Tina Wright and Nikki Lynn Thomas are both archivists at J. Murray Atkins Library at University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC) involved with the King-Henry-Brockington Archive, a collection of materials relating to LGBTQ history in Charlotte. Wright is originally from the United Kingdom, and moved to the Queen City in 1988. In 2017, she earned her Master’s in History from UNCC, fulfilling a long-term goal that was interrupted by life, traveling and family. Her thesis, “‘How Could Love Be Wrong?’: Gay Activism And AIDS In Charlotte, 1970-1992,” was inspired by the material being entered into the King-Henry-Brockington Archive. She is now an oral history interviewer at UNCC. Thomas ia an archivist who has dedicated her career to documenting the history of LGBTQ populations. She is currently the outgoing chair of the Diverse Sexuality and Gender Section of the Society of American Archivists.
Could you give a brief overview of the initiation and history of the King-Henry-Brockington Archive, as well as an introduction to the archive’s namesakes?
Thomas: The King-Henry-Brockington LGBTQ+ Archive of Charlotte was founded in 2013 as a collaboration between UNC Charlotte Atkins Library Special Collections and the university’s Multicultural Resource Center. More specifically, Joshua Burford, the assistant director for Sexual and Gender Diversity.
Donaldson King arrived in Charlotte in the 1970s and was a long-time employee of The Charlotte Observer. He quickly became one of the region’s earliest and most outspoken activists for the civil rights of gays and lesbians in the Queen City.
Sue Henry, owner of Rising Moon Bookstore, was one of Charlotte’s most recognizable LGBT representatives of the 1990s and was the first openly gay candidate for mayor of Charlotte in 1995.
Blake Brockington was a Charlotte-area teen activist heavily involved in the fight for LGBTQ rights, the movement for black lives, environmental activism and the overlaps between.
Roughly what time period do the materials in the archive cover? Are you still actively looking to add materials to the archive?
Thomas: The collection materials are primarily from the 1970s-present, and we are always adding materials to the archives.
What are some of the more distressing trends in Charlotte queer history that are documented in the archives? Is there a particular period of time in the portion of the city’s history covered by the archives that seemed to be the most difficult for queer Charlotteans?
Wright: There are numerous, and they are cyclical. One example is the vindictive efforts by police to eradicate gay cruising in Charlotte parks during the 1980s, and 1990s. Don King’s papers meticulously document what amounted to entrapment as plain clothed police officers cruised the parks to catch the unsuspecting. The Gay and Lesbian Switchboard helped to collect stories documenting cases of entrapment along with other forms of discrimination experienced by LGBT Charlotteans, but little headway was made.
Charlotte did not escape the ravages of the AIDS epidemic as it swept the country, and the tragedy of the disease and stigma that accompanied it is palpable throughout many collections in the archive, from the records of Charlotte’s RAIN (originally called Regional AIDS Interfaith Network) and the oral history of RAIN’s founding director Debbie Warren, to the papers of Dr. Bob Barret, which include examples of startling no-holds-barred hate mail.
Perhaps the most important addition to the archive in terms of documenting these and other challenges and struggles of Charlotte’s LGBTQ community is the donation of the whole run of qnotes by publisher Jim Yarbrough. As a result of this donation qnotes can now be accessed online through DigitalNC all the way back to its origins as a newsletter in 1983.
What is the most encouraging or simply delightful story you have come across in the archives?
Wright: The most delightful story I have come across in the archive is lesbian activist Diana Travis’ description of her mother’s fierce support for her in reaction to a series of homophobic articles in the Charlotte News in 1974. The articles were written by editor Darrell Sifford, a colleague of Diana’s father and well known to the Travis family. They infuriated Mrs. Travis to the point where she challenged Sifford to interview Diana and straighten the record. Diana was living as an out lesbian in Boston, but was still not out publicly in her home city. So in this way Mrs. Travis essentially outed her daughter to the whole of Charlotte in one fell swoop.
Like all U.S. American cities, Charlotte’s history has been shaped by ongoing racial segregation, injustice and a continuous struggle for civil rights. What light does the material in the archives shed on the history of race in Charlotte? Are there any historical figures of color in particular that Charlotteans should know about?
Thomas: Unfortunately the collections do not contain much documentation of QTPOC (queer & trans people of color). It is an issue that we have been struggling with for many years.
As far as QTPOC that folks need to know about — Blake Brockington. The story of Blake being the first openly trans homecoming king in N.C. (2014) was widely publicized by the press, but what folks aren’t aware of is the rest of the Blake’s story and the phenomenal impact he made on the community in his 18 years. Memorials are still held in his honor, and a shrine to his memory is placed at many events and actions in the Charlotte area.
As is the case with many queer archives, the bulk of the materials in King-Henry-Brockington archives seems to deal with lesbian, gay, and bisexual issues and transgender voices and issues, while present, are less prominent. What are the historical factors that led to the under-representation of trans perspectives in the archives, and what are your hopes for including more trans voices in the future?
Thomas: The “2011 Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey” states that “the combination of anti-transgender bias and persistent, structural racism was especially devastating…with African-American transgender respondents faring worse than all others in many areas examined.” Over 40 percent of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals will attempt suicide at some point compared to under 5 percent of the general population. The suicide risk is even higher for trans people of color. And that’s just self-inflicted harm. Trans people of color aren’t worrying about whether their life is documented in an archive, they’re worrying about how to live. Who has time to worry about representational belonging when you’re trying to survive?
Much of the archive is comprised of newspaper articles, organizational records and promotional materials from queer activist organizations in Charlotte. However, the archive also includes the personal correspondence of prominent Charlotte queer activists. What insight do the materials in the archives give us into the internal lives of queer Charlotteans through time?
Wright: There is a wealth of material in the archive that instructs us about the internal lives of queer Charlotteans over time, though of course it is limited to those individuals whose papers have been deposited. The personal and professional correspondence of Don King runs to several boxes of tightly packed carbon copies. To read these letters is to feel as though you have known King all your life. Where manuscript collections leave gaps in the personal journey, oral histories can fill in. Rev. Sonja Lee describes the trials and significance of living in Germany as a young woman seeking to understand her identity. Sandra Bailey’s reflections bring to life her extraordinary parents, Nila and Stokley Bailey, loved to bits as the “mom and pop” of gay and lesbian Charlotteans as far back as the 1960s, and founding leaders of Charlotte’s PFLAG chapter. Lynnsy Logue paints a picture of how it felt to be isolated as a lesbian growing up in Charlotte in the 1950s and 1960s, and contrasts that with the vibrancy of a community coming together for social change in the 1990s.
How has your work on the archive enriched your own life? Has your relationship with Charlotte changed as a result of what you’ve learned?
Wright: I can honestly say that my work with the King Henry Brockington LGBTQ+ Archive has enriched my life immensely and that I am a better person for it. As the oral history interviewer in Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) I have had the privilege of being a liaison to the Charlotte Queer Oral History Project community group. Through that role I have been able to participate in recording the narratives of numerous Charlotte LGBTQ leaders and community members, and supporting others in their interviewing practice. This experience has given me a deeper, more nuanced and engaged perspective on Charlotte and Charlotte’s history, and it has allowed me to get to know some exceptional people.
What should queer people and allies in Charlotte know about the city’s queer history that they may not know already?
Wright/Thomas: That there are LGBTQ+ archives at UNC Charlotte.
If I could wave a magic wand and give you an unlimited amount of any one resource in order to improve the King-Henry-Brockington Archives, what resource would that be and how would you use it?
Wright/Thomas: People. People to spread the word about the collections. People to conduct oral history interviews. People to make the collections accessible to the public.