Flashing Back

By Marybeth Bianchi


In the 1940s and 1950s, Mack Munn sold burial insurance for Shaw Funeral Home in Wilmington to residents in southeast North Carolina. But as he traveled around Riegelwood, East Arcadia and Sandyfield, he created an everlasting glimpse into the area through his images of people working, moving, buying and living in their communities and "a rare historical record of a rural African American community."

In collaboration with the Lower Bladen-Columbus Historical Society, graduate students in the UNCW Public History Program have brought that bygone era back to life in the Randall Library exhibit "Flashback: Community Life through the Lens of Mack Munn, 1940-1960," on display through September. Erica Hague and Jennifer Scott guided the yearlong project as lead curators.

"In developing Flashback, we spent a year learning about Munn, visiting the places where he lived and worked and meeting the people he photographed," Hague wrote in a story that appeared in the StarNews. They gathered the memories of the community's residents at a senior center, churches, homes and community festivals and gatherings and recorded them as oral histories to accompany the images.

Mack Munn


Exhibit is on display through September at Randall Library.




"Capturing the voices and stories of these residents adds such a rich component to the exhibit," Scott said. "Not only can we see the images of them working, praying, singing, farming and more, but we can hear in their own words what it felt like and what it meant to them."

The 900-square-foot traveling exhibit features a recreated 1940s porch from East Arcadia as well as the front of the East Arcadia train station that appears in one of the photos. Visitors can listen to oral histories while sitting in a ladder back chair or photograph themselves at the train station just like the historical photos in the exhibit.

In addition, the students created lesson plans for an eighth grade curriculum and developed a digital field trip DVD.

"The entire team gained skills and confidence toward our future careers as museum educators, curators, exhibit designers and collection specialists," Hague wrote.

"The collaboration between UNCW and Earnestine Keaton, grand-niece of Mack Munn and director of the Lower Bladen-Columbus Historical Society, provided an ideal occasion for graduate students preparing for museum work to create an exhibit not just about people, but with people,"
said associate professor Tammy Gordon, who oversaw the students' work as part of the public history program.

For their efforts, Hague, Scott and their colleagues received the National Council on Public History (NCPH) Student Project Award, which is granted annually to students who complete an outstanding public history project recognized beyond the classroom for its contribution to the field of public history. The award includes a trip in April to Milwaukee for what Hague said is "the nation's largest conference on American history" as well as an article published in Public History News.

"I for one can't wait to share information with other historians in the nation about what we have come to know as a very special little town in North Carolina," Hague wrote.






Valerie Andrews, Elorise Bibs, Meller Ree Williams, Carrie Bibbs and Minnie Andrews were part of the 1950s gospel group, The Friendly Five. Gospel music, which allowed singers to worship and share experiences, was and continues to be an important tradition in the African American community. With three original members, The Friendly Five continues to perform at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church.





Theodore Daniels posed with his 1950s era Ford tractor, showing the transformation that took place when farmers began to use mechanized equipment. Most rural African Americans used mules to plow their fields until the middle of the 20th century.



How do you wash your clothes? For Lil Munn, washing clothes was long and demanding process. Most rural families did not own washing machines during the 1940s. Instead, they set aside a day to hand wash their clothing.

Can you hear it coming? East Arcadia resident Hortense Brown waits for the Seaboard Air Line Railway that cruised through East Arcadia at 11 in the morning. People would travel to Wilmington in the morning and back in the afternoon or continue westward to Charlotte.




Mack Munn photographed Johnny Jones, Akiah Lacewell and Buck Keaton on a scooter dressed in nice clothing. These three friends represent the crowd of adult men who would gather at juke joints after work to have a few drinks and socialize before going home. These local hangouts also provided the youth of the community a place to mingle with friends, listen to blues music and dance on Friday and Saturday nights.



Listen to the voices of East Arcadia in these audio clips that accompany the exhibit.


Learn more about the Public History Program at UNCW.


View pictures of the exhibit construction and the exhibit opening on Facebook.


Learn more about the Lower Bladen-Columbus Historical Society.