Tar Heel of the Week

Ed Morris breathes life into local museum

CorrespondentJanuary 18, 2014 

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Ed Morris, director of Wake Forest Historical Museum, has spent a long career preserving Wake County history.

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Charles Edward Morris

    Born: Jan. 16, 1951, in Wilson County

    Residence: Raleigh

    Career: Director, Wake Forest Historical Museum

    Associations: Chairman, Wake County Historic Preservation Commission; chairman, Wake Forest Community Council; member, Raleigh Historic Properties and Museum Commission; board of advisers, Historic Oak View County Park

    Education: A.A. Mount Olive College; B.S. History, Campbell University; M.A. History, N.C. State University

    Fun fact: The community of Rock Ridge, where Morris grew up, is also home to former Gov. Jim Hunt. Morris’ third-grade teacher was Hunt’s mother.

— It’s been about 180 years since Wake Forest College was founded on a plot of farmland northeast of Raleigh, giving birth also to the town that still bears its name.

The college, now Wake Forest University, moved to Winston-Salem in 1956. Yet the shared history of town and college is remembered in fond detail at the Wake Forest Historical Museum, where a wreath made from the hair of local residents shares billing with the original Demon Deacon tuxedo.

Ed Morris has spent the past eight years breathing new life into the museum. He has helped assemble, in a new building, artifacts collected over more than 50 years to create a coherent tale of both town and college.

For more than 30 years, Morris worked at the state archives and oversaw the state-run historic sites. Since 2006, he has spent what was to be his retirement creating the new museum from the ground up – from overseeing its construction to helping to design and create the exhibits.

Morris, 63, brought strong qualifications to the job, including close community ties. His wife and son are Wake Forest alumni, and the family lived in town for decades, though they now live in Raleigh.

Durward Matheny, vice president of the Wake Forest Birthplace Society, says Morris has been the perfect person to usher in a new era for the museum, which until 2010 was housed in the tiny but historic Calvin Jones House, where the college’s first classes were held.

“Since he has been here, the whole museum has been transformed,” Matheny says. “We get compliments all the time on how professional this is for a small-town museum. He … made it all happen.”

A life in history

Morris grew up in the Wilson County farming community of Rock Ridge on land his family has farmed for 200 years. He says his family’s deep roots gave him an early appreciation for history.

“I always loved the boring old stories,” he says.

He still maintains his family’s farmhouse, though no one lives there; he rents the land to farmers who grow cotton, soybeans and other crops.

Morris says he was encouraged to branch out from farming, so he majored in history with an eye on a teaching career.

While in graduate school at N.C. State University, he picked up a minor in archival management that led him to a temporary job at the state archives. He was hired full-time right after graduation and eventually became reference director.

His wife also worked in the archives, and when she became the state’s head archivist, Morris looked for a new job to avoid any conflict of interest. He landed at the State Historic Sites division, which runs the 27 state-owned historic sites, including Duke Homestead, Bentonville Battlefield and others. He also oversaw the state Legislative Buildingand helped to run the state’s History Bowl contest for middle school students.

During his time there as chief of museum and visitor services, his role was administrative: overseeing educational programs and the creation of exhibits. But he says he “learned an incredible amount” on his travels to historic sites that helped to prepare him for the hands-on role he later played in Wake Forest.

Once he retired, he stayed active in a variety of historic commissions – even taking on leadership positions. But eventually he ended up taking the job in Wake Forest.

“Historic preservation is my passion,” he says. “It was hard to pass up.”

Growing up together

Calvin Jones, a prominent doctor and former Raleigh mayor, sold thousands of acres of land to the Baptist State Convention that would become home to Wake Forest College and much of the surrounding town. When the college moved, its campus was sold to the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Jones’ own house, which was home to Wake Forest’s first president and later a dormitory, was slated for demolition. But residents formed the birthplace society and persuaded the seminary to instead move the house from campus to a small plot of land still owned by the university.

The museum opened at the house in 1976 and was run for years by volunteers. The town supports the museum, and the university pays Morris’ salary and that of an assistant.

“This is their history,” Morris says. “No matter where they are today, this is where they began.”

The original museum mainly chronicled the birth of the college. At the same time, though, it was amassing a wide range of artifacts related to the college and the town.

At the new building, its name and focus changed to look at both the college and the town that took its name, with exhibits such as one on “Women of Wake Forest.”

Plans for the new building were in the works when Morris was hired, but they were complicated by the economic downturn that followed; by the time the building was done, the budget for exhibits was spent. To save money, Morris and his wife did much of the work themselves with help from a friend who is a professional exhibit designer.

The resulting exhibits chronicle the lives of Wake Forest’s founders, presidents, professors, coaches and at least one groundskeeper. The museum also touches on life in the mill village nearby and the primarily African-American part of town known as East End.

An eclectic blend of artifacts relates to the town and college – a letter written by Jones in 1928, for instance, could be the first time Wake Forest is referred to as a geographical location. Original chairs bear the insignia of the college’s two literary societies.

Morris says Wake Forest’s development along with the college is different from most other small Southern towns.

“It was always progressive, ahead of its time,” he says. “I don’t think you understand that until you understand how it grew up around the college.”

The departure of the college was devastating. It was the town’s major employer and supported a number of downtown businesses that eventually closed.

Local leaders worked to attract industry, which kept the town alive even when its cotton mill closed. In recent decades, it has become a popular place for commuters to Raleigh and beyond.

Drawn by its old-time charm, Morris moved to Wake Forest in 1984, when his son was a toddler.

“What more of a perfect place could you have to raise a child than a small town like Wake Forest?” he says.

Matheny, who was a teenager when the college left, says including the town’s history at the museum was a natural addition.

“When the college was here, it wasn’t two separate things,” he says. “They were synonymous with each other.”

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