Making history accessible to everyone

Elijah Gaddis grew up in Cabarrus County, in the “heart of textile country,” not knowing much about the history of the place he calls home. During his time at Carolina, he has made it his mission to illuminate the state’s history in new ways, through public-facing digital scholarship in partnership with local communities.

“The thing that animates my research and teaching is this desire to be responsive and to do work rooted in those places,” he said.

On May 13, at the doctoral hooding ceremony, Gaddis will be among the first two recipients of a Ph.D. in American studies in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He also received a master’s degree in folklore from Carolina.

A first-generation college student, Gaddis spent his Carolina career showcasing North Carolina’s history and making it readily available to the public through various projects.

For three years, Gaddis has worked on Digital Loray. The largest public humanities project in the University’s history, Digital Loray animates the complex history of the Loray/Firestone Mill and surrounding mill village in Gastonia — from its opening as a textile mill in 1902 to its renovation as a mixed-use development in 2015.

“Elijah took the lead in developing the online digital portal for the project, which provides users with more than 2,000 digital objects (photographs, maps and other materials),” said Robert Allen, James Logan Godfrey Distinguished Professor of American Studies. “He has contributed to every aspect of this project and at every level — from strategy and design to implementation and evaluation.”

Last July, Allen, Gaddis and Seth Kotch, assistant professor of digital humanities, founded the Community Histories Workshop, which will build and test innovative models for community-engaged digital public history projects. The workshop is supported by Carolina’s Digital Innovation Lab.

Gaddis has also been working on two new projects.

The Rocky Mount Mills Project will bring to life the history of the second oldest cotton mill in the state (founded in 1818), which is being developed by Capitol Broadcasting Company as a mixed-use site with residential, commercial and recreational spaces. Gaddis has been collaborating with other graduate and undergraduate students to document the story of the mill through oral history interviews and the curation of thousands of items into an online archive. A “history harvest” was held in March to encourage local people to share their memories, stories, photographs and more.

“The mill in some way sort of indexes every piece of North Carolina history, because you’ve got agriculture and industry and this struggle for equality in a place like Rocky Mount Mills, which relied on slave labor for many years,” Gaddis said. “I’m hopeful that a new generation of students will better learn about that heritage and what it still means to the state.”

Kotch, Gaddis and about 75 undergraduates have begun to document and map lynchings in the state of North Carolina through The Red Record. This summer, the group will host a workshop to work with a variety of digital tools with the goal of contributing to the site but also expanding The Red Record beyond the state.

The Graduate School recently recognized Gaddis with an Impact Award, honoring the research contributions he has made to North Carolina.

“Elijah acts on the principle that history and culture serve people, bringing communities together around public memory and building better, richly informed futures,” said Bernie Herman, George B. Tindall Distinguished Professor of Southern Studies and Gaddis’ dissertation adviser. “He exemplifies our commitment of humanities for the public good and reminds us all of Carolina’s enduring commitment to be the ‘people’s university.’”

Having closed out his time in Chapel HIll, Gaddis will head to Auburn University this summer where he begin his career as an assistant professor teaching digital and public history.

“In a lot of ways, I’ll be continuing the work that I’ve started here,” he said. “There’s a lot of textile heritage in Alabama and so much important African-American history. I’m eager to delve into that.”

By Kim Spurr, College of Arts and Sciences
Published May 4, 2017