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Citadel News Service
22 Feb 2011

The Charleston Archival Challenge

Berkeley County teachers tackle local archives on historical scavenger hunt

Photo
 At Avery Research Center, J.K. Gourdin Elementary School teacher Ashley Newton and Whitesville Elementary School teacher Mary Jo Austin unearth historical information on post World War II cigar factory labor strikes.

Forty elementary school teachers participating in the Berkeley County School’s Teaching American History program, a federally supported program administered by the Department of Education, passed archival boot camp at The Citadel on February 5.

With guidance from archivists and historians, the teachers learned the rudiments of historical research, drawing on the documentary riches of Charleston’s archives and museums. Working in teams of six, the teachers were dispatched to archives across the city.  Each group was assigned a topic and tasked with designing a PowerPoint presentation in less than four hours.

At the Avery Research Center, the teachers gathered photographs and read first-hand accounts of local labor strikes of cigar factory workers just after World War II and of low wage hospital workers in 1969. Handwritten letters and diaries uncovered at the South Carolina Historical Society and the Charleston County Public Library revealed how ordinary Charlestonians coped with the Earthquake of 1886 and the Great Depression. Other material there documented the construction of the spectacular “Ivory City” for the South Carolina Interstate and West Indian Exposition of 1901-1902, which was held where Hampton Park and The Citadel sit today. Teachers directed to The Citadel Archives and Museum learned of the experiences of women at the college and its response to World War II.

A team of judges, including community activist Bill Saunders and historians John White of the College of Charleston and Mary Battle of Emory University, awarded the group charged with investigating the cigar workers strike top honors for their crisp and colorful presentation that included bits of an audio interview with a strike leader as well as snatches of a song sung on the picket line. 

Citadel Oral History Program Director and History Professor Kerry Taylor, who helped coordinate the event, said that this first Archival Challenge was designed to make the practice of history democratic and accessible to the general public.

“Working with the primary documents, these teachers gained new skills and perspectives, and hopefully that translates into the classroom,” said Taylor.  “We have some extraordinary material here at The Citadel that has relevance far beyond the college and its alumni,” he said. “The collections have much to tell us about Charleston, the South and the nation.”

The Berkeley County School District has collaborated with The Citadel Oral History Program and the Department of History on various projects related to the Teaching American History program over the past several years.

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