By Lanita Withers Goins
For close to a century, the clay pipes made by the workers and residents of Terra Cotta — an African-American company town located just five miles from downtown Greensboro — were buried underground, the unseen infrastructure that supported sewer systems across the South.
Graduate students from UNCG’s public history program have played a key role in ensuring the community’s rich history doesn’t remain underground. Led by Dr. Benjamin Filene, director of public history and an associate professor in UNCG’s history department, the students partnered with the Terra Cotta Heritage Foundation to create “Past the Pipes: Stories of the Terra Cotta Community,” which is on display at the Terra CottaHeritage Foundation museum.
The exhibition focuses on how family, church, recreation, education and work shaped daily life in the community and how residents remember their heritage today. Viewers learn how the plant impacted daily life, can try their hand at some children’s games, and see images of the community across the decades.
“Talking with residents has given us the opportunity to help keep Terra Cotta alive in the hearts and minds of the local community,” said student Sarah Cloutier. “This was a truly memorable experience.”
The students’ work has been honored with the National Council on Public History’s 2013 Graduate Student Project Award. Only given once a year, the award recognizes students’ work in building community partnerships, recording oral interviews, conducting background research, designing and facilitating public programs, collecting images and artifacts, writing exhibition text, creating media pieces and interactives, and installing the exhibition.
The award reflects the students’ hard work over 18 months, Filene said. “These students committed themselves to listening and learning what this neighborhood’s history meant to the people who lived it,” he added. “Seeing the excitement of community members at the exhibit opening was the ultimate reward, but I’m thrilled that the group is getting this well-deserved national recognition.”
Part of the students’ research involved taking an 8-foot-long map of the neighborhood — a “Memory Map”— to Terra Cotta Day, the community’s annual reunion last September. Individuals were invited to reconstruct the vanished neighborhood by drawing on top of the current roads and buildings. Residents filled the map with their memories and gave a rich picture of what life was like in the community during the first half of the 20th century.
For those who lived in Terra Cotta, like Dennis Waddell, founder and CEO of the Terra Cotta Heritage Foundation, the map and its marked memories are ingrained in heart and soul. They are thrilled that others will be able to remember and reflect on the community’s legacy. “We are all thinking this is going to be a great draw for the community,” Waddell said. “The museum is the center of our efforts to attract attention to this neighborhood.”
“Past the Pipes: Stories of the Terra Cotta Community” is made possible in part by a grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the UNCG Department of History.