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Has Hurricane Florence Destroyed Records of America's Slave Trade?

Historical archives housed in universities, courthouses, and local libraries are at heightened risk from flooding and mold.
A highway outside Wilmington, North Carolina, on September 17th, 2018.

A highway outside Wilmington, North Carolina, on September 17th, 2018.

North Carolina's archivists are worried that fragile collections of documents, covering centuries of history, could have been destroyed by Hurricane Florence.

Forecasters have predicted that the storm could cost up to $60 billion in economic damage, as people lost their homes, cars, and possessions to rainfall and flood water when the hurricane hit the eastern coast of the United States. But it's harder to place a dollar value on the loss of North Carolina's historic archives, which trace, among other things, the history of the slave trade and, later, Southern systems of racial segregation.

Some archival collections are housed in well-protected university libraries, while others are located in courthouses and historic buildings. Courthouses in particular are vital because they contain property records—and prior to the abolition of slavery in the U.S., that included people. For many African Americans, these property records are the only way they have of tracing their family history.

On September 14th, in the midst of Hurricane Florence, 70 out of 100 courthouses in North Carolina were reporting closures or advisories. "These could very much be at risk. It's not unheard of for flooding to take out [archival] materials in county courthouses," says Erin Lawrimore, archivist and associate professor at the University of North Carolina–Greensboro, adding that records have been destroyed by floods and fires in the past.

Archivists fear especially for Wilmington, an historic port city, which suffered extensive damage as Florence cut it off from the outside world with flooding and fallen trees. Given that Wilmington has been a center of commerce, the archives stored there are important in studying the flow of slaves into the state. The town also played a pivotal role in the history of segregation in the U.S., when it became the site of a deadly coup by white supremacists in 1898—a revolt that heralded the start of the Jim Crow era and caused the deaths of up to 60 black people who had built up successful businesses and political careers following the Civil War.

"The fact that Wilmington was a pretty vital port city throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries—what could be lost is kind of terrifying," Lawrimore says. "The longer [recovery] takes and the more time goes on, the scarier it gets in terms of preservation."

That's because, as floodwaters subside, a greater peril for fragile archives sets in: mold. About 1.7 million people were ordered to evacuate ahead of the storm, plenty of archivists among them. As they struggle to return to their homes—let alone to the archival collections in their care—documents will start to decay, rendering unsalvageable archival material that could have been restored had it faced only flood water.

"It's probably going to be a couple of weeks before we get a good sense, on the cultural heritage side of things, what was lost," Lawrimore says. Based in the inland city of Greensboro, North Carolina, she hasn't received the full brunt of the storm, and has been receiving information piecemeal from her colleagues around the state, many of whom have been unable to assess the state of the damage.

Damage to Bellamy Mansion, an historic house built by slave laborers in Wilmington in 1859, could be a harbinger of the destruction being wrought on North Carolina's cultural heritage: The building lost a portion of its belvedere roof, while water soaked right down to the basement. "Our paper archival material didn't suffer damage," says Gareth Evans, executive director of the mansion's museum. "A few exhibit furniture pieces did, but the main damage was to the building itself. That's a big deal, as the buildings are the artifacts in our case."

Concerned by the growing threat that climate change poses to archival collections in the U.S., Eira Tansey, an archivist at the University of Cincinnati, has been building a database of where every repository is located across the country.

As Hurricane Florence gathered strength, she realized that she could put this data set to practical use and help her colleagues who were being affected by the storm. By overlaying Tansey's map of archives in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia with data sets from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the map shows, in real time, which collections sit in the path of the storm, and which are vulnerable to storm surge.

While the actual damage incurred depends on more than the physical location of the collections (another crucial determinant is how well protected the buildings are against storms), Tansey hopes that the map has the power to bring conservators together, providing a convenient way for unaffected archivists to reach out to the curators of the most vulnerable collections, and to offer their help and resources. In particular, this approach could benefit the more obscure repositories, of which other archivists wouldn't necessarily have been aware.

Lawrimore believes that the map could be useful as North Carolina's archivists start to assess the state of the damage. "I know folks who work at UNC–Wilmington, but I don't know who works at all of the other institutions," she says. "Having a map helps us to judge potential impacts, but also plan an effective recovery effort afterward that doesn't just involve the bigger institutions. Having that information available can help us at least make contact."

As more data becomes available, Tansey plans to add layers to the map that illustrate the aftermath of the storm. "Eventually, we want an up-to-date map of all of the repositories in the United States, where, at any given time, archivists or any disaster response professionals could see what archives need assistance, whether it's before or after an event," she says.

For Lawrimore, preserving these records in the face of Hurricane Florence is important for anyone who is interested in the truth about the past.

"When those records are lost, the things we're left with are other people telling you their version of what happened 100 years ago. That's dangerous, because people can twist stories to say whatever they want to say," she says. "Without being able to go back to the sources, to understand context and to find some of the stories that don't get told, how can you tell the whole story? You can't."

New Landscapes is a regular series investigating how environmental policies are affecting communities across America.