Monday, July 05, 2010

Collecting Contemporary History

I try to stay involved with the current events that shape our community when I'm not too busy unearthing the past events that did the same. I've found that folks generally expect historians to document and chronicle the happenings of the present in addition to protecting the resources of the past.

Admittedly, it can be a difficult and tedious task. I have a few places in my house where I pile up programs, photos, and papers that document my life and the ongoing events of the community; but with so much being done digitally, I rarely take the time to sort or compile my email like I do with the few letters I receive. I have a couple of email accounts that date back to the dawn of my digital life in the late 1990s, but except for a few sappy emails to high school girlfriends, I long ago cleared those accounts of the minutiae that once filled them up. I delete less these days thanks to Gmail's huge storage. On that account, I have emails back to 2004. Ancient digital history!

I also have a sizable photo archive on an external harddrive, but hardly any of them have a physical manifestation, or notes describing them, and I really don't even take as many photos as I should. I'm lucky that I have friends who do, and who make those photos public on flickr.

Probably one of the better ways in which I document and reflect upon the events in my life is through my journal. I write in it about once a week and attempt to sum up the events that aren't documented elsewhere. If I talk about something documented in the newspaper, it's generally only because I have an opinion that differs from the version in the news, or I've heard something that isn't covered. Research (and contemporary experience) has shown me that newspapers aren't always the best sources for the gritty details. A 1921 story makes this clear:

John Floyd, Spartanburg's perennial mayor of the 1910s and 1920s, was up for reelection in 1921. He was challenged in the primaries by several men and the race was a hard-fought one, with allegations flying in typical Southern populist fashion. O. L. Johnson, a previous single-term mayor from the 1900s, emerged as a close second and the election went to a run-off.

The surprise came a few days before the primary, when despite the long, difficult fight, Johnson announced that he was withdrawing from the race "in the interest of harmony." He thanked his supporters and explained that he wanted the city to prosper and thought a divisive race would only harm the city.

I suspect something else happened. What it is, I'll never know, because all the players are long gone and the newspaper never dug it up. Some of what I heard about Spartanburg's 2009 mayoral race also never made it into the newspaper, so I feel it's important to have events like these documented somewhere, and a journal is a perfect place.

I had the opportunity Saturday to acquire a piece of contemporary history when I attended Spartanburg's second LGBT Pride Parade. This was an extraordinarily controversial event after fissures erupted in City Council and divisions in the community were made clear following Mayor Junie White's proclamation in support of the event. The parade itself was a resounding success, with anywhere from 1,000-2,000 supporting participants and perhaps two dozen protesters. The parade was capped by a speech from Mayor White in which he issued the proclamation, emboldened supporters by announcing his commitment to secure equal rights so far as his power and influence allow, and spoke to his overall support of the effort to make Spartanburg a friendly, welcoming community for all citizens.

The speech was a major hit, and many people mentioned how reassured they were by Mayor White's public stance on the issue. After it ended, I approached Mayor White to ask if I could get a copy of the speech from him and he obliged by handing over the original. Only the proclamation itself would be more historically valuable, and I reflected on how easily the moment might have slipped by and been blurred by fading memory without protected documentation, in this case through the videos that were made and the copy of the speech now in storage.

It takes a lot of diligence to ensure that a community as broad and complex as Spartanburg is well documented. If it weren't for professional and amateur journalists and the newspapers, blogs, videos, scrapbooks and other documents they produce, minimalistic government records might be all that survive... that's been the case for many periods in Spartanburg's past about which we know very little.

One person can only do so much and I know that the documentary bias I have favors local arts and culture, progressive politics, and downtown Spartanburg. It's all I can do to keep up with these histories in addition to my family's history. I just hope that other folks out there are mindful of their own families and communities and are able to pick up and preserve the scraps and stories that slip past the attention of those of us who scramble to hold on to what has already been saved.

Luck is a poor filter, and too often luck is all that determines what is saved and what is lost. The library has a few issues of an African-American newspaper from the 1920s called the Hub City Observer. A complete collection could revolutionize our understanding about Spartanburg's African-American community, but luck only preserved a few copies. Luck also sometimes takes away our greatest storytellers, or burns our most treasured records. Whenever I speak to children or young adults, I always tell them the best thing they can do if they're interested in local or family history is to document the stories their oldest relatives tell them. Oral history is the most ephemeral resource and detailed family stories are some of the least likely histories to remain intact without documentation.

Protecting local history is definitely a community effort, and I think Spartanburg is better than most at protecting its stories. Let's hope it continues to be that way!

1 comment:

Frivolitea said...

Hello. I am glad to have discovered your interesting blog. I am from Spartanburg and visit often, as I am only up the hill in Asheville. I look forward to reading more interesting posts.