Three years ago, historian Benjamin Filene plopped down with great intent at a table in the North Carolina Collection in Wilson Library.
“I was on the lookout for stories that had the potential to open up into something unexpected,” said Filene, an associate professor in UNC-Greensboro’s Department of History.
When he left the library that day, Filene could barely contain his excitement over his discovery.
“I saw these photographs and was struck by them. .... It led to questions: Who are these people? What did they think was going on when these photos were being taken? What happened next, which is always one of my questions.
“It was all very tantalizing,” he said. “When I left Wilson I had more questions than answers.””
The photos Filene had discovered were some of the 50 photographs used to illustrate Hillsborough schoolteacher Stella Sharpe’s children’s book “Tobe.” The 128-page was book was published by UNC Press in 1939 and explores the life of an African-American family who live on a working farm. Filene will give a talk about the book at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Orange County Historical Museum, 201 N. Churton St. in Hillsborough.
“I’ve learned a lot, but I think there will be people out there who know more than I do about parts of it already,” he said. “I am looking forward to hearing from them.” Tenant farmers
What Filene has been able to figure out is that Sharpe and her husband Luther owned a farm on Mountain Creek Road off of Old N.C. 86.
A black family of tenant farmers, the McCauleys, lived on the farm. One day Clay McCauley Jr. asked Sharpe why no one in his children’s books looked like him. She responded by writing her first children’s book.
“She was not a civil rights pioneer,” Filene said. “But I think it is a way of reminding us that sometimes change happens in other ways, not always through the front lines of a fight. So I don’t know if she saw this as a story or as a cause.”
“I think one of the interesting things about this book is how rare it was to see a positive depiction of ordinary African American daily lives,” he said.
Delving into UNC’s Southern Historical Collection, Filene learned that Charles Farrell had been hired to illustrate Sharpe’s text. For reasons unknown, Farrell went to Goshen, an African American enclave near Greensboro, and photographed two families there, the Garners and the Herbins. So though the text tells of the McCauley family, the photographs are not of them.
“One of the really complicated things is that this book is such a mix of documentary, fact, and fiction,” Filene said.
If Filene gathers enough material, Brandie Fields, the Orange County Historical Museum’s executive director, would love to exhibit it.
“It opens up the door to that history that has not really been explored in the past here,” she said. “We want to be a community institution, so any effort to get involved and uncover these stories is great.” ‘Everybody’s life’
Filene has talked to many African Americans who see the book as an example of their lives.
“This was everybody’s life, the farming. She wrote about a day they were working in the tobacco. These are the things that actually happened in the African-American families,” said Hattie McCauley, the niece of the main character Tobe.
McCauley grew up on a working farm on McCauley Lane off Neville Road in Chapel Hill and lives there still. Many people will know her from her former Carrboro business, Hattie’s Alterations.
“I was born in 1933 so I don’t remember the book being published but since I was about 14 we always had the book in the house. I have it here now,” said McCauley, who used to ride in a wagon to visit her cousins. Her father was Clay Jr.’s brother.
When McCauley learned of Filene’s quest she said, ‘Let me call him because everybody is just about dead and I am about the oldest thing living.” The last of McCauley’s cousins died just eight months ago.
Filene’s search has led him to Georgia, Delaware, Maryland and will take him to New York and Chicago.
“Most people don’t have a personal connection to the book, but hearing the stories can be a way for people to think about how they learn their own family history, what gets remembered, what gets forgotten,” Filene said. “They can think about the messages we give children through the books we read, and what kind of power that has to shape people’s assumptions, and how a book or photograph can become an artifact of its times.”
If you have answers for Filene, or even more questions, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 336-334-5645.