When Josh Burford first arrived in the Queen City in late 2012 to begin working at University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC), even he, ambitious as he is, could not have predicted the impact he would have on the community.
Less than a year after his arrival, Burford, working with UNCC archivist Meredith Raiford, successfully launched The King-Henry-Brockington Community Archive to preserve and document Charlotte, N.C.’s queer history.
His tireless efforts earned him national headlines and the honor of qnotes 2014 Person of the Year.
“It’s a big deal to try to illuminate the history of a community you don’t belong to,” Burford told qnotes at the time. “I was worried I would leave somebody out, or I was going to get something wrong, which is why I spent so much time working on it.”
As he prepares to leave Charlotte to head back to Alabama and begin the work of building a statewide archive, something he said he has wanted to do for years, he feels much the same way.
Burford recalls an experience he had in 2014, during the archive’s exhibition run at the Levine Museum of the New South.
“We had an older lesbian woman who went to the exhibits at the Levine, and she comes out of those exhibits just feeling really raw about what she had experienced. So, these things are not neutral. She had experiences with these materials, with these actions and these events. They had deeper meaning,” he tells qnotes.
“She sent me this big, long email about how important they felt, and how difficult it was for her at the same time,” he says.
“And so, knowing that now, it really does help me to understand how when I approach someone about collecting the materials, the way in which I need to frame that for them, so they can understand what’s going to happen to it,” Burford says.
As a result of applying what he learned in Charlotte to his current project, his biggest to date, he says he has not yet received a single no from anyone he has approached about donating materials or otherwise getting involved in making the archive a reality.
The Invisible Histories Project of Alabama
Burford, who helped create an LGBTQ community archive at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, says he has been “itching” to get back to the state where he was born and raised.
“I mean, there have been more studies done on Mississippi’s LGBT history than Alabama’s, so it’s this totally untapped resource,” he observes. “I think that potentially people don’t see Alabama as a queer enough place to focus on.”
Burford, as usual, sees potential where others do not.
“Because I studied queer history in Alabama…[and] started teaching in the state, I have an affection and an affinity for the community down there. It’s beautiful, and nuanced, and complicated, but wildly underrepresented,” he notes.
The project’s website, invisiblehistory.org, launched in November, but the work to get the ball rolling has been going on behind the scenes for some time.
“I’ve been working on it for three years, getting ready to roll it out,” Burford says.
“We got our 501 (c)(3) in 2016 and we’ve been building the base to be able to roll the project out. So, when the website went live in November, part of the investment in the project has been making sure that we have the infrastructure in place to run the project,” he continues.
“We’ve already gotten donations to the project that I haven’t officially collected yet,” he says. “We got close to two dozen archival collections that are waiting to be collected. And we’ve barely started.”
The project is being backed by a number of partners, including University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Student Multicultural & Diversity Programs, UAB Special Collections Library, Birmingham Public Library, University of Alabama School of Library and Information Studies, Equality Shoals and Druid City Pride.
Bigger plans than just an archive
While a statewide queer archive is a big enough undertaking all on its own, Burford has plans beyond simply collecting and preserving artifacts. He wants to put them to good use in the community as well.
“The way this project is going to be different than the Charlotte project, is that we have two additional goals besides just the collection. The second goal is, once the history has been collected and processed…we’re going to be creating modules for K-12 schools in Alabama,” he reveals. “So, we’re going to be giving the history back after two years, in these easily sustained modules of history that are interactive and have physical materials attached to them, back to empower [students].”
“We want to have this material ready to empower queer young people as quickly as we can,” he continues. ”Here [in Charlotte], that wasn’t an afterthought, but was sort of just something I did when I had time. Here it’s been focused on preservation and collecting, and then occasionally I would do a talk, or we would give some stuff to a school, but we’ve built that into the beginning of this project.”
“And then, ultimately, in a couple of years we want to open up a physical location that will have a display space for the history, will have museum space and archival space, and places for researchers to come and work with the collections, and a place to help organize the community. So, we’re thinking long term. We’re thinking Levine Museum of the New South level, that would be focused on the Southern queer experience,” he says.
That would include the entire South, not just the state of Alabama.
Keeping connections to Charlotte
Burford might be leaving the state, in early February, but he will maintain a close connection to Charlotte and the archive he founded here.
He reminds the community that he can hop on a plane and touch down in North Carolina in less than an hour.
He will be teaching two online classes at UNCC in the spring, one of which will be Modern Gay America. It is a class he has taught before, but never solely online.
If all goes according to plan, there could also someday be an Invisible Histories of North Carolina project, as he hopes to export the “blueprint” to other southern states to follow Alabama’s lead.
While he leaves with a regret or two, like coming up against a dead end in his attempts to start an LGBTQ community center at UNCC (administrators told him the project was “dead in the water”), he is pleased with the work he was able to do in Charlotte.
He is clearly inspired to carry on, to even bigger and better achievements, back to where it all began. : :