Researchers working on a digital archive mark a major milestone by documenting over 1,000 historical monuments in all 100 North Carolina counties, painting a picture of the changing landscape of the state through physical objects.
How do you capture the idea of historical memory? History professor Fitz Brundage got the idea over a decade ago to create a comprehensive digital collection of the state’s monuments, shrines and commemorative public art. At the time, he thought the project team might be able to include about 400 monuments in the archive.
Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina, or CommLand, a partnership with University Libraries, now features the stories of over 1,000 monuments across the state in all 100 counties. It is the largest and most extensive curated site devoted to a single state’s historical monuments and memorials. It has become a resource for K-12 and college educators, genealogists, public officials, journalists, historians, activists, historical reenactors, nonprofit groups and others. The content from the site has been incorporated into NCpedia.org.
“CommLand has been used by audiences in ways that we never imagined when we first began the site,” said Brundage, William B. Umstead Professor of History and author of The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory. “The site is an excellent case study of how digital presentation of humanities research can engage directly and practically with the state’s citizens and their concerns.”
One such example has been the removal of Confederate monuments. Researchers have continued to update information as monuments are removed.
“The history of the monuments is literally unfolding before our eyes, and so the site has become a record of the changing landscape of North Carolina,” Brundage said.
The value of digital humanities work
Timothy Shearer, associate university librarian for digital strategy & IT, was involved with the project from the beginning. Shearer said one of the things he appreciated about working on CommLand was the notion that there was no such thing as a “static monument.”
“What Fitz was pitching is that our relationship to monuments changes over time because other things change. It’s about evolution,” Shearer said. “The project is still relevant today because at the heart of it, Fitz has provided a valuable framework for viewing history through objects.”
Each entry is composed of a photograph of the monument, accompanied by descriptive text that may direct users to a wide variety of resources including newspaper clippings, printed publications, manuscript materials and maps that reveal how North Carolinians have commemorated their past.
Visitors can explore the site in a variety of ways. A timeline shows when the monuments were constructed, a time map plots them by location. You can click on different categories, slicing and dicing information by county, city, subject area, type, decade and more.
Brundage pointed out that the state erected fewer than 30 Confederate memorials between 1865 and 1890, but during the next half-century, it dedicated more than 130. From 1890 to 1930 was a big monument-building period in the state.
“When the events around Charlottesville happened, for instance, and The New York Times and HuffPost were pointing to our site, there was all of this media attention,” Shearer added. “That attention demonstrates that the work of libraries and the work of researchers is perennially relevant. Our relationship to the past changes and documenting that history is important.”
Engaging with the past to inform the present
Retired librarian Natasha Smith was also part of the project from the beginning — Brundage originally pitched the idea to her. She and Rusty Long (history ’15) have continued to be involved with CommLand for many years as research assistants. As a student, Long took a seminar Brundage was teaching and soon after became involved with the site.
Smith and Long were excited to recently add the 1,000th monument to the site, a U.S. Colored Troops Memorial called “Boundless,” a series of 11 life-size bronze sculptures depicting the three ranks of U.S. Colored Troops soldiers marching toward Confederate fortifications. The memorial was dedicated on Nov. 21, 2021, at the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington.
Long, who calls himself “a true history geek,” loves trying to capture some of the state’s more obscure monuments. He estimates he’s probably been to about 50 counties himself to track down information. He calls it a “fascinating, never-ending project.”
He came across a monument located on an old log road in Anson County that you can’t get to anymore. A bronze plaque attached to a limestone rock marks the site of the Mount Pleasant courthouse, the original seat of Anson County. It also marks the grave of Revolutionary War soldier and state legislator Thomas Wade.
“It was the role this courthouse played in the rise of the Regular movement that made it interesting,” Long said. “It’s something that would have been truly forgotten if we hadn’t captured it.”
Smith also praised the work of library colleagues Dean Farrell and Emily Brassel in providing tech support for the site.
“We have improved usability of the site and so many more materials have been digitized,” she said. “It’s a resource that has become an invitation for discussion and reflection about our present and our past.”
About 800 monuments on the site are war-related. But Smith and Long said the site features unusual ones, too, like this hippo statue that for 13 years lay near a branch of Mill Creek off Bolinwood Drive in Chapel Hill. In 1995, it mysteriously disappeared. The monument entry outlines controversies over the “kidnapping.” And that’s not the only monument dedicated to animals; check out this memorial to Civil War horses at the Bentonville Battlefield.
Want to learn about the world’s largest chest of drawers? You’ll find that in High Point as a tribute to the city’s furniture industry.
With the celebration of Women’s History Month in March, do you know the story of the Edenton Tea Pot? Located just off the Chowan County Courthouse green, it marks the spot where the women of Edenton, led by Penelope Barker, gathered in 1774 to protest the British tax on tea.
The site helps people identify what things were important in the state 200 years ago, 100 years ago, 50 years ago, Long said.
“There is satisfaction in creating something that has helped to inform conversations that are really important,” Brundage added. “Instead of making a fixed archive that would exist in a book on a shelf, we put it out on the web and made the information available and accessible.”
By Kim Weaver Spurr ’88