Inspiration, Comedy, and Drama in the Department of Geology

About a month ago, I had a chance to look through the Byron Nelson Cooper Papers (Ms1973-004) for the first time. I don’t routinely transfer collections of faculty papers from storage just for my own entertainment, but I’ve been exploring collections weekly as part of a live Twitch broadcast, Archival Adventures, for nearly two years (the full playlist of past episodes is on YouTube and the live show airs Wednesdays on twitch.tv/VTULStudios).

I try to include materials from all of our collecting areas on the show and I thought a geology professor’s papers might contain some interesting things. While the collection did have some interesting geology-focused items (including an envelope of actual rock samples), the standout for me was Cooper’s writing. His speeches, lectures, and creative writing feature a strong narrative voice filled with personality and humor.

Note: There’s also a lot of misogyny and possibly some racism (I honestly haven’t had time to fully read Whisky for the Cat, included later in this post, but some skimming of it made me think there may be some Hispanic stereotyping happening.) Since these are historic documents, it’s not surprising to find these types of sentiments reflected as they were quite common at the time. Knowing about these problems in advance, one can look to see what else the documents have to offer beyond the problematic biases while still recognizing that the problems exist.

First, a bit about Byron Nelson Cooper. He was born in Plainfield, Indiana on August 19, 1912. We don’t have any information about his life before college but we do know that he attended a geology field camp run by Oberlin College before graduating from DePauw University in 1934. According to the Geological Society of America’s memorial of Cooper, this was his first introduction to Virginia geology. He then went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Iowa with both of his theses focusing on the geology of southwestern Virginia. While researching the region, he established familial ties to the area through marriage to Elizabeth Doyne of Pulaski County. After his Ph.D., Cooper was an assistant professor of geology at Wichita University for five years (1937-1942). He then served as associate geologist of the Virginia Geological Survey for four years before joining Virginia Polytechnic Institute as the head of the Department of Geological Sciences in 1946. As head, Cooper led a two-person department to become nationally recognized. He also consulted for business, industry, and local governments throughout Virginia on geological matters, particularly issues relating to water supply. He died on March 26, 1971, suffering a heart attack in his office on campus at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Untitled Speech, 1964

Reading the text of his lectures, speeches, and other writings, it’s not hard to see how his leadership inspired excellence from the Department of Geology. Cooper is an excellent writer, crafting persuasive phrases that retain the audience’s interest. In Box 6 of his papers, there is an untitled speech from mid-December of 1964. The speech is clearly meant to inspire students in the program to work toward their maximum potential. (The last page seems to be an excerpt from another speech regarding campus unrest and student solidarity which is also quite interesting.)

I don’t know what Cooper’s voice sounded like, but I can almost hear him speaking with conviction the lines he has written.

If you live for tomorrow with the objective of
making today’s dreams come true tomorrow, you
begin to pace yourself and to deny yourself small
rewards in favor of engineering bigger things. In
a matter of months one can gain a pretty accurate
assessment of his personal power and of his capacity for
work, and time enables one to not only
play the game but to keep his own side.

Every quarter or semester in a university is
a test of planning ahead. You learn to work,
you learn to meet deadlines, you learn to avoid the pitfalls
of goofing off. You learn how to pilot yourself to avoid
most of the bumps. Each setback only stiffens the determination
to win in the end. The daily lesson is the mind’s food, unless
you feed the mind it doesn’t grow.

Some silly students believe you learn in college
what you have to know + then you go out + use your
knowledge. This just is not so. You leave here with a
bullied and bruised head + many facts though they
be filed in your mind will never be recalled. You
do leave even if its by flunking out –
with an enlarged view – of the world + of yourself.

The great men of history have possessed a sense
of their histories being even as they lived. If
you tie your wagon to a star + work to reach the
goal you have set – you have given your life meaning
but perspective and some historicity – and in the
process if you do so I assure you that you will have
one helluva good time in the best sense of that
phrase.

Really, this entire speech is quite inspiring (if one can get past the students being constantly referred to as men). If offers some great perspective on what is important in the educational experience and acknowledges the fact that not all learning on campus comes from the details learned in the classroom. You can find a full transcription of the speech on Virginia Tech Special Collections and University Archives Online.

How to Catch a Genius, undated, likely 1957

While exploring the finding aid, two other pieces of writing caught my attention thanks to their titles. The first is How to Catch a Genius, a play in two acts with a prologue and an epilogue. It’s a comedy about a professor (Dr. Claude Sidney Magnabrayne) coming to Virginia Tech for an on-site interview and the unacknowledged and vitally important role that the women of the university community have in persuading potential professors to accept offers of employment despite the clueless behavior of their husbands (Dr. George A. Blurt being an example). Again, this piece is misogynistic in its portrayal of women. It’s also full of stereotypes including ones about politics, brainy-but-clueless academics, stressed-out over-drinkers, and many more. While the play is undated, its portrayal of women and the stereotypes seem to fit the 1950s or 1960s. The play itself gives us a clue about the date being portrayed (if not the date it was created). At the beginning of Act I, there is a bit about a phone number:

                                                                                           As Scene
1 opens, we find Sid leafing the pages in the local phone book for the
Covington, Kentucky Area Code. So he dials 606—-then 5-5-5-­-
then 1-2-1-2. (For those unfamiliar with Long Distance dialing, what
Sid is trying to do is find out his own phone number which was changed
recently—as a matter of fact about 26 months ago.)

The important part in dating the item is the parenthetical addresed to “those unfamiliar with Long Distance dialing” and the notation that Magnabrayne’s phone number changed 26 months earlier. From the context of the play, it’s clear that we’re mid-20th century. According to the North American Numbering Plan Administrator (NANPA), the numbering plan we’re familiar with today (1-digit country code, 3-digit Numbering Plan Area code, 7-digit local number) was developed by AT&T in 1947 to allow consumers to dial long-distance calls without operator assistance. The plan began implementation in 1951. The NANPA database also tells us that area code 606 was put into service on January 1, 1955. This tells us that the play is set around March of 1957, 26 months after Magnabrayne’s phone number would have changed from something like “Covington-5000” to the 606 number given in the play. Given the 1957 setting of the play (which is probably also near in time to when the play was written), it’s not at all surprising to see the misogyny and stereotypes present in this piece.

The play itself is a short humorous play that would have been entertaining for faculty since it makes fun of a common experience. We don’t know why the play was written, whether for entertainment or some other purpose. Perhaps it was intended as a fun training tool to help orient faculty to the recruitment process for new faculty. I do find it interesting that the play is centered around recruiting a forensics professor. Forensics in this case is referring to public speaking rather than scientific analysis of physical evidence. Given Cooper’s skill with turning a phrase, this evidence of his interest in the field of forensics stood out to me. I think my favorite part of the play comes in the epilogue when Cooper basically suggests that recruiting Magnabrayne was ultimately all Myrtle Blurt’s doing:

Who can say that Mrs. Blurt may not have rendered the telling
act of consummate kindness in driving Sid Magnabrayne back to his
motel after the power went off. You know she just could have called
the Vice President and asked him to cut the power off and thereby
end those awful Beethoven symphonies. Sort of funny the way that
power came on just as she drove her guest up to the motel. He could
have stalked out of the house and headed back for Covington if that power
had not gone off during the playing of the redundant Sixth. Or perhaps
something she said about Blacksburg just convinced Sid Magnabrayne
that B-burg was the place for his Tillie and their six geniuses.
Remember, Sid Magnabrayne just could be President here some day,
and if my surmises are true, wouldn’t Myrtle Blurt have a reason to smile
knowing that she helped get old Sid Magnabrayne to sign.

The play, with a full transcription, is available on Virginia Tech Special Collections and University Archives Online.

Whiskey for the Cat, undated, likely 1960s

The last item I wanted to share today caught my eye because of the title. On the finding aid, it just said Box 6, Folder 28: “Whiskey for the Cat” n.d. (no date). How could I ever resist taking a look to see what this item was? What I found is 85 handwritten pages of what appears to be the first chapter of a novel. While the document is undated, I suspect it is set in (and likely written during) the 1960s based on a sentence on page 84: “In the brief span of the seventh decade of the twentieth century man suddenly begins to understand himself and the world in which he lives.”

As with the play, this story is set on a university campus. This time, it’s set at a fictional university in the midwest. While the book chapter is clearly in a crime or detective fiction genre, I notice what seem to me to be small bits of Cooper’s signature humor that poke through here and there. For example, the fictional university is named Enneagh University (pronounced Any University). Again, this work of fiction seems like it would most appeal to someone who had lived and worked at a university, but it’s also well written. Cooper crafts scenes well, providing just the right amount of detail for the reader to be able to imagine the scene without becoming bogged down in details. It does have some outdated language usage such as referring to the faculty and staff of a university as the “indigenous population” of a university town. Today, the term Indigenous peoples is understood to refer to the earliest known inhabitants of a geographic area and would correctly be applied to one of the many Mississippian peoples who inhabited the region referenced in the text.

     Most American universities go into some
level of hibernation during the summer and anyone
who has lived through a summer in the Middle Mississippi Valley
can readily understand why summer is the idling
period of the university year. It is too hot
and sultry in the midwest during the summer for
heavy thinking. The indigenous population in a
university community – the professors and
ancillary personnel who keep the faculty in line
have had it after nine months of intensive
association with students and they need time to
regain a modicum of patience and compassion to
fortify them for the next year. The ancillary
personnel need uninterrupted time during the hot months
to clean up the accumulation of junk, paper, the
cigarette butts with their indestructible cork tips, and the
decorative graffiti deposited on desk tops, toilet stalls,
dormitory rooms, and classroom walls has to
be cleaned off or painted over. The university admini-
stration needs the summer to process its final admis-
sions of new students conduct the on-campus visitations of bewildered
parents who want to examine the environment into which
their John’s and Mary’s will move as unprepared children
(or so the parents think).

Given the length of this item, I haven’t yet had time to read it in its entirety; however, skimming through, it seems that in this first chapter (I have not noticed any point where a Chapter II begins) a university professor and his student endeavor to solve a mystery involving marijuana, organized crime, and murder on a typical American midwestern college campus. There are again stereotypes present in the work, with the professor and student being likened to Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. There’s also possibly some racism present in the stereotypes with two criminal characters being Jose Rivera and Steuben Kessel (Kessel being noted in the text as “an alien whose work permit had run out”). But, I get the impression that this story is less blatantly misogynistic than the other works since I didn’t notice it in the portions I have read. A full transcription of this 85 page document is not yet available, but it will be on Special Collections and University Archives Online.

Looking over these three items, I notice a consistent authorial voice while also noting that Cooper can work in different genres and fit into them well. He seems equally comfortable writing a rousing inspirational speech, a situation comedy script, and a detective novel. They each fit their genre well, while still incorporating elements that can be seen in the others. These are just three folders from six boxes of material and I haven’t had time to search thoroughly to find what other stories might be in the collection, but I do hope I can find the time someday because I was very entertained by the inspiration, comedy, and drama I found in the papers of the former head of the Department of Geology.

If you’d like to look through the Byron Nelson Cooper Papers in person, you are welcome to visit us on the first floor of Newman Library. Please note, this collection is housed in off-site storage and you should contact us in advance to request materials be brought to the library for your use.

“The Words of Children” April 16th Remembrance Exhibit

Displayed on Newman Library’s 2nd floor now through April 22 during the library’s open hours, “The Words of Children” exhibit highlights items that Virginia Tech received following the tragic events of April 16, 2007. It features children’s letters, drawings, condolence books, and objects from elementary, middle, and high school students from around the world. The more than 150 items are filled with messages of love, hope, and peace, many of which have not been displayed for exhibition before.
 
A complimentary digital exhibit includes the letters and drawings on display as well as memories of those affected by April 16th collected in the April 16, 2007, Oral History Collection and from VT Stories. The digital exhibit is available at https://tinyurl.com/April162022Exhibit.
 
The exhibit is one of many events honoring the 23 Hokies we lost 15 years ago. Visit the Remembrance website at https://www.weremember.vt.edu/ for more information.
 

We continue to remember the 32 victims:

Ross A. Alameddine
Christopher James Bishop
Brian R. Bluhm
Ryan Christopher Clark
Austin Michelle Cloyd
Jocelyne Couture-Nowak
Daniel Alejandro Perez Cueva
Kevin P. Granata
Matthew Gregory Gwaltney
Caitlin Millar Hammaren
Jeremy Michael Herbstritt
Rachael Elizabeth Hill
Emily Jane Hilscher
Jarrett Lee Lane
Matthew Joseph La Porte
Henry J. Lee

Liviu Librescu
G.V. Loganathan
Partahi Mamora Halomoan Lumbantoruan
Lauren Ashley McCain Daniel
Patrick O’Neil
Juan Ramon Ortiz-Ortiz
Minal Hiralal Panchal
Erin Nicole Peterson
Michael Steven Pohle, Jr.
Julia Kathleen Pryde
Mary Karen Read
Reema Joseph Samaha
Waleed Mohamed Shaalan
Leslie Geraldine Sherman
Maxine Shelly Turner
Nicole Regina White

Addressing difficult topics can be stressful and cause anxiety, difficulty concentrating, sleep loss, and even concerns about safety. If you or a loved one needs help, visit https://www.weremember.vt.edu/ for available resources.

Recently Processed Collections

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 Records of the Lee Literary Society, RG 31/14/11, and the Records of the Maury Literary Society, RG 31/14/12, contain the records and ephemera of the societies from 1873 to 1929. The two student organizations split from the first student group at VAMC, the Virginia Literary Society, and they co-published the Gray Jacket, one of the first student publications.

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.

Signature of Theodore Winthrop from the Theodore Winthrop Papers, Ms2021-004
Signature of Theodore Winthrop from the Theodore Winthrop Papers, Ms2021-004

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.

Virginia Tax Receipt for Peter Logan, 1859, Ms2021-009
Virginia Tax Receipt for Peter Logan, 1859, Ms2021-009

The Southwest Virginia Photograph Album, Ms2021-014, document a local family’s life in Virginia, including a visit to VPI, and the Danville Photograph Album, Ms2021-015, depict nurses and doctors at a hospital in Danville, 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.

Some other collections recently processed:

We Are Better Than We Think: April 16th remembrance exhibit online

Metal piece by artist Eric W. Schuttler, VT Class of 1993, inscribed “We are better than we think, and not quite what we want to be.” (H00203, Ms2008-020)

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.

Visit the exhibit online at https://tinyurl.com/April162021Exhibit.

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/.

Unknown Origin: April 16th remembrance exhibit online

“We will never forget” poster with pictures of Norris Hall and a black VT ribbon, a poem, and the names of the 32 victims. (P00526, Ms2008-020)

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. 

Visit the exhibit online at https://tinyurl.com/April16Exhibit.

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/.

Special Collections and University Archives: a new name for a venerable department

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.

Form letter for soliciting manuscripts, 1973
Form letter for soliciting manuscripts, 1973, RG 23h/6/1, Records of Virginia Tech Special Collections

In 1979, Glenn L. McMullen became the second head of the department. Special Collections partnered with the International Archive of Women in Architecture, founded by Milka Bliznakov in 1985, and the department established the Archives of American Aerospace Exploration (AAAE) in 1986 with the opening of the Christopher C. Kraft Papers, Ms1985-001. The University Archives collection began to expand with papers and publications of faculty in addition to the official university records already obtained. A number of rare books collections were acquired, including the Bailey-Law Ornithology Collection in 1982 and the William J. Heron Speculative Fiction Collection, starting in 1989.

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.

Friends to meet, 1994
Friends to meet, 1994, RG 23h/6/1, Record Group Vertical Files

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.

Culinary collection at Virginia Tech libraries celebrates 10 years, 2010
Culinary collection at Virginia Tech libraries celebrates 10 years, 2010, RG 23h/6/1, Record Group Vertical Files

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.

Sharing Our Voices: A Celebration of the Virginia Tech LGBTQ Oral History Project, 2015
Sharing Our Voices: A Celebration of the Virginia Tech LGBTQ Oral History Project, 2015, RG 23h/6/1, Record Group Vertical Files

Sources:

Holding the Light: April 16th Remembrance Exhibits on display April 8-18, 2019

Prayer flags were on display for a recent Day of Remembrance observance.
Prayer flags on display for a recent Day of Remembrance observance will be on display.

“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.

Hand made quilt from Saint Labre Academy, in the April 16, 2007, Condolence Archives
Hand made quilt from Saint Labre Academy, in the April 16, 2007, Condolence Archives

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.

S5L25H0202
Goggles placed at the VT Drillfield memorial site in the April 16, 2007, Condolence Archives, will be on display.

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.

A small garden space outside of Squires Student Center. Photo by Robin Boucher
The Remembrance garden space outside of Squires Student Center is always open for quiet reflection. Photo by Robin Boucher.

For more information on the 2019 Day of Remembrance, please visit the We Remember website.

A Mystery Banjo and the Racism in Our Past

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.

Hall’s and the Collegian’s involvement in minstrelsy shows that even an item as seemingly innocuous as a musical instrument can shed light on a part of our history that we – especially those of us in positions of privilege – do not always acknowledge. Yet, minstrel shows at Virginia Tech continued well into the 1960s, and this form of racism (and others) continues in America into the present day.

After Hollins College recently addressed controversy of blackface depictions in their yearbooks, Virginia Tech released the University Statement on Offensive Photographs to address the racist imagery in our past. Also, the University Libraries prepared a statement for our digital yearbook repositories to affirm our commitment to the Principles of Community and providing historical documentation to researchers.

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.”

For more information about blackface and minstrelsy, please read “Blackface: The Birth of an American Stereotype” from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture blog, A People’s Journey, A Nation’s Story, as well as Vox’s interview with author John Strausbaugh, “The complicated, always racist history of blackface” by Sean Illing.

(This post was edited May 22, 2019, with additional information about blackface and minstrelsy, the statements on offensive imagery in the Bugle yearbooks, and a revised title.)

A Little Something Extra

Archives are so very rarely complete. Its an unusual thing for the archivist to be able to point to a collection and say with full confidence, Thats all there is. More often, we have to admit, Thats all we have. And so, researchers make due with whats on hand, knowing that someday, some newly discovered item may appear and bring their well-argued theses crashing down. Though it deals with the past, history is a living thing, open to reinterpretation as long-hidden documents are discovered and shared. We regularly hear of such discoveries being made in attics or at flea markets and the like, but sometimes theyre made within the archives itself.

Last month, your blogger was working with a small collection of papers from Sidney B. Jeffreys (Ms1986-007), who graduated from Virginia Tech with a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering in 1931. Jeffreys maintained a lifelong attachment to his alma mater, becoming an active member of the Virginia Tech Alumni Association and a generous supporter of the university. In 1981, he was recognized as a College of Engineering Distinguished Alumnus. (You can read more about Sidney Jeffreys and his papers here.) Given Jeffreys attachment to Virginia Tech, its not surprising that most of the papers in his collection relate to his time as a student and his activities as an alumnus.

Most of the university-related materials in Jeffreys papers consists of VT publications, and most of these are of the type that are seen by our archivists every day. Included among these were several issues of The Virginia Tech (the forerunner of todays student newspaper, The Collegiate Times), from the years that Jeffreys attended the university. Here in the department, The Virginia Tech is frequently called upon in the course of answering reference questions or providing students with material for research topics. Our holdings of the paper are nearlybut not quitecomplete, and were well aware that we lack a couple of years worth of issues. As it turns out, though, there was at least one missing issue about which we were unaware: there, in Sidney Jeffreys papers, was a special, extra edition of The Virginia Tech, published on Saturday, November 10, 1928.

The reason for this extra edition is readily apparent, as it bears a headline that any Hokies fan will enjoy.

The four-page special edition provides a lengthy, detailed description of the homecoming game, played earlier that day before a near-capacity crowd of 8,000 spectators, and it gives a great deal of credit for the win to the exploits of backs Frank Peake and Phil Spear. Elsewhere in this extra edition, readers found a full account of the game between VPIs freshman team, The Gobblets, and their UVA counterparts, which ended in a 13-all tie.

The newspaper also contains articles about the homecoming festivitiesthis being only the second such event held at Virginia Techand about the upcoming observance of Armistice Day. Another brief article announces that plans are underway for a new, modern, and much-needed hotel to be built near the university. On a more somber note, readers learned of the accidental death VPI alumnus Charles B. D. Collyer, a well-known aviator who, just two weeks earlier, had set a new record for a trans-continental flight across the U. S.

Is there anything in this newspaper that will rewrite Virginia Tech history? Well, no (though anybody whos been looking for a detailed account of the 1928 VPI-Virginia football game will find it a treasure trove). Still, this one item adds just a little detail to the historical record, providing some insight into the activities and cares of the Virginia Tech community in late 1928.

We can only wonder how many more special editions may be out there (or in here), waiting to be found.

The November 10, 1928 extra edition of The Virginia Tech will be added to our existing holdings of the newspaper. It has also been added to the queue in a current project that is digitizing the universitys student newspapers and will soon be making them available online.

Carmen Venegas, VPI’s First International Woman Graduate

Special Collections has celebrated Women’s History Month 2018 with numerous exhibits in Newman Library and the Holtzman Alumni Center. Part of our focus has been on some of the first women who attended or worked at Virginia Tech. I’ve written before about some of VT’s female trailblazers, but I decided to concentrate on the first international woman to graduate, Carmen Venegas (1912/1914? – 1991). She has the additional distinction of being the first known Latina/Hispanic woman to study at Virginia Tech and, according to the July 15, 1945, profile about her in the Los Angeles Times, she is the first Latin American woman to earn an electrical engineering degree in the United States.

The first international male student came to Virginia Tech in 1874, and the first American women matriculated in 1921. But, it took much longer for the first international female student to enroll as Venegas joined the student body in 1935. (It would be another 18 years before the first Black male student matriculated in 1953 and another 31 years for the first Black women to enter VT in 1966.)

Venegas earned one of two scholarships awarded by the government of her home nation Costa Rica, making it possible for her to attend the university. Before graduating in 1938 with a B.S. in electrical engineering, she was a member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers and was the only woman in the organization of nearly 40 students at that time.

Maria del Carmen Venegas in American Institute of Electrical Engineers, from the 1938 Bugle
Carmen Venegas (front row, second from left) in American Institute of Electrical Engineers, from the 1938 Bugle

A founding member of the Short Wave Club, Venegas trained students in amateur radio operations. She taught classes in radio operation and acted as Hostess for the Club in 1937. The Short Wave Club is a predecessor to the student-run group, the Virginia Tech Amateur Radio Association, exemplifying how her and other students’ contributions to the university have made an impact that can still be felt today.

Maria del Carmen Venegas as part of the Short Wave Club in the 1936 Bugle
Carmen Venegas (front row, second from right) as part of the Short Wave Club in the 1936 Bugle

In addition to her school activities, Venegas is remembered as a pilot, even keeping her own airplane in Lynchburg. In 1937, the National Intercollegiate Flying Club invited her to join a convoy from Washington, D.C., to view air races in Miami, Florida. Out of 100 pilots, Venegas was the only Virginia-based woman in the bunch!

Following her time at VPI, Venegas went on to a long and varied career as an engineer, performer, and painter. She married Meade A. Livesay and moved to Los Angeles, where she studied music and art at UCLA. Venegas went on to perform dancing and singing under the name Carmen Lesay.

You can read more about the first women to graduate from Tech and the legacy they left behind in the blog posts linked above as well as on the archived Special Collections’ women’s history section of the 125th Anniversary of Virginia Tech website.

(This post was updated Nov. 9, 2018, with corrections and additional information about Carmen Venegas after her time at Virginia Tech. Thank you to Ivannia Diaz for her corrections and sharing resources with us!)