After a year and a half without student workers onsite due to the pandemic, SCUA finally has a number of students in the department working on a variety of projects! I’m fortunate right now to supervise a couple of them on a number of processing projects in our different collecting areas, including the University Archives, Local/Regional History and Appalachian South, and the American Civil War, among others.
The Records of the Virginia Tech Dean of Students, Henry J. Holtzclaw, RG 8/2a, pertain to the work of Holtzclaw, who was the first person to serve as Dean of Students (also called Dean of Men) at VPI from 1923 to 1924. The collection is predominantly of correspondence between Holtzclaw and others at the university, such as President Julian Burruss, the Athletics Director C.P. Miles, and many other well known names from this time period.
The collection shows the intricacy and detail to which the Dean was involved in the everyday operations of the university. Holtzclaw helped develop the timetable and schedule of classes as well as the annual catalog. He oversaw the students’ attendance, handling requests for resigning from the university and their discipline in relation to hazing, poor grades, and rules violations. Dean Holtzclaw was also involved with the student organizations. One item of particular interest relates an incident when the Corps of Cadets was called to help put out a fire in town.
The Theodore Winthrop Papers, Ms2021-004, contains items by and about Winthrop, who has the distinction of being the first Union officer killed in the American Civil War. Winthrop served on the staff of General Benjamin Butler, when he was killed at the Battle of Big Bethel in Virginia on June 10, 1861.
While only one item, the Virginia Tax Receipt, Ms2021-009, is a unique document from 1859 as it identifies a freedman’s tax payments for Peter Logan of Chesterfield, Virginia. Looking through the records on Ancestry.com, Peter Logan (ca. 1810-1880) is a Black shoemaker from Chesterfield County, Virginia.
The Blacksburg Lions Club Records, Ms2021-022, document the work of the local Lions Club, primarily their charitable work with eye and ear diseases. We also received a number of music books, mostly men’s choral music and a couple Lions Club books, which will be added to the Rare Book Collection.
Every year Special Collections and University Archives, in partnership with the University Libraries and Virginia Tech Student Engagement and Campus Life, hosts annual remembrance exhibits to highlight the outpouring of love and support the university received in the aftermath of the tragedy of April 16, 2007. Although we are unable to host substantial physical exhibits this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we have continued the remembrance exhibit online.
The exhibit We Are Better Than We Think: Selections from the April 16, 2007 Condolence Archives highlights the items Virginia Tech received following the events of April 16th. It features artifacts, children’s letters, poems, and more with messages of love, hope, and peace, most of which have not been displayed for exhibition before.
The title piece of the exhibit, “We Are Better Than We Think” by Eric W. Schuttler (pictured above) is on display in Newman Library near the 2nd floor entrance, April 12 thru April 23 during the library’s open hours. (No other items are on display.)
For more information on the university’s remembrance events, including the virtual 3.2-Mile Run in Remembrance, please visit https://www.weremember.vt.edu/.
Every year Special Collections and University Archives, in partnership with the University Libraries and Virginia Tech Student Engagement and Campus Life, hosts annual remembrance exhibits to highlight the outpouring of love and support the university received in the aftermath of the tragedy of April 16, 2007. Although we are unable to host physical exhibits this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we have continued the remembrance exhibit online.
The exhibit Unknown Origins: Anonymous gifts in the April 16, 2007 Condolence Archives highlights the messages Virginia Tech received from unknown individuals, organizations, or places following the events of April 16, 2007. It features anonymous donations and gifts of unknown origin, paying homage to those who want to be part of the mourning and recovery process but do not necessarily want to be known.
Virginia Tech’s history is a complicated one that is much more presumed than known due to an early 20th century blaze. In its early years, the institution served as an allegory of the rough, rag-tag, Appalachian spirit we see still embodied through a beaten-up lunch pail at football games and the largely blue-collar valley that envelops us. Tech, unlike its sister institutions William and Mary and the University of Virginia, has never owned any enslaved people by circumstance of its post-antebellum founding in 1872. Even its predecessor institution, the Olin & Preston Institute, has no record of owning any. That is not to say, however, that the grand 2,600-acre Blacksburg campus has never met or benefited from the harsh legacy of slavery.
Prior to last year, you most likely would not see him listed on the Virginia Tech Black History Timeline. He predates Charles “Uncle Sporty” Owens, Floyd Meade, and even Odd Fellows Hall, all well-known black figures in early Virginia Tech history. If you had the privilege of crawling around the campus of Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College about 148 years ago with Addison Caldwell and other “rats,” you’d most likely refer to him as “Uncle Andrew.” He is Andrew Oliver, and he is the first known African-American worker at what is now Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
We are very pleased to announce that our department has taken on a new addition to our name: Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA, for short). The University Archives have always been a meaningful part of our department, and this name change recognizes its significance in a more visible way.
This is just a recent change in a long line of them in SCUA’s nearly 50 year history. Virginia Tech has been collecting manuscript collections, university archives, rare books, artwork, and historical maps and photographs since the early days of its history, and many of those items constitute the foundations of our department’s collections. However, before SCUA’s establishment, the activities we engage in today were all separate. For example, the rare books were kept in locked cages serviced by the Reference Department, and an Archives section was created in 1968/1969 with Mary Larimer as archivist.
In 1970, the new Library Director Gerald A. Rudolph formally established Special Collections, combining the rare books, manuscripts, university archives, and historical photographs and maps into one department. The first head of Special Collections was the aforementioned Mary Larimer. During her tenure, she expanded the southwest Virginia collections, such as the acquisition of the J. Hoge Tyler Family Collection, Ms1967-002; began the science and technology collecting area, including the John W. Landis Papers, Ms1969-001; and acquired a number of American literary works through the estate of professor Dayton M. Koehler, including both the Dayton M. Koehler Papers, Ms1971-002 and his rare book collection. The University Archives also expanded, with President Hahn sending all presidential records from before 1960 to the department and encouraging the members of the Board of Visitors to donate their papers in 1973.
Stephen Zietz was the third director of Special Collections from 1993 to 1995, and he spearheaded the development of the Friends of the University Libraries, an advisory board to help build collections and funding. During his tenure, Special Collections began collaborating with other departments on campus to digitize some of its collections and launched its website. The Elden E. “Josh” Billings Collection of over 4,000 volumes on the American Civil War was cataloged, and processing the university presidents, such as President Hahn’s 100+ box collection, and vice presidents became a priority. The University Archives also began actively collecting materials related to underrepresented and traditionally marginalized groups at the university, such as the Black Women at Virginia Tech Oral History Project, Ms1995-026.
The Director of Scholarly Communication, Gail McMillan took on the additional role as the fourth director of Special Collections in 1995. Both departments were under the aegis of Digital Library and Archives (DLA), starting in 2000 with McMillan as DLA director. From 2001 through 2003, Jennifer Gunter King served as the fifth head of Special Collections, but following her departure, McMillan once again became de facto head in her role as director of DLA.
While part of DLA, Special Collections began digitizing materials in bulk, including the creation of ImageBase and the Bugle yearbooks for online access of these materials. McMillan was also influential in the development of the history of food and drink collecting area, acquiring the Peacock-Harper Culinary Collection in 2000 and the Ann Hertzler Children’s Cookbook and Nutrition Literature Collection & Endowment Fund in 2006. That same year, the department also expanded with a newly renovated reading room.
Following an outside consultant’s report in 2006, Dean Eileen Hitchingham decided to split Special Collections and DLA into separate departments. In 2007, the seventh and current director Aaron D. Purcell was hired. Major developments in the department over the past few years have included the mass creation of finding aids in Virginia Heritage, the first redesign of the department website in 20 years, the active collection of LGBTQ+ history at Virginia Tech and in Blacksburg, expansion of the processing of the University Archives records and publications, and of course, the new and improved name Special Collections and University Archives.
In the couple of weeks since the passing of Christopher Kraft, there have been many well-deserved tributes to a life of historic and significant scientific and technical achievement. As many folks may know, he joined the NASA Space Task Group in November 1958 as NASA’s first flight director, created the concept of NASA’s Mission Control, served as Flight Director for all of the Mercury flights and several Gemini missions before becoming NASA’s Director of Flight Operations. In 1972, he became Director of the Manned Spaceflight Center, soon thereafter to be named the Johnson Space Center. Kraft served as its Director until his retirement in 1982, having gone on to play an essential role in the latter Apollo missions, Skylab, the Apollo Soyuz Project, and early space shuttle flights. He was an indispensable force and presence in this country’s space program.
For readers interested in Kraft’s Virginia Tech connections, they are many. He graduated at the age of 20 in December 1944 (officially, Class of 1945) with a degree in aeronautical engineering. He had also been elected president of the Corps of Cadets his senior year. In November 1965, he was honored with a Convocation at Burruss Hall, where he was presented with the highest award the university can bestow on any person or alumnus, the Distinguished Alumnus Citation.
At the same event, he received from Time Magazine the original portrait used on the cover of the 27 August 1965 issue in which Kraft was featured, and, also, from the university, a Steuben Glass Eagle “on behalf of the entire VPI family.” According to the Roanoke Times, a crowd of over 3,000 was in attendance, including students, faculty, university officials, NASA colleagues, members of Kraft’s graduating class, and locals. Following the program, Kraft was also honored by a review of the Corps of Cadets on the Drillfield.
From 1970 to 1978, Kraft served on this university’s Board of Visitors. Among the many times he spoke on this campus, he gave the Founder’s Day Address at Burruss in April 1974, titled, “The Frontiers of Space . . . America’s Space Program in the 1970s” and was the featured speaker at the 110th annual commencement in June 1982. Well before he achieved the national spotlight and while he was working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, precursor to NASA) back in April 1954, he presented a technical paper, “Gust Alleviation,” to the Fifth Annual Engineering Conference on campus.
With regard to the University Libraries, 11 April 1986 was, likely, the most significant date in its relationship with Kraft as that was the day of the ceremony marking the opening of the Christopher C. Kraft, Jr. Papers and the establishment of the Archives of American Aerospace Exploration at Special Collections. On the program that day, in addition to Kraft himself, were Paul Gherman, Director of Libraries; David Roselle, Provost; and William Lavery, President of the University. Kraft had donated his papers, approximately 28 cubic feet of material when processed, that documented his 37-year professional career, and he would prove essential in helping Special Collections to acquire the papers of many of his NACA and NASA associates. In fact, collections from several individuals from NASA present at the 1965 Convocation went on to donate their papers to Special Collections, including Melvin Gough, Hartley Soule, John Duberg, and William Hewitt Phillips. Other collections in the group of over thirty include the papers of Robert Gilruth, Michael Collins, Blake Corson Jr., Marjorie Rhodes Townsend and James Avitabile.
As the details of Chris Kraft’s life can be found in numerous and just-published obituaries and tributes, as well as in his 2001 autobiography, Flight: My Life in Mission Control, I would rather offer a glimpse into certain early stages or moments in his career as represented in his Papers, and to choose a selection of items readers may find interesting, surprising, or, simply, less well-known. The collection includes more than 27 boxes and 5 large folders, so we’ll only be touching the surface. Check the finding aid for the collection to see a list of the collection’s contents. Lastly, I’ll end by retelling a story about Kraft involving a very close call that I discovered only in my preparation for this post.
You may be surprised to find that there are a few items in the collection from Kraft’s days at Tech. There are seven lab reports from the summer and fall of 1944, all from class(es) taught by L.Z. Seltzer (and all graded, by the way . . . one “B” and all the rest “A” or “A-“) on topics such as: Turbulence Test on the V.P.I. Wind Tunnel, Yaw Characteristics of Pitot-Static Tubes, Wing Tunnel Test on Low Wing Monoplane, and Airplane Propellers Problem, among others.
After leaving Blacksburg, Kraft went to work for NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), the US government’s agency for aeronautical research, at Langley Field, near Hampton, Va. (though not before a very funny brush with Chance Vought Corp. in Connecticut: see Flight, page 27). The war was still raging and Langley was doing important work. Kraft had been excluded from active military service because of a serious burn he sustained to his right hand as a child, and he clearly saw this work as his way to make a contribution. In those early days at Langley, Kraft did extensive work on the P-47D Thunderbolt and the P-51H, a late model Mustang, both piston-driven advanced fighters of their day. Kraft’s Papers include a good selection of this work, including various reports, calibrations, photographs, and memoranda.
You might notice that the photo farthest to the right in group above shows some of the instruments ready to be loaded aboard the Bell XS-1. Beginning in 1946, NACA began testing this aircraft and one other like it to explore flying conditions at transonic speeds. On 14 October 1947, Chuck Yeager flew faster than the speed of sound in the Bell XS-1, and Kraft’s Papers show his own involvement in this area of research. One of the documents, dated 23 June 1948 and titled, “A Free-Fall Test to Determine the Longitudinal Stability and Control Characteristics of a 1/4 Scale Model of the Bell XS-1 Airplane at Transonic Speeds” shows Kraft’s name at the top of the cover page and identifies him as Chairman, FRD [Flight Research Division] Stability and Control [Branch].
About this time, Kraft was handed another assignment to work on—gust alleviation—that is, creation of an automatic system that would smooth out the motion of an airplane when it encountered turbulent air. This is the same topic Kraft presented on at the 1954 Engineering conference at Virginia Tech mentioned above. As he was beginning this work, and as described in his autobiography:
I found a French aerodynamicist, René Hirsch, who’d designed and built a gust-alleviation airplane and was beginning to test it. We corresponded about our various plans and concerns and seemed to be in some agreement. Then he was injured when his airplane crashed. I never learned the cause of the accident. Gust alleviation was not only a mysterious quest, but now I knew it was dangerous as well. (page 41)
Well, of course this correspondence is available in Kraft’s Papers! In some cases, we have a draft version and a typed copy of Kraft’s letter as well as Hirsch’s reply. Through most of the first half of the 1950s, this problem took up much of Kraft’s time and there are many documents on the topic in the Papers. I’m no engineer, but I imagine this kind of exchange would be interesting to explore.
The collection of Kraft’s papers are arranged chronologically by year, and in the materials from 1959, following the creation of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in case you wondered) in July 1958, documents that refer to Project Mercury begin to appear. During this time, Kraft stopped being a flight research engineer and became an engineering manager, and these documents include Mission Documents for the first Mercury-Atlas and Mercury-Redstone missions. In NASA lingo, each mission was typically (there are exceptions) named by the spacecraft, booster rocket, and number. Thus, MA-5, which took place on 29 November 1961 with Enos, a chimpanzee, aboard, was the fifth mission to fly a Mercury spacecraft atop an Atlas booster. MR-3, NASA’s first manned suborbital mission, with Alan Shepard aboard on 5 May 1961 (about three weeks after Yuri Gagarin’s “first man in space” mission), was the third Mercury mission with the Redstone rocket. Also among the documents for 1959 are notes and materials related to a talk Kraft presented to a symposium titled, The Pilot’s Role in Space Exploration (a controversial and dicey topic) offered by the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, 8–10 October 1959.
Test procedures and reports; project discussions; post-Launch reports; flight plans; post-flight debriefings of Shepard and then Gus Grissom, the second American to fly a suborbital mission: these are among the documents to be found in Kraft’s papers from these early years of the space program. The success of Shepard’s 15-minute flight was followed three weeks later by President Kennedy’s public proposal “that the US “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” We would do well to remember Kraft’s response, as recalled in his autobiography:
The moon . . . we’ve only put Shepard on a suborbital flight . . . an Atlas can’t reach the moon . . . we have mountains of work just to do the three-orbit flight . . . the moon . . . we’ll need real spacecraft, big ones and a lot better than Mercury . . . men on the moon, has he lost his mind? . . . Have I?
Well, the rest is history. And it can all be followed in Chris Kraft’s Papers: the technical aspects, the failures, the tragedies, and the successes, but mostly the development towards that success, as revealed through the documentation accumulated by Kraft over the course of a storied career.
But wait. There is one more thing. I promised to describe a close call in Chris Kraft’s life before ending this post. It does not involve a rocket exploding on a launch pad or anything like the difficulties of Apollo 13. In fact, I did not know about this story. Never heard it before. If you’ve read Kraft’s book, Flight, you probably do, unless you were blinking for the couple of paragraphs at the bottom of page 238 and the top of 239. Here’s what I found as I was going through our biographical file of newspaper clippings on Kraft.
That’s right. Just a few days after Kraft left Virginia Tech following the Convocation in his honor, he was flying with several other NASA officials on a National Airlines flight from Houston to Miami with a scheduled stop in New Orleans. As they were climbing out of New Orleans, a young man whom Kraft describes as “sickly” and carrying “a small paper bag” was seated by the flight attendant in the seat across from him. As Kraft tells it, the attendant said, “He’s acting funny. Do you mind if I put him in that seat across from you?”(Flight, page 238). The young man—Thomas Robinson, age 16, from Brownsville, Texas—pulled a gun out of the bag and pointed it at Kraft. As quoted in the newspaper article, Paul Haney of NASA’s Public Affairs Office and also a passenger, said, “He pointed it at Chris . . . it was only six inches off his jaw. . . . There was a click which I thought was a cocking action . . . it did not fire. That’s why I thought it was a cocking action. The kid stood up and backed toward the cockpit door and fired three shots in the floor of the lounge.”
Robinson demanded the plane fly to Cuba. He actually had two guns and fired both into the floor of the cabin. Kraft writes, “He fired both into the floor of the lounge in front of me, then he was tossed sideways as the pilot put the plane in a high-g turning descent, heading back to New Orleans.”
At that point, another passenger, Edward Haake, described in the newspaper as an electronics executive and a decorated B-17 pilot (of course) got involved. Again, from the newspaper:
Haake was the only other person in the lounge, Haney said. The husky 6-footer talked to Robinson calmly, pretending to go along with the wild plans about going to Cuba, even though Robinson now had a revolver in the other hand. “He even fixed him a drink,” Haney said.
“Then the kid calmed down and Haake pulled out a plastic holder full of gold coins. He asked the boy if he would like to see them. The kid said he was a coin collector.
“At some point along the way, the kid lowered his hands. I think he was going to reload the gun. When he put his hands together Haake grabbed them.
“Chris and I immediately jumped. I was the first one there. Haake held his hands and I threw him against the seat.
“And while Haake held him, both Chris and I helped subdue him.”
According to Brendan I. Koerner, author of The Skies Belong to Us: Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, Robinson pleaded guilty to attempting to intimidate a pilot, a less serious charge than air piracy. He served a brief sentence at an Arizona prison camp for youthful offenders.
“Holding the Light,” is one of two exhibits that will be displayed on the second floor commons in Virginia Tech’s Newman Library as the university observes its 2019 Day of Remembrance.
The exhibit, on display Thursday, April 8 through Tuesday April 18, is a collaboration between the University Libraries and Student Engagement and Campus Life and honors those lost and injured on April 16, 2007. It features items of condolence from around the nation and world.
Among the artifacts on display will be an eight-pointed star quilt from St. Labre Indian School in Ashland, Montana, large banners signed by people in Seoul, South Korea, a work of calligraphy from Japan based on the Buddhist Heart Sutra, and a painting by students at Rappahannock County High School. The exhibit will also include items from the State University of New York Morrisville, Florida State University, Virginia Tech Graduate Arts Council, Hillel, Living Buddhism, and Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the New River Valley.
A display in the windows of Special Collections on the 1st floor of Newman Library will also reflect the “Holding the Light” theme. Most of the items on display were either left at the Drillfield memorial in the aftermath of April 16th or from vigils at other places in remembrance of the victims and in honor of the survivors.
The second exhibit, “A Community of Learners, a Legacy of Achievement,” will feature photographs of each of the 32 victims and a selection of books that reflect their individual disciplines and interests.
In addition to these two exhibits, a small garden space for quiet reflection outside of Squires Student Center’s Old Dominion Ballroom will be available to the community. The garden features a large inscribed rock received from Itawamba Community College in Fulton, Mississippi, and stones from previous April 16 Perspective Gallery Exhibitions. Itawamba Community College planted a dogwood tree in honor of the victims, and this garden also includes a dogwood tree.
My job here at Virginia Tech is Community Collections Archivist & Inclusion and Diversity Coordinator for the University Libraries. I forgive you if you got lost in all that. Essentially, the part of my job that is archival in nature is to engage with traditionally marginalized communities around their histories. I help them preserve and make available documentary evidence of their existence so that history will better reflect the full human experience. This post is about a project that fell squarely within that scope – and helped me really see what doing this work can mean.
About a year ago, I got a request for a meeting with Nancy Kelly, a lesbian alumna who wanted the university to acknowledge the early history of the Gay Rights Movement at Virginia Tech. At the time, I assumed this would be a fairly standard discussion with a potential donor about materials they had and whether Special Collections would be interested in adding them to our collections. I was wrong. Nancy, certainly had some wonderful documents and we talked about the donation process. But, Nancy had a vision. She wanted us to document her experience as a lesbian at Tech during the birth of the publicly visible LGBTQ+ community here. And, she wanted it done on video. And, she wanted us to document the experiences of all of her friends and fellow alumni from that same time period. And she wanted the university as a whole to celebrate the events of 40 years ago and publicly display support for the LGBTQ+ community here. This seemed an impossible dream at the time.
Having some familiarity with the events of January 1979 from the coverage in the Collegiate Times, I wasn’t about to say no. It’s a fascinating exploration of late-1970s attitudes toward gay and lesbian people. At the time, I had no idea how I would make a video oral history project a reality. I had no personal experience as an oral history interviewer. I also knew we had limited storage space and that video files are huge! Still, this was a project with potential, so I said yes. No conditions. No mentioning all the potential issues. I just said yes. Luckily, the university made Kaltura available institution-wide for video hosting about the time I needed to put the interviews online.
What happened over the next year was a mixture of serendipity and perseverance. Working with Jessica Taylor, Assistant Professor of Oral and Public History, and Luis Garay Director of the LGBTQ+ Resource Center, we held an oral history workshop in late November specifically targeted to the LGBTQ+ community and preservation of its history.
At that workshop, I found out that Joe Forte, Shelving Supervisor with the University Libraries (and an amazing DJ for Stacks on Stacks, the University Libraries Radio Show), and Slade Lellock, PhD candidate in Sociology, were very interested in recording some interviews. I also met Adri Ridings, a student who was similarly interested in helping to document LGBTQ+ history.
From there, we began recording interviews with alumni who hadn’t engaged with the university in 40 years. It was emotional. It was cathartic. It was a labor of love for everyone involved. Nancy did the work to engage them and tell them we could be trusted. Without her, there would be no interviews because these alumni had no reason to trust someone from Virginia Tech to care about their experiences and sharing them honestly.
While I worked with the alumni to preserve their stories, Luis Garay, from the LGBTQ+ Resource Center, Latanya Walker, Director of Alumni Relations for Diversity and Inclusion, Mark Weber, from the Ex Lapide Alumni Society, students from Hokie Pride, the LGBT Faculty and Staff Caucus, and more were all working on putting together an amazing schedule of events for a 40th anniversary commemoration of Denim Day combined with Pride Week and Queer in Appalachia, an annual event celebrating what it is to be queer here in appalachia.
Meanwhile, we were busily recording and transcribing as fast as possible to get as many interviews online as we could before Pride Week and the planned #VTDenimDayDoOver. I worked with our media folks to create a cool promo/intro video (linked below – click on the picture) for the collection.
As the Denim Day events grew near and we had recorded almost all the scheduled interviews with the alumni from 40 years before, I worked with Susanna Rinehart, Chair of Theatre and Cinema in the School of Performing Arts on content for Jeans Noticeably Absent: The Story of Denim Day 1979 which combined theatre students reading newspaper articles and letters reacting to Denim Day with clips from the oral histories.
Overall, this experience has been amazing and triumphant. We gathered great oral histories and engaged the community. Nancy and her fellow alumni were celebrated by the university that had once ostracized them and called them an embarrassment. We were in the VT News, and the Roanoke Times. We were on the home page of the university – for 2 days running so far!!!! (see picture below)
We had the main university Twitter account tweeting about us.
We had departments from across the university sending out messages of support even though they couldn’t attend our coordinated commemoration photo.
We also got more members of the community to sit down and record their own stories for our collection.
There’s still a ton of work to do to process the material we’ve gathered related to these efforts. There’s also a ton of work needed to engage the parts of the community not represented by the story of Denim Day: those members who aren’t white, cisgender, gay, or lesbian. Hopefully, the work we’ve done here will be a step toward showing that we care enough to do this work honestly and with respect.
To see the collection we built about Denim Day (in progress) and our broader documentation of LGBTQ+ history at Virginia Tech visit here and here.
Recently, I’ve been working on identifying artifacts and university memorabilia in our collections, and I came across a beautiful, four-stringed tenor banjo and its case. I did not anticipate that an item so innocuous as a musical instrument would lead down a path into learning about the university’s racist past, including minstrelsy and blackface.
To start, I could find no information about the banjo’s former owner, so I investigated the banjo and case themselves for clues. Handwritten on the banjo head is “The Collegians, VPI, Blacksburg, VA.”, and the peghead identifies it as a Bruno banjo. Handwritten on the banjo’s case are the initials, “L.A.H.”
Searching through names related to our collections, I found the Lewis A. Hall Papers, Ms1983-009, very promising given his initials and his connection to Virginia Tech. Looking thru the collection, my excitement rose almost immediately when I found a reference to the Collegians – the band the banjo is advertising – in the printed items. Then I opened the folders of photographs and found a beautiful picture of the Collegians themselves, with one man holding this very banjo! A portrait in the collection is of Hall, and it’s clear he’s the same man holding the banjo.
Interested in finding out who else is in the photo, I pulled the Collegians folder in the Historical Photographs Collection. I found a copy of the same photo, dated 1923-1924, identifying the musicians from left: Robert B. Skinner (drummer); J.B. “Yash” Cole (trombone); Arthur Scrivenor Jr. (piano); Lewis A. Hall (banjo, manager, and director); H. Gaines Goodwin (saxophone); Bill Harmon (saxophone); and S.C. Wilson (trumpet, not pictured). This picture is also used in the 1924 Bugle yearbook.
There were two other pictures in the folder of Hall and the Collegians, dated 1922-1923, from left: L.A. “Lukie” Hall (tenor banjo); J.B. Cole (trumbone); R.S. “Bob” Skinner (traps); W. “Bass” Perkins (clarinet, violin, leader); Tom S. Rice (piano); W.D. “Willie” Harmon (saxophone); F.R. “Piggy” Hogg (saxophone, traps, manager); and S.C. “Stanley” Wilson (trumpet, not pictured).
After discovering the owner’s name, I wanted to know a bit more about both Hall and the Collegians. To the latter first – A dance orchestra at VPI formed in 1918 as the Southern Syncopating Saxophone Six. They were later renamed Virginia Tech Jazz Orchestra and known as the College Six. In 1922, they became the Collegians, and in 1931, they finally became the Southern Colonels. Today, the jazz band continues to perform, as part of the Corps of Cadets Regimental Band, the Highty-Tighties.
Second, Lewis Augustus Hall was born Lewis Augustus Hall in 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia. He attended VPI from 1920 to 1924. In addition to playing for the Collegians (also called the Tech Orchestra), he was a member of the Norfolk Club, Cotillion Club, Tennis Squad, the American Society of Mechanical Engineering, and the Virginia Tech Minstrels (more on this below). He also served as athletic editor for The Virginia Tech, the predecessor of the Collegiate Times, assistant manager of basketball, and manager of the freshman basketball team. Finally, he rose thru the ranks of the Corps of Cadets, graduating as Lieutenant of Company F. In 1924, he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. Upon graduation, Hall joined the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company, retiring as assistant vice-president in 1968. He married and with his wife Virginia had two sons. Hall maintained a connection to Virginia Tech, serving on the board of directors for the Virginia Tech Alumni Association for 15 years and earning the Alumni Distinguished Service Award in 1977. He died in 1982.
As mentioned above, Hall performed in the student club, the Virginia Tech Minstrels. I’ve heard of minstrel shows before and knew that students at Virginia Tech had held them. But this was my first time coming across them inadvertently, so it was a shock to learn that the owner of this banjo was a member of a minstrelsy.
If you aren’t aware, minstrel shows in the United States were a performance typically including skits, jokes, and music – predominantly performed by white people in blackface as a spoof, full of stereotypes and racist depictions, of Black people and their cultures. The 1924 Bugle (pp. 346-347) discusses the group and even depicts members in blackface. The Collegians are also listed as the group’s orchestra and a photo of the group includes Hall holding the banjo.
My research about a mystery banjo took me down a path I could not imagine. I was at first excited to discover the owner’s identity, then horrified to learn about his and the instrument’s connection to racist entertainment. But in the end, the journey led me to learn more about this form of racism and how its legacy continues to impact American society. As the University statement says, “The history of our nation and the Commonwealth of Virginia has a common storyline starting with slavery and segregation, and moving toward our ultimate goal of treating everyone with respect and cherishing the strength that comes from diversity of identities and lived experiences. We, as a society, are somewhere in the middle of this process.”
In the spirit of the LGBTQ History at Virginia Tech and the Black History at Virginia Tech exhibits, I’ve been part of a project working on another underrepresented community for quite some time now. Working with the Women’s Center at VT, faculty, retired faculty, students, and other volunteers, since 2015, the History of Women at Virginia Tech (http://vtwomenshistory.lib.vt.edu/) has been a digital humanities project in the making. We started back in 2015, digging into the history that we knew, and went from there. Over the course of the last few years, contributors on the project have begun collecting oral histories, dug through boxes of former administrators’ papers, flipped through photographs, digitized and described items, and learned A LOT! This March, in honor of Women’s History Month events on campus and the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Women’s Center, we are excited to launch the site! As we move toward the 100th anniversary of the admission of women to what was then VPI (which occurs in 2021) and the 150th anniversary of the university (coming up in 2022), we will be adding more content and features to the site, including integrated oral and video histories. Here’s what it looks like now:
At the moment, the site contains more than 75 items (many of which include multiple photos, documents, clippings, and other files). The homepage (pictured above), shows recently added items, a rotating gallery of “featured” images, and a link to the interactive timeline. There are also ways to browse and search items. There are a few collections of materials where we have grouped items. For example, there is a collection forThe Tin Hornthat contains pdfs of the yearbooks created by women students for themselves in 1925, 1929, 1930, and 1931 (women students did not appear inThe Bugle until 1941). Another collection brings together items digitized from Special Collections’ Historical Photograph Collection. We expect, as we add to the project, that new collections will be needed to help organize materials, too.
While we are trying to highlight many of the “firsts” for women on this campus, this project has wider goals. We are using primary sources to tell the story of the many roles that women have had in the history of Virginia Tech, both before they were students and since then! We’ll also use primary sources to help contextualize events, places, and people connected to women in VT history. (There are a LOT of stories to tell!) One way we are doing that–other than through the items themselves–is through an interactive timeline (screenshot below, but you can go to it live here: http://vtwomenshistory.lib.vt.edu/exhibits/show/timeline/timeline-womens-history):
The timeline is something we will continue to expand, but for now, we’ve added about 20 events, some of which contain links to digitized content and more information, like the excerpt from the Board of Visitors minutes pictured above. Timeline points with a related item or items have a “learn more” link in the description to take you to those resources.
Our hope for this project is that people will learn some new things about campus history and women’s history and perhaps be inspired to learn more. Did you know that although women were admitted in 1921, there was not a dedicated women’s dormitory on campus until the opening of Hillcrest Hall (aka the “Skirt Barn”) in 1940? So, where did women live between 1921 and 1940? (Hint: Some of the documents in the project site might have some answers!) We encourage you to explore now, help spread the word, and to come back and visit the site often, as we continue to expand the project. In addition, if you are a part of the VT community and you have history you think belongs in the project, we welcome your input! We are happy to talk about donations to the project and/or to Special Collections, to hear your stories, and to learn about women’s history on campus together!
On a related note, if you want to know more about what’s happen on campus for Women’s History Month 2019, “Celebrating Milestones,” the full calendar of events is online. Other than our project launch, there will be presentations, discussion groups. film screenings, exhibits, and performances.