means of reflexivity so the developing Back Ways Project can stay true to that aspect of its mission.

During the summer months, the Back Ways project team visited the archives and collected oral histories. Additionally, we visited some of the field sites of interest. Some of these are in the front yards of interviewees. One of the most salient issues, in regards to eventually creating some digital presence for the project, is how field, sites such as the Ray Family Cemetery, have come to seamlessly blend with forested landscapes. What does this mean for visually presenting photos of these sites via a digital project? How can we capture and present the historical processes and stories which should not be severed from the materiality of these spaces? These are some of the issues of digitization. I invite you to keep an eye on this page to stay up-to-date with Back Ways.

-Darius, SOHP Field Scholar

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