Submission for “I Found It in the Archives” contest, UNC Libraries
Anne Mitchell Whisnant
Almost everything good that has happened to me in the past twenty years came from one afternoon in an archive. A purple spiral notebook that I treasure holds handwritten notes on a story that began on August 31, 1991 in UNC-Chapel Hill’s North Carolina Collection, and led to fulfilling work and the best family life I could ever have hoped for.
I was not especially happy as a graduate student in UNC’s History Department that fall, nor confident that I was Ph.D. material. But there I was, enrolled in an advanced writing seminar, with one week to find a dissertation topic. The blank notebook lay before me.
Having written my M.A. thesis on a pioneering woman surgeon who founded a birth control clinic in Alabama in 1931, I thought “birth control clinics in North Carolina” might be promising. But when I pulled open a “B” drawer of the big wooden card catalog, cards on the “Blue Ridge Parkway” – where I’d spent many happy hours as a youth – caught my eye.
One card referenced a 1939 U.S. House committee report on granting North Carolina a right-of-way for the Blue Ridge Parkway across the Cherokee reservation. For years, that report said, the Eastern Band of Cherokees had fought the seizure of some of their lands for the Parkway. I was hooked. Three months later, I had a finished seminar paper on Cherokee resistance to Parkway land acquisition.
As I worked to turn this paper into a dissertation proposal, a fellow student urged me to read David Whisnant’s All That Is Native and Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region and to contact its author, who was on the UNC English faculty. I read his book, and called to ask him to be on my dissertation committee. In April 1993, we met at my proposal defense.
We connected immediately with what a friend later called a “tribal affinity.” A few months later, David resigned from my committee, and on May 9, 1995, we stood hand in hand – soul mates in matching black jeans and white shirts – before a Macon County, NC Justice of the Peace, saying our vows. Two kids, two mini-vans, and sixteen years later, we are happy and busy as two people ever could be.
From that card catalog moment, my work as a historian has also flourished. Ph.D. in hand (1997), I published Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History in 2006. I have served on the board of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, helped plan the Parkway’s 75th Anniversary, given more than sixty public talks on my book, and been interviewed by national media.
Together David and I have written the first Parkway children’s book and three contract historical studies for the National Park Service. Completing the circle, I am helping Wilson Library’s staff create a digital history project on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
I found my whole life in the archives on that late summer day twenty years ago. It was all in the cards!