UNCG Campus Weekly

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History/Museum Studies secures two-part historical marker

In December, the State Highway Historic Marker Commission approved a permanent state sign to mark the former Central Carolina Convalescent Hospital, or “The Old Polio Hospital” site on 710 Huffine Mill Road in East Greensboro. The sign was approved because of the work of UNCG History and Museum Studies faculty and students, which spanned a year and a half. But their research and recognition of Greensboro history did not end with the polio epidemic, but also covered the hospital site’s other use, as a jail for civil rights protesters in 1963.

Director of Public History Anne Parsons led graduate students in applying for the marker and Associate Professor of History Thomas Jackson submitted a letter supporting the sign and recognition of the site’s complex history. Associate Professor Lisa Tolbert, a past member of the state highway marker advisory committee, offered comments on the application and attended the commission meeting with the students.

“In the case of the polio hospital, most people drive by with no knowledge of what happened there,” said Parsons. “Indeed, one of our staff members had a father at the polio hospital and she drove by the site for years before learning that it had been the former polio hospital. We did research on the site and found that it was historically significant both as a hospital and as a jail. We also conducted informal surveys of community members and community partners, who said that they wanted a state highway historical marker near the site to reflect its state-wide significance and to help keep it alive in Greensboro’s memory. This had to be approved by the state as historically significant, which was a major process in and of itself.”

Initially, the jail component was not going to be included, but the research material submitted by the UNCG students and faculty led to its inclusion. According to Jackson’s letter, Greensboro was second in the nation for the scale of its mass protest against downtown segregation in 1963. At one point in 1963, the building was the most populated civil rights jail in the nation, with more than 800 student protesters confined there.

“The Polio Hospital therefore became a historical site with several layers of meaning, all of which should be acknowledged,” reads Jackson’s letter. “In the 1940s and 1950s it had been a site of pain and healing, of frightening isolation and inspiring cooperation across the color line. In the 1960s, a mobilized African-American community and a stubbornly resistant white establishment made it a site of painful confrontation and nonviolent sacrifice. Here, courageous protesters accepted ‘jail, no bail,’ in pursuit of an ideal of community that had been briefly embodied fifteen years earlier, by black and white polio sufferers and caretakers. The ironies are clear, and properly discomfiting. But the site embodies fundamental historical truths. The hard road to conquest over polio required that its victims be quarantined in a racially integrated facility, to segregate their virus from American society. Racial segregation has not yet been fully overcome. But Greensboro’s victory over downtown retail segregation in 1963 required hundreds of its sufferers to go to jail to win freedom, to sleep on bare floors in an unhealthy former convalescent facility, in order to heal the wounds of a divided society.”

The establishment of the historical marker at the polio hospital is the first initiated by UNCG students and faculty.

Tolbert remarked on the value of the community-engaged research undertaken by the UNCG students, which, in the end, helped sway the state committee in favor of the complete marker that included both periods of the hospital building’s use.

“The community programs at the hospital at the International Civil Rights Museum were important opportunities for collecting oral histories and feedback from the public about different options for the wording of the marker, and a crucial part of the process in general. Community support is an important factor in the decision-making,” said Tolbert.

Also recently, UNCG alumni Angela Thorpe ’14 MA and Brandie Ragghianti ’14 successfully worked with the State Highway Historic Marker Commission to approve a marker at the site of the 1978 Sanitation Strike in Rocky Mount, a powerful piece of community engaged history.

By Susan Kirby-Smith