Up in Smoke: Slavery Researchers Pained Over Burning of Historical Records

January 9, 2014

(Post first written on January 4, 2014)

I am fighting back tears and my stomach is in knots. Most people probably wouldn’t have a physical reaction like this upon learning that 100 boxes of old official documents dating from 1840 and languishing in a county courthouse basement in Franklin County, North Carolina were destroyed beginning December 6, 2013, but I do.  They were incinerated at an Animal Pound no less.  Reportedly, it took the whole weekend and a lot of fuel to burn through all the leather bindings.  It also took more than $7,000 taxpayer dollars. I have this pained reaction because historical records are a passion of mine.  They helped me find many of my enslaved ancestors.  As a sort of obsessed family historian, I have driven far distances to research in ancestral towns and spent days in the backrooms and basements of courthouses.  I’ve combed through fragile 200-year old documents and I initiated a project in western Kentucky to try unfold and better preserve records still folded into small bundles like these burned in Franklin County.

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I know what it feels like to gingerly hold and smell these age old relics that transport me in time.  Deemed as property during slavery, court records especially are a rare window into the humanity of people held in bondage.  Through these records we can learn about how they were bought and sold, the composition and separation of their families, and how black people during slavery – both free and enslaved – appealed to the courts for redress, sometimes winning.

As a descendant of enslaved ancestors, this deep desire to know more about my enslaved ancestors drove me to back to graduate school later in life, at 55.  As part of my graduate work, I spent 5 months at the National Archives interviewing state archivists and county clerks about old records, specifically about loose county court material like that above.  I wrote an article about my research here. http://www.nagara.org/associations/5924/files/VOL29_No2_Final_0604_2013.pdf

I first learned about the travesty in North Carolina from my good friend and linked descendant, Professor Ann Neel.  For more than 20 years Ann and I have talked most days about all things genealogical and about current events.  We discuss and debate, agree and disagree. We live in the present and try to learn from the past.  We work on important projects together, within and outside of Coming to the Table, which we hope will raise consciousness about issues related to “race”.  This is what it means to us to be linked descendants.  Ann heard about the situation in North Carolina and mentioned it to me.  I have since spent an inordinate amount of time trying to understand exactly what went wrong.  And I do believe that despite environmental damage to some of the records, it was wrong to destroy them all, especially when arrangements had been made (and the risk assumed) by the Heritage Society of Franklin County to have the records cleaned.  I know that every old record does not have “permanent historical value,” but many do – and the Heritage Society had determined that there was much in this newly discovered time capsule basement backroom to be preserved.  A whole room with items like these and like the letters above are now gone, literally up in smoke.

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Carried away by masked individuals in a surprise move (no advance notice) after business hours…

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If this can happen in any county, it can happen yours.  If you care about historical records, please comment to this post. Or better yet, make your sentiments known to the folks in North Carolina.

Facebook UPDATE: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.556194484469013.1073741838.366834443405019&type=3

“As of Sunday afternoon (December 8, 2013), the incinerator at the county’s animal shelter was still burning as workers, methodically and deliberately, inserted each box, bundle and book, adding hundreds to the bill in fuel to consume the packed boxes and large leather volumes. As the firestorm of dismay continues, complaints to the county management pour in and lovers of history everywhere shake their heads in shock, the fires burn on and our concerns go unheeded.”

Of course everyone has their version of the story.  It’s important to read all sides. I won’t recount them here.  You can read here http://stumblingintheshadowsofgiants.wordpress.com/tag/diane-taylor-torrent/

and here http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2013/12/franklin-county-nc-destroys-100-year-old-records.html

and here https://www.facebook.com/notes/heritage-society-of-franklin-county-nc/timeline-of-the-destruction-of-100-year-old-franklin-county-nc-records/554910501264078

My point in writing this post is to express my deep concern that authorities too hastily destroyed records before they could be properly and completely assessed for research and reference value by the Heritage Society — especially since governmental entities had declared the records to be useless.  I’m working on another historical project where I’ve been told by a government agency that important records were destroyed because they didn’t have “archival value.”  This is a lot of power.  It must not go unchecked.

Some great historians, genealogists, and concerned citizens in Franklin County, with Diane Taylor Torrent of the Heritage Society at the center, are demanding answers of those in power in Franklin County, North Carolina.  How is it that masked individuals can be hired to haul out history without public notice and burn it?  No doubt at least some of those records informed slavery and slaveholding in Franklin County, North Carolina.  Franklin was a big slaveholding county.  As linked descendants, where is our place in these discussions?

Since this post was written a Board of Commissioners meeting was held in Franklin County and this issue was raised.  Many of the people in attendance felt their questions were not answered.  A recent North Carolina newspaper article termed the situation “Burngate.”

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