Thursday, May 7, 2020

New Digital Exhibit Curated by Natalie Branson (M.A. in History with a concentration in Museum Studies)

Natalie Branson, a second-year graduate student working on an M.A. in History with a concentration in Museum Studies, researched and developed an online exhibit focused on the work of the Women's Association for the Betterment of Public Schoolhouses, an organization of women advocating for public education in North Carolina in the first quarter of the 20th century.

You can see Natalie's wonderful exhibit here: We also asked Natalie to write a reflection of her time working on this project. You can find that reflection below.

Natalie's work is reflective of the outstanding caliber of students we have at UNC Greensboro. She demonstrated curiosity, self-motivation, and determination - even when the COVID-19 pandemic make everything more chaotic. We in SCUA are always excited for the opportunity to work with our undergraduate and graduate students and to guide them in their research and learning. We thank Natalie for her excellent work this semester!


A Reflection on My Capstone Experience 
by Natalie Branson, M.A. in History with concentration in Museum Studies Candidate, 2020

My capstone project has been one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Creating my exhibit with the University Archives has allowed me to take control of a project, from start to finish, for the first time as a public historian. I was empowered to tackle challenges on my own, to determine the narrative that I wanted to tell, and to design the exhibit around what I found to be important. When I began this project in August of 2019, I had never worked in an archive, digitized materials, or created a digital exhibit. Now, in April of 2020, I have gained new skills and experience in archival work, curation, and content creation.

When I met with Erin in August, I was handed the Women’s Betterment Association Collection from the University Archives and given the instructions to create a digital exhibit for the University’s website. The original plan for my exhibit was to tell the story of the Women’s Association for the Betterment of Public Schoolhouses (WABPS), the subject and source of the collection I was digitizing. It was my understanding that the WABPS were an organization created by and for women who were interested in improving the state of public education in North Carolina. As I continued searching through the documents from the WABPS, I found that the organization was nothing like I had expected. This ultimately changed the course of my exhibit, as I continued to discover new and conflicting information. To begin, the reach of the WABPS was far beyond what I had presumed. The original 200 women who began the WABPS in Greensboro quickly disseminated into nearly 100 Local and County Associations, with over 1,000 members, spread across North Carolina. In addition, I found the organization to be more radical that I expected, in that they allowed men to pay to be involved in the WABPS but their “honorary” membership afforded them no vote in the Association’s elections and no say in the purpose or direction of the WABPS. Sue Hollowell, the president of the State Association in Greensboro, at one point quipped about the men’s “honorary” membership, “taxation without representation, if you please.” While they were radical in some regards, they were more predictable in others.

The WABPS operated between 1902 and 1918, in the heart of the Jim Crow South. While I worked to craft the narrative of my exhibit, I grappled with interpreting the implicit prejudice in the Association’s documents. I learned early on that the organization was exclusive to white women (and later white men), as it was stated explicitly in the WABPS Constitution. I was content, at that point, to make that fact clear in the exhibit and move on; however, as I continued through the documents, the narrative continued to become more complicated. I could find no official documents from the Association that stated explicitly that the WABPS excluded black schools from their work, as I had originally assumed. More often than not, their language was vague, using phrases such as “all of God’s children” and “every child” to describe those affected by their work. By December, I was once again ready to write off their language as having implicit prejudice; I had no evidence that the WABPS worked with or for black children.

 When I returned to the archives after winter break, I found reports from the presidents of several County Associations which I hadn’t seen before. Mary Taylor Moore, the recording secretary for the State Association in Greensboro, created them to have a better understanding of the work that the County Associations were doing. The question that intrigued me the most asked, “How many schools in your county have been affected by the work of the Association?” In many cases, the response was just a number: “nine” or “two.” However, some responses were more specific. Some responders used the qualifier “white” to describe the schools affected, but a few responded that “colored” schools in their county had been affected by the Association’s work as well. This was surprising to me, as it was the first time that I had evidence of “Betterment work” in black schools.

After this discovery, I added two new pages to my digital exhibit: “Race and Education” and “Gender in the Progressive Era.” The former expanded the discussion (raised on the first page) on North Carolina Governor Charles Aycock and his racist education policies at the turn of the century. It also introduced the organization’s complicated relationship with race and the difficulties of interpreting historical documents. The latter page, “Gender in the Progressive Era,” addressed the question: how radical were they really? The women certainly had progressive methods of running their organization, but their original goal of “beautifying” school houses and grounds seemed superficial, fitting within the traditional gender roles prescribed to them. The women were challenging the male-dominated sphere of public school administration but they subscribed to contemporaneous notions about class and race.

When the text was written and the photos, documents, and metadata were entered into Omeka, my digital exhibit finally came together. Luckily, Erin Lawrimore (my supervisor and University Archivist) and I had decided to front-load my work for this semester so the project was wrapping up just as COVID-19 shut everything down.

This process has taught me a great deal about public history. Most importantly, I have come to trust my own instincts and accept not having an answer. In the past, I have mulled over a problem and tried my best to solve it despite knowing that there was no good solution. Rather than accept that and move on, I would find a way to avoid addressing the problem altogether. After my capstone experience, I have found a new appreciation for accepting that I don’t have all the answers; I only have what is presented to me. It is not my place to decide what the women of the WABPS were thinking or what they meant in their documents, I can only disseminate that information within the social and political context that I understand.

As I reflect on my work over the last eight months, I believe that nothing summarizes it better than the evolution of my project title. In September, I titled my project, “The Women’s Betterment Association: A Digital Exploration of a Radical Group of Women.” The exhibit was going to present the radical and inspiring story of the WABPS; how the “Betterment workers” of North Carolina challenged the status quo. When I presented at the Digital Humanities Collaborative Institute in March, however, I titled my project, “A Complicated Group of Women: A Digital Exploration of the Women’s Association for the Betterment of Public Schoolhouses.” My exhibit now tells the story of the incredible work that these women did, the lengths they went to in order to achieve their goals, and the standard they set for public schools in North Carolina. It also tells the story of a racist and elitist governor, the poor state of North Carolina’s public schools at the turn of the century, and how segregation and systemic oppression left black students behind. The women of the WABPS were not radical, but they were not conservative: they were complicated, and I had to accept that. I accepted that I did not know the extent to which they were involved in improving black schools or the extent to which they embraced the (white) feminist movement. The narrative of my exhibit changed between September and April, but only for the better. I challenged myself with new questions to try to answer and a new story to tell the public, and I am incredibly grateful to have experienced this process.

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