“We collected about 180 photos that span the 20th century. Each of the pictures has a detailed caption with as much information as we could get.
By Katherine Ayers
Friday, March 1, 2013
East Carolina University, the Pitt County hospital and tobacco.
Those three elements transformed Greenville from a small agrarian town at the beginning of the 20th century to a “somewhat modern” Southern city today, according to an ECU history faculty member whose book on the subject will be available on June 3.
Associate Professor Chris Oakley, along with co-authors Matthew Reynolds and Dale Sauter of ECU’s Joyner Library, created “Images in America: Greenville in the 20th Century” as a pictorial history book.
“We collected about 180 photos that span the 20th century,” Oakley said. “Each of the pictures has a detailed caption with as much information as we could get.”
The project came as an extension of another project which began three years ago when The Daily Reflector and the Whichard family, founders and former owners of the newspaper, donated some 80,000 negatives, published from 1949 through 1967, to the Joyner Library.
Many of those photos were taken by the late Stuart Savage, a staff reporter and photographer at the Reflector from 1959 to 2009. The library applied for a grant from the N.C. Humanities Council to digitize the negatives and make them available online.
The grant was approved and Reynolds and Sauter selected 8,000 of the negatives to include in the collection. That “Seeds of Change” project is available at http://digital.lib.ecu.edu/reflector. Photos for the book also came from other Joyner Library special collections.
Reynolds, a Digital Collections Librarian responsible for digitizing old documents for the web, said the Reflector image collection is one of the best things the library has online.
“It gives a really comprehensive view of Greenville’s political, cultural and race history,” Reynolds said. “But just as important as the images that made it into the paper are the images that didn’t.”
The book idea came about after publishers from Arcadia Press contacted Oakley last year. Oakley said he agreed to the new project and asked Sauter and Reynolds to become involved in the technical aspects of the publication. He said they chose the photos they thought best represented Greenville.
“We didn’t want to go overboard in any one area,” he said. “We also didn’t shy away from controversial areas either.”
Oakley said that because of Greenville’s place in the Jim Crow South, there were photos dealing with racial issues, but “not as many as we thought.”
“At first I thought it’s just that they didn’t want to cover it, but in talking with Jordan (Whichard), former publisher of The Daily Reflector, and other people, they believe that integration went more smoothly in Pitt County than in other places in the South, and that’s certainly one possibility,” Oakley said. “There weren’t as many pictures of protests or problems at schools. They occurred, they just weren’t as present as we thought they would be.”
Oakley said one of the most interesting themes for him was the evolution of downtown Greenville, from a bustling city center to a somewhat less crowded area now.
“It may be misleading because all the photos were taken during events,” he said. “But at the same time, if you look at the corresponding (newspaper) article to a photo where a new department store opened, you see a certain number of people visited that first day.”
“You don’t have shopping places like that in downtown anymore,” Oakley said. They’re all at the mall or other places.”
According to Oakley, the downtown started growing in the 1920s and then peaked in the 1950s and 1960s.
“The population continued to grow, but it began to grow out,” he said. “New roads, cars were cheaper, cheap suburbs where people built 100 houses that looked exactly the same. It makes them affordable, but it also takes people away from the center area.”
Reynolds said his favorite images were from election night in front of The Daily Reflector offices which used to be located downtown.
“They had this huge tally board outside the office and as the county precincts would phone in their results, (the staff) would chalk the results and the town would come and sit to watch,” Reynolds said. “One of the accompanying articles was talking about how the Jaycees were selling sodas and hot dogs.
“I just get caught up in the whole romance and what we think America should be whether it really was that way or not,” he said.
A project like this allows people to connect to their roots, Reynolds said.
“A significant number of the photos are from an era when the baby boomers were growing up, the 40s through the 60s, so we’re talking about a whole generation who was starting to find their own identity,” he said. “Now they’re at an age where they’re starting to want to reflect on their past and this is one more way for them to do that.”
Although the book is more fun than scholarly, Oakley said the information he has learned will help make his local history classes more entertaining.
“Any time I can connect local stuff, even though they aren’t from Greenville, students are always interested in that,” he said.
Contact Katherine Ayers at firstname.lastname@example.org and 252-329-9567. Follow her on Twitter @KatieAyersGDR.
via The Daily Reflector.