Middle Schoolers Help Transcribe, Digitize Rare Historical Newspapers

After a group of middle schoolers from Wilmington, NC had the chance to share in the discovery of some rare primary source documents, transcribe them, and get an up-close look at the digitization process, North Carolina may have a few more aspiring archivists ready to help preserve its past.

John Jeremiah Sullivan and Joel Finsel's class with NC Digital Heritage Center digitization support technician Kerry Bannen

After a group of middle schoolers from Wilmington, NC had the chance to share in the discovery of some rare primary source documents, transcribe them, and get an up-close look at the digitization process, North Carolina may have a few more aspiring archivists ready to help preserve its past. Working with two Wilmington-based writers, John Jeremiah Sullivan and Joel Finsel, the students spent part of their spring semester transcribing what may be the only three surviving original issues of the Wilmington Daily Record, as well as working with four copies on microfilm. They then traveled to the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center (DHC) at the University of North Carolina (UNC)–Chapel Hill’s Wilson Library to watch staff make high-resolution scans of the papers for archival preservation. All seven digitized copies of the paper, along with the students’ transcriptions, are now hosted by DHC’s Digital North Carolina archive. And a class full of eighth-graders learned firsthand about the excitement of discovering rare original material and sharing it with the world.


Sullivan and Finsel signed on to collaborate with Williston Middle School and Friends School of Wilmington as part of the Williston Legacy Project, an initiative based at the middle school—which was, until its integration in 1968, a high-performing, segregated black high school. Part of the project’s focus is a curriculum built around the city’s and the school’s history, with units taught by professors from UNC–Wilmington, where Sullivan is on the creative writing faculty. Their plan was to explore a chapter of Wilmington’s complex past through copies of the Wilmington Daily Record. Sullivan—a journalist, essayist, and editor—has long had an interest in the history of journalism and newspaper culture, and the paper’s story is closely tied to that of the city. In the 1890s, the Daily Record was the community’s only newspaper owned, run, and read by African Americans. Late 19th-century Wilmington was “the richest, most populated city in the state and the best place in the state to be if you were an African American,” Sullivan told LJ. “Those two things changed overnight, as dramatically as anything could change.” In August 1898, an editorial by Alex Manly, the paper’s coeditor, took on the subject of interracial sexual relationships. Manly challenged the stereotype, perpetuated by whites, of black men raping white women—when, he asserted, the attraction was usually consensual and no worse than the involvement of white men with black women. Racial tensions were simmering at the time, with local Democrats trying to regain the state legislature from Republican and Populist “fusion” candidates, and the article added fuel to an already volatile situation. On November 10, 1898, a mob of nearly 2,000 white men set on Wilmington’s black neighborhoods, attacking people and destroying property and businesses, and burned the offices of the Daily Record to the ground. Alex Manly and his brother (and coeditor) Frank fled the town, and white Democrats went on to overturn the elected biracial city government in an effective coup. The Wilmington Race Riot permanently changed the racial profile of the city. The fact that the rioters destroyed the Daily Record, Sullivan added, was telling: “The first thing the mob did was go to the newspaper building and burn it down. They understood the power of those documents." Sullivan thought it would be interesting to read back issues of the paper to get a feeling for the time, but he and Finsel soon discovered that there were none. “We started hunting for it and realized that it was unavailable in about as radical a way as it's possible to get these days, with digital everything,” he recalled. “We were going to have to find it if we wanted to read it."


Finsel and Sullivan were determined to bring the story of the Daily Record to their class. Sullivan had seen articles reprinted in other African American newspapers over the years, so if they couldn’t find originals, he decided, they would work with the students to assemble the reprints into a “ghost issue.” In preparation, the two dug deep into American newspaper databases. They eventually located copies of three full issues on a single roll of microfilm held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York, and a single, barely legible issue on a reel at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In neither case was there a record of where the original copies had come from. The Cape Fear Museum in downtown Wilmington, they decided, would be an ideal spot for the weekly classes, as it had audiovisual equipment and meeting rooms large enough to hold 12 students, two instructors, and occasional guest speakers. But as it turned out, the museum also had something even better: three original copies of the Daily Record in its basement. The newspapers, explained Cape Fear Museum historian Janet Davidson, were part of a donation received in the 1980s from Milo Manly, Alex’s son. But because they were folded into the back of a printers’ trade manual along with other clippings, they had not been cataloged separately. "The way this was cataloged, if you searched for ‘newspapers’ you would never have found these records,” Davidson explained. "This [book] would have been something that Alex Manly or the rest of the editors would have had access to in the actual office,” noted Finsel. “It was where someone collected clippings from various newspapers around the country with interesting articles relevant to what was going on here at the time racially. But it also contained the three full copies of the Record.” Davidson and her staff knew the newspapers were significant, she told LJ, but didn’t realize how rare they were until finding out, at a meeting of the Williston Legacy Project at UNC–Wilmington, that Sullivan and Finsel were searching for copies. "At that point I said, 'Well, we have some,’” said Davidson. “Then [Sullivan] called and said, 'What do you have?' and I showed it to him, and it was really exciting." "When we first got that message we thought, ‘Oh, those are the three that are on that reel at the Schomburg. That solves the mystery of where they came from,” Sullivan recalled. “We didn't get over-excited. But then when [Davidson] took us down to the basement we saw them, and realized that they were totally unknown and that they were paper copies—the real thing. It was just one of those moments where you have to stand there and collect yourself for a second before you can get back to work.... It was inspiring and chilling."


Once the class got rolling, Finsel and Sullivan presented their search for copies of the Daily Record to the students as, in Sullivan’s words, “an actual historiographical problem: this is a really important document, where did it go? That's where we started.” They told the class the story of their research, the dead ends they hit, and finally revealed the ultimate discovery of the physical copies at Cape Fear, painting it as “a real life scavenger hunt.” The kids were hooked. Each student was asked to transcribe a single page of the Daily Record word for word, including advertisements, preserving the content down to the misspellings. The text was illegible in parts but they were enthusiastic participants, spontaneously reading various passages out loud to each other. In the process, they were able to see some of Wilmington’s history through a very different lens. The semester culminated in a motorcade to the DHC to see the digitization of the papers firsthand—students and teachers in a bus, with the copies of the Daily Record in a separate government car (“I like that detail, given that there was this statewide effort to destroy that newspaper and every trace of it,” said Sullivan. “It was once a very threatened object, so I was glad it had a little protection.") During the three-hour trip, students presented on their transcriptions, picking out interesting or strange items to discuss. The DHC, with support from the State Library of North Carolina through funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services, provides digitization services for small institutions around the state—some 220 partners in over 70 counties, by program coordinator Lisa Gregory’s count. Although housed in UNC’s Wilson Library, DHC is a separate entity, focusing on community digitization efforts. Sullivan had contacted Gregory at the end of 2016, when the class was still in the planning stages and before he had tracked down the Cape Fear Museum’s copies. The idea was to expose students to the digitization process to help them understand just what it meant to make historical material publicly available. Gregory knew about the riots and the role the Daily Record played in Wilmington history, and knew that it was extremely rare—“We have quite a few African American titles on our site from North Carolina, and this was kind of the proverbial white whale," she told LJ. When Sullivan informed her that he had tracked down the original copies, she added, “We were just ecstatic. We are really interested in how the materials we digitize for our partners are reused, and we love to see connection with students. And then we also just always love to have real live people come on site, and we're always happy to show them how we digitize things. So it was just a great intersection of a lot of interests." The students were given a tour of DHC’s production center, and staff gave them an overview of what the digitization process involved. "They watched the handling of the material and then it was digitized on an overhead scanner,” said Gregory. “The technician was able to talk them through how they calibrated the machine, and what we use that machine for compared with the other machines in the digitization area." The microfilmed issues were added to the scanned content, as well as the class’s transcriptions and scans of the clippings from the scrapbook. The files are accessible now, and although a new school year has begun, Sullivan hopes to get the students together one last time for a pizza party to view their work. But with or without pizza, they all have an enduring historical record to be proud of. (And Sullivan has a story—he will be writing about his work uncovering original copies of the Daily Record for the New York Times Magazine.) “They were excited, they were engaged, they were willing to talk about issues that adults don't always want to talk about,” said Davidson of the students. “I was incredibly impressed with the group as a whole, and I think they got an amazing experience out of it." Gregory said, “I think that John has done a really great job of making their local history incredibly personal for [the students] and having that really close connection with materials that are really significant for their community and for the state at large…. We'd be happy to have them back in a few years if they end up going to school here and want a job."
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