When an African-American funeral home closes or a church decides to part with the dusty remnants of its past, Andre Vann springs into action – loading up boxes of obituaries, church bulletins and old photos for use by future historians.
These outings are just part of Vann’s job as archives coordinator at N.C. Central University. He also teaches undergraduates about public history, and has written three books on the state’s African-American communities. He speaks widely on the topic across the state all year long, though he’s particularly in demand during February, Black History Month.
The archive he oversees preserves the history of NCCU, the first publicly-funded liberal arts college for black students in the nation. It also aims to preserve materials on the state’s African-American communities.
Vann, an alumnus, says his attachment to history started in his youth, when he collected the history of his prominent Vance County family.
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“My family is one of those stories of African-Americans who achieved against the odds, and so many of those stories get left out,” says Vann, who is a member of the Historical Society of North Carolina, an invitation-only group. “My idea was, and still is, to make sure their stories were not left out.”
Benjamin Speller, former dean of the NCCU College of Library and Information Sciences, says Vann’s scholarship and outreach have already helped to document the history of the state’s African-American communities. But the materials he continues to collect will likely yield historical dividends for generations.
One of his interests, collecting items from black funeral homes, will provide a wellspring of key information.
“A lot of times in the African-American communities, people in the past have not been recognized until after they were gone and the documents would have been lost,” says Speller. “He’s the savior of a lot of these important documents that we’ll use in the future. He’s so well-known that when people think collections are in danger or going to be lost, they call him.”
Vann grew up in Henderson to a family with deep roots in the area. His parents owned and ran a grocery store, and his father was a union organizer.
As a child, he thought he’d be a teacher, as dozens of his family members had been dating back to the 1800s. But his family saw the historian in him early on – passing on to him photos, clipped obituaries and other mementos.
“I became the custodian of my family’s history,” he says. “I don’t know why I was the one, but they started passing these things on to me. They must have seen that I was curious.”
When he was in his 20s, he donated his family’s history to the state archives’ collection of photographs.
“I wanted to ensure that that historical footprint of African-Americans in North Carolina was more clearly noted,” he says. “They didn’t have a very large collection of African-American materials at that time.”
He would go on to use some of the photographs in his own books. The first was a history of Durham’s Hayti District, which he co-wrote. The next was a largely pictorial history of Vance County.
The third, co-written with his wife, was on the Palmer Institute, a renowned black preparatory school in Sedalia. Proceeds from that book go to the Charlotte Hawkins-Brown Museum, located at the site of the school and named after its founder, an ancestor of Vann’s. He is the president of the museum’s foundation.
He’s working on a book on the African-American communities of Durham County, focusing on images from the more rural communities surrounding the city of Durham.
The day it feels like work is the day I’ll quit. It’s what I love to do. Working around history and archives, it means something.
Andre D. Vann, NCCU archives coordinator
He’s a third generation graduate of NCCU and says that more than 60 of his family members are alumni. He spent most of his own career there, save for two years when he taught history at a middle school in Henderson while working on his first book.
He came back to NCCU first as assistant dean of students, but even then he would get calls about historical artifacts. In 2007, with the university’s 2010 centennial in sight, administrators opted to create a position leading the archive.
For Vann, it’s a job that hardly feels like work.
“The day it feels like work is the day I’ll quit,” he says. “It’s what I love to do. Working around history and archives, it means something.”
Promoting the history
The NCCU archives was kept for years by a retired registrar who worked as a volunteer and has since died. Vann was able to work alongside B.T. McMillan for seven years after he was hired, he says, allowing the elder man to stay involved and the younger to learn from him.
The archive has yearbooks starting in 1929, which have all been digitized, along with many of its records. It has notes from its trustees meetings, and file cabinets with photos of all of its faculty members.
On one shelf is a bronzed shoe that once belonged to C.C. Spaulding of the North Carolina Mutual insurance company. Hanging from another shelf are the robes of former chancellor Charlie Nelms, who retired in 2012.
Vann keeps a list of key figures the archive should track – most prominently those of NCCU founder James E. Shepard. But the archives are also open to any documents that could shed light on the lives of African-Americans in the state, including items such as Bibles and photos.
The archive has a focus on what is known as the Long Civil Rights movement, collecting related artifacts from the 1930s through the 1980s.
Visitors regularly delve into the collection for research. Last week, a scholar was there to research John Hervey Wheeler, a prominent businessman on Durham’s Black Wall Street who was president of Mechanics and Farmers Bank – a project that Vann feels is long overdue.
“He was one of the most powerful African-American leaders in the state at that time, and he lived a block from here,” Vann says of Wheeler. “He had a profound effect on the political world, yet there’s hardly even a street named for him.”
Vann also promotes black history beyond the archives and helped create a permanent exhibit in the Carolina Theatre devoted to the civil rights movement. Early in the month, he was part of a community presentation on historically black colleges and universities. A program will focus on civil rights attorney Julius Chambers. Later this month, he’ll bring a pop-up exhibit on Black Wall Street to a senior citizens center.
Once, he picked up boxes of discarded files from White Rock Baptist Church, a prominent black church with a long and storied history, based on a call from a church member.
“They were being tossed out, but I knew how important they were,” he says, “so those records are here today.”
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Andre D. Vann
Born: June 1970, Vance County
Career: Coordinator of university archives and professor, N.C. Central University
Education: B.A. and M.A. in history, N.C. Central University
Family: Wife Tracey Burns-Vann
Fun fact: Vann was born in a community called Mobile that was founded by his great-great-grandmother. The midwife who delivered him confused his birthday, marking July instead of June on his birth certificate, so he now celebrates both birthdays.