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Reconstructing a Schoo#146;s Past Using Oral Histories and GIS Mapping


Marsha Alibrandi, Candy Beal,
Ann Thompson, and Anna Wilson

How could the bulldozing of trees on a school property lead to a project involving middle school students in oral history, GIS mapping, architectural research, the science of dendrochronology, and the creation of an archival school website—all in the interests of real historical preservation? It began on the last day of school in June 1998, when students leaving the Ligon Magnet Middle School in Raleigh, North Carolina, witnessed the removal of two large willow oaks to make way for a planned expansion.

Somehow, the felling of the schoolyard trees served to crystallize a larger feeling of community loss in the surrounding Historically Black section of southeast Raleigh.1 The middle school had an interesting though—to its current students—largely “invisible” history: from its construction in 1953 until its desegregation in 1971, it had been J.W. Ligon High School, the only black high school in the Raleigh City School System. After desegregation, it became an integrated junior high school; and, with the consolidation of Raleigh schools into the Wake County Public School System in 1982, it took on its current status as a middle school that functions as a gifted and talented arts magnet.

Rich in history as the school was, official records had little to show of its years as a segregated high school during the era of the civil rights movement. As was the case with many Historically Black High Schools, these records had been lost and/or destroyed when the school came under federal desegregation orders. The best hope for retrieving the schoo#146;s past was through the recollections and memorabilia of its former teachers and alumni.

As it happened, two of the middle schoo#146;s teachers who offer an elective course in geographic information systems (GIS) met with a professor at North Carolina State University that autumn. They wanted to explore ideas for an interdisciplinary school project that would involve students in GIS mapping. By then, Ligon’s principal had already elicited the help of four students (the original “Ligon Historians”) to create a database of all Ligon High School alumni. An idea emerged to expand this rudimentary archive by combining oral histories of its graduates with GIS mapping to reconstruct the community as it existed during the 1950s.

The Ligon High School History project that took shape involved collaboration at many levels. The interdisciplinary nature of the project brought four of the schoo#146;s academic departments—language arts, social studies, instructional technology, and science—to work together on its various aspects. The school connected with the community by seeking high shool alumni willing to be interviewed for the project’s oral history component. School and university worked together as education professors coordinated the project, and graduate students (preservice teachers) helped the middle schoolers with research and interviewing. Finally, as part of their research, students visited historical archives, GIS departments, and planning offices at the city, county, and state levels.

An Interdisciplinary Project

The Ligon High School History project involved four academic departments in working together using the curricula offered in both core and elective courses. Because Ligon is a magnet school, teachers have some flexibility in what they teach in electives. Regular electives in the language arts (Journalism), technology (Electronic Publishing), and science/technology (the GIS elective on Satellites, Computers and Mapping) were centered on the project. Specially-created electives in social studies (Historical Architecture and Ligon Historians) were devoted to the study of architectural history in the schoo#146;s surrounding neighborhood. The 6th grade core science course undertook a unit on dendrochronology as it related to the schoo#146;s environment. About 125 middle school students in all took part in the project at one time or another during the 1998-1999 school year.


Language Arts: Journalism

Students in the journalism elective were introduced to oral history techniques in a demonstration interview with Ligon graduate Leonard Hunter. The goal of the oral history project was to learn about the life of the high school and its historical role within the larger community during the last days of segregation. With a mind toward how alumni recollections could be used to help with GIS mapping, student interviews also focused on the importance of “asking geographic questions.” How long was your walk to school? Where did you go to the movies? Where were the schools you competed with in sports and how did you get there? Where did you work after school? Go to the library? Go shopping? Were there places you weren’t allowed to go? Additional help in writing questions was provided by local history books and the Nearby History series.2 Journalism students working in pairs and assisted by university students performed videotaped interviews with fourteen Ligon High School graduates. These oral histories were compiled in a booklet titled Capturing the Past to Guide the Future, quotes from which appear in this article.


Social Studies: Historical Architecture and Ligon Historians

Social studies students investigated the historical architecture of southeast Raleigh. They looked at specific architectural styles, such as the “shotgun” house, and located various historical buildings within the community. Among their findings was that one of the area’s major churches was first built by former slaves working on their own time; although the original structure burned down, a larger church designed by a local African American architect and, again, built by church members took its place. Students also researched the lives of two important men in the community, J.W. Ligon and John Chavis, whose names are memorialized in local buildings, parks, and roads. The efforts of these students were reflected in the GIS mapping and in a final exhibit on Ligon’s Historical Landmarks.



Science: 6th Grade Core Course

Beginning with “tree cookies” from one of the willow oaks cut down, students in the 6th grade core science class undertook a study of dendrochronology. They learned how to date tree rings and what kinds of information they can provide about the environment. For example, highly localized environmental conditions can be traced by taking core samples of trees and conducting biological, chemical, and spatial analyses to determine past ecological changes. An entire slice of one willow oak was preserved as a timeline for an exhibit of the schoo#146;s history titled “Ligon’s History in the Rings.” The science department hopes to expand the dendrochronology unit to include study of ecological health, urban forestry, and watersheds using CITYgreen, a GIS software.


Instructional Technology: Electronic Publishing

From the initial database of Ligon alumni, students in this elective created an extensive website describing the Ligon High School History Project. The website traces the many steps of collaboration involved in creating the project. It also puts on view the products of the various interdisciplinary efforts involved. For example, there are pages on Background Information: An Historically Black High School, Memories of Raleigh, Capturing the Past to Guide the Future (four of the fourteen oral histories are included so far), The Role of GIS in the Project, and School Connecting to Community: An
Exposition. The website can be visited at www2.ncsu.edu/ncsu/cep/ligon/about/history/intro.htm.


Technology/Science: Satellites, Computers, and Mapping (GIS)

The GIS component in many ways constituted the organizing principle for the project. Using the journalism class interviews (and some of their own) and information gathered by the historical architecture class, students in this elective created a GIS model of Mr. Hunter’s Life Map in the 1950s. They also developed a geocoded county street map on which people could find their homes. And, two student spin-off projects from the original mapping demonstrated railroad development and the track of the old trolley line in Raleigh. A more detailed look at the role of GIS in the project follows.



The Role of GIS in the Project

A Geographic Information System (GIS) is a suite of integrated digital technologies including databases, graphic representations (e.g., photographs), and spatial representations (maps) that can be used to coordinate and present complex information. GIS maps make use of particular reference points on a map in order to allow the layering of information using a digital process known as geocoding. Thus, when a new database is brought into a GIS, the information can be georeferenced and placed in the corresponding location on the map. The most important link in the system is the person or team that develops the geographic questions used to explain a situation or solve a problem.

The central question for the educators involved in this interdisciplinary project was: how could students best integrate GIS mapping in the endeavor to reconstruct the history of Ligon High School and its surrounding community? Students discovered the answer to this question in steps. Maps are found in different places, and have different features depending upon the values of the mapmakers. Some very different approaches to mapmaking became evident to students as they went on field trips to the city GIS office, the state historical archive, and the historic downtown of southeast Raleigh.


Visiting the City GIS Office

At the city GIS office, students viewed the growth of their city on a digital map that used different colors to show expansions in the city limits. This reinforced their understanding of a powerful aspect of GIS maps—their ability to represent change over time, a critically important perspective for our project. Students began to see how they could show change over time in their community. They could recreate a life map for one or more of the Ligon high school graduates and place it in its historical context.

The GIS partner in the city office helped students choose an appropriate GIS street map to serve as their base map for integrating historical information. This selection process was important as, while there was an abundance of information to be had on different maps, certain “layers” of information (e.g., water and sewer lines) would simply clutter the students’ map and not help to tell their story. In a future study, someone might clearly show the bearing segregation had on the time lapsed between linking water, sewer, or power lines to certain sections of the city. But this was not central to our purpose.


Visiting the State Historical Archive

A visit to the state archive introduced students to a variety of historical maps, the most surprising being the Sanborn map of Raleigh in 1923 (updated in 1949, above). Sanborn Insurance maps, developed in the early 1800s as records of building construction for fire insurance purposes, are available for most large cities. Their detail makes them excellent as historic records, since each building is represented by the material of which it was constructed. Wooden buildings are shown in yellow, brick in pink, and concrete or stone in blue. The maps were hand-drawn for each city so that if fire occurred, the insurance company had a record of its location and construction to help determine its value for insurance purposes.

The Sanborn map’s identification of schools, colleges and universities, hospitals, churches, and businesses such as theaters and funeral homes, as “Colored” or “Negro” surprised students. Why would a mapper for an insurance company bother to indicate whether the building was associated with “Colored” or “Negro” owners? Another project might investigate the relative values of comparable black- and white-owned buildings, and whether there was a different rate of compensation for buildings based on the owner’s race. Whatever the reason, the map of Raleigh clearly identified different populations in the same city, revealing essentially separate cities within the so-called city limits.

The other surprise found on the Sanborn map was that changes in buildings and streets had simply been pasted over the old map. The map itself, handdrawn on heavy watercolor paper approximately thirty inches square, was bound between large leather covers. It wasn’t clear when changes had been made to update it, but even if it was as late as 1949, there had been no effort to mask the clearly segregated spaces represented on the map. For us, it provided further evidence of the extent of segregation as well as showing specific sites important in our project of historic preservation. Used to working in a digital format, where changes are made on a keyboard, students found the “old method” of updating a map quite a relic of the past.

The state archive was also a good source of historical photographs of buildings, and of more recent photos from the pre- and civil rights era that show the separate entrances and segregated spaces of African American life in Raleigh. While this concept of separate spaces was quite foreign to the middle school students, it was not to one graduate student working with us, who was herself an alumna of Ligon High School.


Touring Historically Black Raleigh

By this time, the oral histories being gathered in journalism classes pointed to a number of locations important in the lives of Ligon High students. More information was emerging from the classes investigating historical architecture. GIS students now interviewed Leonard Hunter in search of specific places that figured in his life as a student. The next step was to obtain the street addresses needed in order to geocode various locations on the digital street map. Once this was done, symbols or “hotlinks” to various locations could be established.

GIS students went on one last field trip by trolley through the downtown section of Historically Black Raleigh. They matched locations gleaned from interviews, and took photographs that could be hotlinked to the GIS map. When viewed in a GIS software program, such hotlinks can be activated to expand to larger photos or to connect with other links that discuss a particular building or feature. The end result was their model of Mr. Hunter’s Life Map in the 1950s—a map offering “more than meets the eye.”


The Benefits of This Project

The benefits of this project in terms of student learning, community involvement, and collaboration between school and university are manifest. Considering first the community, the partnerships developed between students, alumni, and other community members are immeasurable and have taken on new dimensions. A sense of revival and preservation has been rekindled in a community that by other standards and perspectives cannot attract a supermarket chain and may be characterized as “deteriorating” or “inner city.” The project attracted the attention of city planners who included the school in a Millennium Trail design when it might otherwise have been overlooked. The school is also the site of a commemorative “Earth Quilt” project included on the city’s Millennium Trail. Finally, efforts are going forward to develop a permanent exhibit of Ligon High School
History at the middle school.3

The role of schools and universities in this endeavor represents a long-awaited collaborative opportunity and suggests the potential for more. Typically, the planning priorities of local and state governments emphasize modern infrastructure and tend to place historical and cultural preservation low on the scale of what needs doing. Add to this the cultural bias that has traditionally sought to preserve the interests of the dominant culture over the interests of minorities. Clearly, the identification of historical and cultural features that have been long ignored offers fertile terrain for educational institutions interested in research and the application of GIS technology.4

Finally, consider what students gained from the project. Combining middle schoolers’ aptitudes for experiential learning and computer applications, such as GIS and website generation, yielded great opportunities for conducting social studies. Through actual field work in historic research and preservation, students developed an understanding of the processes of historic representation that required both critical thinking and new perspectives in interpreting history. Through evaluating the story to be told, locating the actual artifacts and documents available, and developing representational products, students learned about the limitations of authoring history. In conducting oral history and applying technology, students developed citizenship skills and a sense of place and history. In this project, students learned first-hand about the history of segregation, they pioneered the representation of that history in two new technological formats, and they surpassed all expectations for their learning and productivity. By conducting social studies, they contributed to the community as they became more a part of it.



1. In this article, the use of the term Historically Black (as in a Historically Black section of Raleigh, or Historically Black Colleges and Universities) refers to the usage of the civil rights era. Prior to then, African Americans were referred to as “Negro” or “Colored.” The term “Black” was adopted by civil rights activitists to suggest a proud identity, as in “Black is beautiful.” These variants are indicative of social change throughout history.

2. Candy Beal, Raleigh: the First 200 Years (Raleigh, NC: Martini Press, 1992); Ronald E. Butchart, Local Schools:Exploring Their History (Nashville, TN: The American Association for State and Local History, 1986); Linda Simmons-Henry and Linda Edmisten, Culture Town: Life in Raleigh’s African American Communities (Raleigh, NC: Raleigh Historic Districts Commission, 1986).

3. The project has happily united the efforts of Linda Simmons-Henry, an NCSU graduate, author, and archivist at St. Augustine’s College (an Historically Black College) with Principal Steve Takacs to develop a permanent exhibit of Ligon High School History at the middle school.

4. How new avenues of research and collaboration have been borne of the project will be described in chapters of the forthcoming GIS In Schools (Ludwig & Audet) and the forthcoming NCSS publication, Improving Social Studies Teaching and Learning Through School/University Collaboration (Johnston & Merryfield).



The authors wish to thank all of the cooperating students, teachers and partners. Teachers involved in the project were: Rita Hagevik, Betty Mackie, Virginia Owens, Neville Sinclair, and Ann Thompson. Community partners Colleen Sharpe (City of Raleigh GIS), Ed Morris, Steve Massengill and Earle James (North Carolina Division of Archives and History), and Larry Jahn, Bill Bryan, and William Swint (NCSU Department of Wood and Paper Science) provided invaluable technical assistance. Graduate students contributing to the project were: Elouise Peyton, Rhonda Muhammed, Hycy Bull, Michelle Covington, Tood Holmes, Diane Emerson, and Kristin Mewborne.


Marsha Alibrandi teaches social studies education with a specialty in geography in the College of Education and Psychology at North Carolina State University, Raleigh. Candy Beal teaches in the middle school program in the College of Education and Psychology at NCSU. Ann Thompson teaches in the department of instructional technology at Ligon Middle School. Anna Wilson teaches curriculum history to graduate students in the College of Education and Psychology at NCSU.


Don’t Do This Alone!


GIS is most successfully implemented as a collaboration between teachers and community partners. The best way for a social studies teacher to begin is to team with an instructional technology teacher. Then look for a local GIS department to obtain more technical assistance. Most local governments have agencies with GIS departments that use public-funded databases and are willing to share this information by becoming partners with schools.

A good technical skill base for undertaking GIS would include an understanding of database operation and familiarity with file management, PowerPoint, or other graphics software. But if you don’t have easy access to the Internet, GIS integration in your school program will be difficult.

Begin by visiting websites related to GIS in order to understand its ubiquity. GIS is everywhere there is spatial information being used—in local and regional planning, and in nationally-funded agencies such as the Census Bureau, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Ask students to conduct web searches on GIS to begin tapping this knowledge.

The First GIS in K-12 Education Conference will be held in San Bernadino, California, in July 2000. Find out more about it on the web at www.esri.com/industries/k-12/gisedcon.html.