Dec 14, 2015

Before I'm 25...stories of African American Youth

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – University Libraries

This exhibit seeks to explore the incredible energy, integrity, and resilience displayed by African American youths throughout history despite obstacles placed in their way.

Freedom is in Bloom
Some show their strength through an unflinching gaze captured in photograph while others have achieved legendary status from their accomplishments. All of them represent an element of human freedom that could not be stamped out by society’s cruelty. Samples from an oral history interview with William Gordon, a native Southerner and activist, are placed throughout to provide additional audio perspectives related to common experiences in the lives of young African Americans. Whether they knew it or not, these people displayed more fortitude and courage before the age of 25 than many demonstrate in a lifetime.

I WILL BE FREE (AGE 24)

"This is to certify that Jonas Pope the bearer hereof is a free person."
The freedman papers of Jonas Elias Pope (1827-1900?), a carpenter, farmer, and landowner in Northampton County, N.C.

I WILL BE A POET (AGE 25)

"Departing Love," a poem written in 1856 by George Moses Horton, a North Carolina slave. It was commissioned by Rev. Henry A. Dixon for his bride to be.

I WILL MAKE MUSIC (UNKNOWN AGE)

From an album titled "Negroes, born and Bred on Gen. Lee's Land, 1862," but the 17 images in the album appear to date from 1880 to 1900, and there is no direct evidence of a connection to Robert E. Lee.

I WILL LOVE MY HAIR (UNKNOWN AGE)

From an album of activities at "Rosemary," a farm or plantation probably in Hale County, Alabama, circa 1890.

Interview with William Gordon, January 19, 1991

I WILL BE THE HEAVYWEIGHT BOXING CHAMPION OF THE WORLD (AGE 23)

Joe Louis was the heavyweight boxing champion from 1937 to 1949. He is considered to be one of the greatest boxers of all time. Marva Trotter married Joe Louis in 1935.

Brave Defenders 
In spite of abuse and prejudice, young African Americans have defended the United States with honor in every conflict, from the the Revolutionary War to the current threats at home and abroad. Their courageous impact cannot be overstated. While all branches of the United States military have their stories of integration, the Montford Point Marines represent the first group of African American Marines. Those pictured were a part of the 20,000 Marines trained at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina between 1942 and 1949.   

I WILL SERVE MY COUNTRY (AGE 22)

African American soldier Clinton Betts dressed in his World War I uniform.

I WILL JOIN THE NAVY (AGE UNKOWN)
An unnamed African American man in his navy uniform. The photograph dates from the 1930s or the 1940s.

Interview with William Gordon, January 19, 1991.

I WILL CONTINUE TO EDUCATE MYSELF (AGE 23)

J. Kenneth Lee studied electrical engineering in college and the Navy. He went on to earn his law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the first African Americans to do so.

I WILL BE A MARINE (AGE 24)

James A. Felton (1919-1994) was a member of the Montford Point Marines, pictured here in his uniform. After his service, he fought African American poverty in North Carolina.

Educational Aspirations
For most African American families, education is perceived as a vital step in improving one’s own life. The long legacy of self-taught and university bred scholars building institutions of learning at all levels are indicative of this notion. Although schools were segregated and received inadequate funding, the quality of instruction was high in African American communities. This page from the 1932 Atkins High School yearbook in Winston-Salem, NC demonstrates the high level of intellectual engagement and extra-curricular activities available to the students.  

I WILL GO TO SCHOOL (AGES UNKNOWN)

From a school house in Greene County, Ga. between 1940 and 1941. It was taken by Jack Delano as part of the Farm Security Administration's efforts to document and improve conditions of depression era poverty in the rural south.

Interview with William Gordon, January 19, 1991

I WILL MAKE MY PARENTS PROUD (AGES UNKNOWN)

A roster of students from the Palmer Memorial Summer Institute for 1965. The Palmer Memorial Institute outside Greensboro, NC was founded in 1902 by Charlotte Hawkins Brown as a school for African American girls, by 1965 it was co-educational.

I WILL DANCE ON TELEVISION (AVERAGE AGE 17)

On the set of "Teenage Frolics," a music and dance program broadcast by WRAL-TV in Raleigh, North Carolina. The program is thought to be the country's first regularly-scheduled television program hosted by an African-American, J.D. Lewis, a popular local radio and television personality

I WILL JOIN THE BAND (Average age 16)

The Nash County Training School was an African American high-school in Nashville, North Carolina. The original school building was built with support from the Rosenwald Fund.

Agents of Change
Young people are vital players in the pursuit of social change. They have the fresh ideas, enthusiasm, incentive, and endurance to make the world a better place. The youth from the 1970's in the following images demonstrate activism for domestic as well as international issues. The man pictured to the right is a member of the North Carolina Coalition to Free the Wilmington Ten. The Wilmington Ten were a group of nine men and one woman who were unjustly charged with arson and conspiracy in Wilmington, N.C. in 1971. 

I WILL CREATE CHANGE

A photograph, c. 1970, depicting African Americans and whites at an event together. It was likely a youth charrette regarding desegregation in Durham, N.C. A charrette is a meeting where all stakeholders come together to solve a problem.

Interview with William Gordon, January 19, 1991.

I WILL FIGHT FOR EQUALITY WORLD WIDE

The Durham, N.C. chapter of the African Liberation Support Committee attending the 1977 national African Liberation Day rally in Washington, D.C.

I WILL RAISE MY VOICE

At a 1972 protest of Mississippi Governor William Waller's veto of an Office of Economic Opportunity grant to support the operations of the Delta Community Health Center and Hospital in Mound Bayou, Mississippi.

Southern Historical Collection (UNC Chapel Hill)
Credits: Story

"Before I'm 25..." was created by staff at the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Chaitra Powell, Ashlyn Velte, B. Bernetiae Reed, Biff Hollingsworth, Bryan Giemza, and Mary Williford. Also, Kerry Bannen at the Digital Production Center at the University Libraries, UNC at Chapel Hill.

The Southern Historical Collection in Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill encourages the study and appreciation of the history and culture of the American South by collecting, preserving and promoting the use of unique documentary materials of enduring historical value.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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