Wednesday, December 11, 2013

(My) History Destroyed in Franklin County

 
 
On Friday, December 6, 2013, history was destroyed in Franklin County, North Carolina.  That's right, d-e-s-t-r-o-y-e-d.  I know that is the opposite of what we are accustomed to hearing.  History is supposed to be made.  It's supposed to be honored.  And, more than anything else, it's supposed to be PRESERVED.  But, nothing about what happened at the Franklin County Courthouse on that fateful evening was what it was supposed to be.  On that Friday, just as all of the courthouse workers were shutting down their computers, and grabbing their belongings to leave for the weekend, and just as daylight was turning to dusk, employees of a county-hired removal company were donning hazmat gear, and were quietly, with almost no ado, invading the courthouse basement, armed with boxes from Lowes, and rolls of tape to fulfill the assignment they'd been given: Box up and remove over 170 years of the county's history, and transport it to the local animal shelter (which houses an incinerator) to be BURNED.

Just a few of the bound books the were destroyed. (This picture courtesy of Diane Taylor Torrent)
Franklin County, NC is the location of the heart of my genealogy research. ALL of my paternal ancestry hails from this county, and those ancestors represent just about every demographic of the county's population in the 19th, and early 20th centuries.  I have conducted numerous hours of research in that courthouse since the mid-90's, and have been pretty confident that I've uncovered all that was there which pertained to my ancestors. Interestingly enough, I've often asked, "Are you sure there's not more?", or I've commented, "It seems as though there should be more records."  Other than the one time, very early in my research years, where I think I vaguely remember someone saying that there might be more something more in the basement, my inquiries were always met with rather blank, nonchalant responses, and/or shoulder shrugs. Little did I know, there really was more - a lot more - and it was right below me in the courthouse basement.
                         
This was the scene from the front and the back of the courthouse last Friday evening.
 

From my formerly-enslaved YARBOROUGH and SHAW great-grandparents, to my slave-owning HAWKINS family (one of whom, my gg-grandfather, was actually a "negro trader" who had six children with my mulatto gg-grandmother, Anna GREEN); from my DUNSTONs, who were Free People of Color, just like my BIBBYs, at least three of whom were Revolutionary War Patriots; I am truly a product of Franklin County's past.  It was my history that was carted away in those boxes, and so senselessly incinerated.  As fate (or perhaps, the Ancestors) would have it, I was right there to witness this travesty as it took place, even though I live three hours away.  As heart-wrenching as it was to watch, I'm glad that I just happened to be in town that day, because if I hadn't seen this with my own eyes, I might not have truly believed it was actually happening.  Not only were precious records destroyed on that evening, but, so too was much of the hope I've held onto of ever uncovering more knowledge of the lives of my Franklin County ancestors, whose stories were, without question, waiting in that basement to be told.

(A very sad),
Renate
I took this picture of the inside of one of the boxes
after it was brought up from the basement.

This picture, which was posted on FB by Diane, is by far the most devastating for me. This is a box filled with bundles of LETTERS.
*What follows is a Facebook post which was written by Diane Taylor Torrent, member of The Heritage Society of Franklin County, NC.  She has graciously granted me permission to share this timeline on Into the LIGHT, and I am doing so without changing it in any way. It is long, but is well worth reading, and gives a comprehensive "inside" look at what has transpired, with regard to very valuable records.  Please read.
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"Timeline of the Destruction of 100 Year Old Franklin County, NC Records
December 8, 2013 at 11:33pm
I am Diane Taylor Torrent  with The Heritage Society of Franklin County, NC.  I want to thank everyone for your involvement and the help that each of you offered us on Friday, December 2013 when the Franklin County management acted upon their decision to destroy the 100 year old records discovered in the courthouse basement. This has been a long 7 months and we were hopeful up to the end that the outcome would be different.                                                                                                  
I know you have a lot of questions so here is a timeline of what lead to this event. In May, a new Clerk of Court (Patricia Burnette Chastain) was appointed following the resignation of the long serving clerk, Alice Faye Hunter.   Mrs. Chastain soon discovered that the basement had been unopened for some time. Upon opening the basement we found stacks and stacks of books, boxes, loose papers, ledgers, etc. dating from approximately 1840's to the 1960's. They were strewn everywhere. There was obvious mold in the back section and evidence of water damage.                
 
After much investigation it was revealed that through the years the basement had been used for overflow of records awaiting retention dates as well as other items deemed unnecessary or non-vital. They were then forgotten.  The basement was also used for storage of old furniture, cleaning supplies, broken or no longer used doors, and whatever else there was no room for upstairs.  The two rooms were in a mess.  We could barely open the door and had to crawl over everything to reach the back room.  The boiler flooded the basement at one point. It was also discovered that an air conditioner unit was venting into the basement causing the majority of the mold.                                                                                                                 

Some records had been ruined by the mold, but most were completely viable.  A quick investigation of the records revealed boxes from most every department of the Franklin County government.  There were items from the court as well as register of deeds, county finance, board of education, sheriff's office, county jail, elections board and many others.                                                                                                                                                                                       
 Mrs. Chastain and I spent the 3 day Memorial Day weekend hauling away trash from the basement.  We pulled out trailer loads of bagged trash, broken furniture, torn carpeting and used cleaning supplies in order to be able to get to the records.  Furniture was up righted and arranged in a make shift office in the front room. We were then able to begin picking up some of the records that were strewn about the floor.                                                                                                                                                                                                        
Over the years the boxes had weakened from either time, carelessness or water damage.  We were told that when the boiler burst and the basement flooded years ago, workers repairing the boiler (not courthouse clerks) retrieved many of the papers and books from the flooded floor and simply laid them on the shelving, resulting in more mold and destruction of the wet papers.  Most boxes fell apart when you moved them resulting in many of their contents spilling out. Many times these contents had been piled on top of other boxes and combined with other records so that most of the boxes actually contained a variety of items. A box with records on the top level dating in the 1960s actually had records from the 1800s on the bottom.  We quickly learned that each and every box and piece of paper would need to be investigated.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  
We collected as many boxes as we could find to hold the loose papers.  Boxes were used from other departments as well as local businesses, the liquor store, retailers, anywhere we could find an empty box. Some of these boxes had writing or labels and 2013 dates from the department they came from which would later lead to misinterpretation by county officials that there were records of a "sensitive" and current nature in the basement. Had they looked inside the box they would have discovered their true contents.                                                                                                                                                                                            
Now that the area was more accessible a plan was needed to be developed to find the true value of what had been discovered and what could be done to preserve the documents and best share the information with the public. The Heritage Society of Franklin County, NC presented a program on May 16th to its membership along with members of the community to discuss the best way to proceed.  Present were local historians, genealogist, friends of the library, the arts council, the new Clerk of Court and County Commissioner Sidney Dunston.  All present were shown photos of the basement and the condition of the records.                                                                                                                                                                                                              
Mrs. Chastain recognized the value of having a group of genealogist and historians available who were willing and able to ascertain the historic worth of these records to the community and asked the Heritage Society to review, record, digitize and preserve the records.   Due to space constraints and conditions in the basement it was decided that only a few would be allowed to begin the work.  The Heritage Society provided the appropriate protective gear for the work to begin.  Masks, gloves, sanitizers, etc. were bought by the Society and placed in the basement for the use of everyone entering.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        
We were very excited and went to work immediately straightening, organizing and investigating.  Immediately we found Chattel Mortgages from the 1890's, court dockets from post civil war to prohibition, delayed birth certificate applications with original supporting documents (letters from Grandma, bible records, birth certificates, etc), county receipts on original letterhead from businesses long extinct, poll record books, original school, road and bridge bonds denoting the building of the county, law books still in their original paper wrappings, etc., etc. etc. The list goes on and on.   Our original feelings of shock that the records were there and in such bad condition led to feelings of joy that they were still there and that someone had thought to retain them for us to discover so many years later.                                                                                                 
 
Each book or box opened produced a new treasure. A letter, stamped and in the original envelope, from a Franklin County soldier serving in France during the First World War asking the court to be sure his sister and his estate was looked after while he was away. A naturalization paper from the late 1890s for an immigrant from Russia escaping the tyranny of the Czar. A document from County Commissioners in the early years of road building requesting another county repair their road as it entered the county. Lists of county employees and what their wages were in 1900.  A court document paying the court reporter who took the depositions in the "Sweat Ward" case, (Ward beheaded a man in the 1930s and later became the last man to be lynched in the county).   Postcards, county bills, audits, cancelled checks, newspaper clippings, store ads from long gone businesses.  Boxes and boxes of court cases covering the years of prohibition, a docket from an individual accused of running a "baudy house" within the city limits, a photo tucked now and then inside a book, one of the courthouse unseen since the 1920s. Again, nothing was in any order and many of the boxes were combinations of records from many decades.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              
In June, we requested new, clean file boxes from the county management so that we could begin saving some of the more important documents.  We received around 40 office type white file boxes which we then filled with records from the floor as well as from boxes that were falling apart.                                                                                                             
Understandably we were thrilled. Out of an abundance of caution and because we wanted to handle each document and treasure with the respect it deserved, WE (The Heritage Society) contacted the NC State Archives for advice on handling old documents and the best archiving method. This was where we began loosing the battle. The Archives stepped in and decided that they should have control over ALL of the basements contents. They sent a representative who looked through the basement and said that they would get back to us with a report on the next steps.  We continued working when we could in the cramped, dusty and moldy environment of the basement while we waited for an assessment from the Archives.   June and July were very wet months and many days we were unable to enter the basement.  It was becoming obvious that we would not be able to continue working under these conditions and certainly would not be able to bring in all of the researchers who were waiting to begin the task of preserving these documents.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      
On August 5, 2013 a request was made at the County Commissioner's meeting, on the behalf of the Heritage Society, by Steve Trubilla to provide adequate space for the preservation to continue.  JM Dickens, a local business owner, had graciously donated the use of office space across the street from the courthouse and many citizens had made offers of supplies.  The Commissioners agreed to provide electric and water to the offices for 6 months.  Keys were turned over to the Society and we began stocking the offices.  Holt Kornegay, the county librarian attended the next meeting of the Heritage Society and expressed that he would be able to train the volunteers to use a computer program designed to archive the records so that they would integrate into the system and would be accessible to the public.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              
A request was made to The United Way to supply the Society with computers and Steve Trubilla donated a scanner/copier.  By August 13th the offices were ready to go and Mrs. Chastain provided trustees to begin moving the first set records up the 23 flights of stairs to the newly donated space.  All of the new file boxes, repacked with the old, dusty records from the basement floor, were moved to the upstairs space  We were ready to begin once I returned from a two day business trip out of town.
 
When I returned everything had changed.                                                                                                                                                                      
 First, on August 15th, the issue of insurance for the office space and the Society arose and halted progress. Superior Court Judge Bob Hobgood offered to pay for the insurance for the 6 months that the offices were in use. At this point the Society felt that the support of the community was behind them and everyone was coming together to preserve this exciting time capsule of their history.
 
We were then told by the county management that the Heritage Society had to "stand down" as the issue of "chain of command" had arisen.  We were told that management had become concerned, four months into the process, that there were items of a "sensitive", i.e adoptions, social services, etc., nature in the basement  that should not be made public.  This had resulted from the misinterpretation mentioned earlier regarding reused boxes with labels that did not denote the actual contents of the box.
 
Concern was that chain of command and protocol should be followed for each pair of eyes that viewed the records.  The problem existed that with the records being in such jumbled order and no way of knowing what box belonged to which department without going through it, there was no easy way for each department to view only their own records.   It should be noted at this point that every piece of paper, book and box touched by the Heritage Society had been carefully logged and organized.  Nothing had been removed and the time capsule was intact.
 
It was now that I discovered that during my absence, access had been obtained (not through chain of command and the Clerk of Court) and county management had allowed people from the elections board, education, register of deeds and the State Archives and others to go through the basement and the office and remove items that they deemed to be under their control.  Items were strewn about the office floor and boxes that had been carefully stacked were opened and askew.  ALL of  the new white file boxes were gone, taken by the State Archives.  There was no way of knowing who took what or what was missing.  No one had left a log.
 
Our immediate question was how did this action fall within the chain of command?  How was it better to have so many hands and eyes on the records searching for what may be theirs rather than a few careful historians organizing and sorting?   The time capsule was now compromised and we no longer had control of the integrity of the records.
 
We had been asked to stand down.  We were still waiting for an assessment from the State Archives on the value of the records and the AOC (Administrative Office of Courts) was preparing a report on the retention dates of the court records.  A more complete inventory was needed so I was allowed to do a cursory accounting of what remained in the basement by simply labeling boxes by year range and approximate contents.  Again, none of the ledger books were opened and investigated due to time and space restraints.
 
The assessment from the State Archives finally arrived in October with the rules as they applied to retention dates of each box that had been cursory inventoried.  Remember, each box still contained a variety of records even though they were labeled according to approximate dates and contents.  It was the position of the Archives that since all of the records had long since met  their retention dates and there was some mold present in the basement that the records were of no value and should be destroyed.  ALL OF THE RECORDS should be destroyed and could not be preserved by the Heritage Society because of the chance of contamination.
 
Of course we were upset and immediately appealed to the county management to reconsider.  I questioned as to why so many of the white file boxes were taken by the State Archives if they were dangerous and of no value.  The reply was that they were "clean".  The same records that had been picked up off the floor and placed in the new, clean white boxes were no different from the records that still remained in the basement, they were just in a pretty box.
 
The County management concurred with the Archives. I asked many times who was actually in control of the records?  Was the advice from the Archives a suggestion or a mandate? My biggest question was at what point does a public record go from being a simple piece of paper with a retention date to a historic document simply because of its age? My questions were unanswered.
 
We appealed to the County Commissioners, our state representatives, the Governor was even contacted. We talked endlessly to the state Archives, we contacted the state Genealogical Society, the newspapers, anyone that would listen.   I requested to at least be able to view and review as each item was removed from the basement so that items of extreme interest could possibly be set aside and photographed before destruction.  I was denied. Unfortunately, I believe that no one actually believed that they really would destroy these documents until it was too late. 
 
I would like to say that I believe that everyone involved did what it was that they felt had to be done.  There are rules and laws that dictate the handling of state, county and public records.  Protocol should be followed and certain privacy issues need to be adhered to.  However, there comes a time when common sense and doing what is right should be part of the process.  These records were a special circumstance.  They had outlived their retention dates by many, many years.    They survived and existed in spite of the passage of time, water damage, neglect and mismanagement.   I cannot tell you the thrill you feel when you hold in your hands a piece of paper, 100 years old, that survived to tell the story of  those that came before you.  How do you make the decision to destroy something that has survived so long?
 
The sad thing is that since we were not allowed to complete the inventory of ALL of the basement's contents, we will never know what was lost. Hopefully, that is a question that the County's leadership will be able to live with."
One last look at our lost history: These boxes of records were completely unaffected by the mold.
You can see more of the bound record books in the background - also unaffected.
(Picture by Diane Torrent)
 

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