Creative Writing

UNCW Alumni and Faculty Contribute to Archiving of Historic Black-Owned Newspaper

Members of UNCW’s creative writing community played an integral part in preserving a piece of Wilmington’s past recently when copies of the Wilmington Daily Record, a black-owned newspaper once thought lost to history, were delivered to the N.C. Digital Heritage Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for digital archiving. Distinguished visiting writer John Jeremiah Sullivan and UNCW alumnus Joel Finsel led the project, with department chair David Gessner and Thomas S. Kenan III Distinguished Chair Clyde Edgerton serving as special advisers. Recent MFA graduate Griffin Limerick served as field researcher.

The black-owned Daily Record angered white supremacists almost immediately upon its founding in the 1890s. After the paper published an editorial arguing that not all interracial relationships constituted rape, a mob of extremists torched its offices during the Wilmington Race Riot of August 1898, leading many to believe that the paper had been lost forever. However, Sullivan and Finsel—meeting weekly with a group of twelve eighth graders from Williston Middle School and the Friends School of Wilmington—worked diligently for more than a year to recover these artifacts of Wilmington’s past. With the generosity of the Cape Fear Museum and especially the vital help of the museum's staff historian, Jan Davidson, they were able to locate seven legible copies of the paper, which they delivered to the N.C. Digital Heritage Center on July 11. There, high-resolution cameras captured the documents for archival preservation.

“When Jan Davidson realized that three never-before-seen physical copies of the Record had been hiding in the museum's basement for decades, she gave us all the sort of Indiana Jones-style thrill that's among the highest and rarest pleasures of long research projects,” says Sullivan, who contributes regularly to the New York Times Magazine and the Paris Review. “The greatest pleasure of the whole experience, though, was watching the eighth graders experience real historical work for the first time. They were feeling what it's like to dip your hands into the liquid ink of history, to reach places where primary documents remain to be read and primary work remains to be done.”

The archived copies of the Daily Record can be viewed via the Digital Heritage Center’s website.

 Recent MFA graduate Griffin Limerick (far right), distinguished visiting writer John Jeremiah Sullivan (second from right), and members of the Wilmington Daily Record project deliver copies of the newspaper to the N.C. Digital Heritage Center in Chapel Hill [photo courtesy of Joel Finsel]