An initiative in the Auburn University College of Human Sciences works to fill in the missing pieces of Auburn’s history by sharing Black stories and traditions. Research to Preserve African American Stories and Traditions, or rPAAST, presents at local schools, academic conferences, and engages the community to collaborate on historical research, storytelling, and cemetery preservation.
Robert Bubb, PhD, lecturer in Human Development and Family Science, coordinates the collaborative effort to elevate local Black history and share stories forgotten over time.
“It really centers around people. That’s really where our success is. Whether it’s educating or people discovering something about themselves or just getting the stories out there through the collaborations we have in the community,” Bubb said. “Every town, every city has its own very unique Black history that needs to be told. If we can present what we do, hopefully that inspires people to do the same within their own local communities.”
rPAAST began with Bubb’s own family history. His great-great-grandmother was named ‘Louisa,’ and was a former enslaved woman who illegally married a white man. Once Bubb traced her story and saw how inspiring and influential, but forgotten over time, Louisa was, he began to consider how many other local stories were lost to history.
Bubb published his great-great-grandmother’s story and his editor told him of the Afro-American Historical Genealogical Society conference in Atlanta, Ga. On the way back from attending the conference, Bubb began an initiative to elevate Black history in Auburn.
Crystal Harrell, 2018 HDFS master’s program graduate, accompanied Bubb to the conference and saw rPAAST grow throughout her Auburn career. Her rPAAST project, “Reconstructing post-emancipation communities through the preservation of African American cemeteries,” won the first-place student award at Auburn’s 2017 Student Research Symposium.
Harrell is currently pursuing a PhD in Public Health from Yale University and said her rPAAST experience, plus her participation in community organizations and academic conferences, were transformational during her time at Auburn.
“As an African American student, it was important for me to understand the influence on my ancestry in current society. When I began working with rPAAST, it was refreshing to see how Auburn's culture was shaped by the lives of formerly enslaved Africans in the area and their descendants,” Harrell said. “I knew then that the impact of this research was monumental in the community. I used my experience with rPAAST as a way to highlight the importance of my own research in African American communities, and now, it helps me serve as a better advocate for culturally appropriate interventions.”
Since that first conference visit, rPAAST has grown in number and reach. Many other research students engage with the group and help present at local schools, conferences and events, in addition to researching the genealogy of Auburn’s African American families.
This semester, rPAAST is working with students at Auburn High School to present the history of the city’s high school integration.
Bubb said engaging young students is critical to the group’s mission because their K-12 curriculum only teaches Black history a handful of times through their education, and that those students will eventually be the ones to enact lasting, positive change.
“We haven’t resolved our racial issues. We saw that this past year. If we’re thinking about where we need to move forward, that’s going to fall on the shoulders of our leaders, and those leaders really are those in the educational system right now,” Bubb said. “The Black experience is part of American history. It’s really important that students get that perspective. If they don’t, it’s almost detrimental to the Auburn community, which has a very rich Black history. So, we can talk about those accomplishments and those individuals who were very influential within the community itself.”
Bubb recalled one experience in which rPAAST presented on influential Auburn residents, including Jesse Strickland, Auburn’s first Black firefighter, who was also part of a group of firefighters who filed a lawsuit to advance civil rights. In the fourth-grade class in which Bubb and research students shared the story, one of the students declared that Strickland was her grandfather, and that she had no idea of that piece of her family history.
rPAAST has also shed light on the history of Toomer’s Corner. John Reese, a Black man, loaned Shel Toomer the money to start Toomer’s Drugs, and after presenting documentation to Toomer’s management, were able to finally add his name to the company history and recognize the part he played in creating the Auburn staple.
More recently, rPAAST found documentation for a fifth Lee County lynching victim. The research was reviewed and accepted by the Equal Justice Initiative, which was a sad success for the group but important to honor the memory of Charles Miller.
Bubb said rPAAST does not direct, but coordinates, and relies on the community to share stories so that rPAAST can facilitate respectful ways in which to share them and paint a full picture of Auburn’s history.
Early on in rPAAST, Bubb and Harrell visited Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, Auburn’s first Black church, and met George and Pat Echols. The late George Echols and his wife, Pat, were members of the Committee for the Preservation of Auburn’s African American History. The Echols gave Bubb copies of a chronicle of Auburn stories and provided guidance on how to approach telling the story of the Black community.
“We researched, interviewed citizens and shared information which was compiled and published in the book entitled Lest We Forget. This work was very important to us because we were not included in the bicentennial presentation of Auburn’s history,” Pat Echols said. “No compiled information nor documentation was available, and we wanted everyone to know that Black people have been here since the founding of Auburn. Not only have we been here, but we have been and still are contributing significantly to the development of this city. This city’s history, and any history, is incomplete without including everyone’s contribution and everything done.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has hindered rPAAST’s ability to gather physically with collaborators, but Bubb looks forward to presenting at the upcoming RootsTech conference, reintroducing an advanced seminar to Auburn’s fall course registry, hosting an open forum featuring alumni of Auburn High School’s first integrated classes this summer and continuing work with organizations such as the Lee County Remembrance Project.
Another major part of the rPAAST mission set to resume is its various cemetery restoration projects. The group primarily works to restore five local cemeteries to honor the memory of those who have long-passed – a cause especially close to Bubb’s heart, as his own great-great-grandmother lays unidentified in a Texas cemetery that was, for years, completely overgrown until a group restored it.
“A lot of this history literally lies in the ground. Within the African American community, if there’s a headstone, there’s a story. Cemeteries are sacred spaces and it’s a way to show care for the people we’re researching, so we care for the space and the memory,” Bubb said. “We also work to preserve cemeteries because they are disappearing, especially the burial grounds of those who were enslaved. These spaces are sacred and shouldn’t be developed over and lost to time.”
For those who want to research their own history, Bubb recommends starting at FamilySearch.org – a free to use website to start your family tree. Bubb also said cemeteries contain useful information when tracing family history. And to honor our community’s history, Bubb said respect is key. “It’s important that we preserve those sacred spaces, those spaces where we can sit down and reflect and think about the past, race relations in the past, and hopefully that touches you in some way,” Bubb said. “Be a collaborating force who you know will help get those stories told, but don’t take it over. Use your influence to help get these stories told.”
Bubb will present at the RootsTech 2021 conference, a free, virtual event held February 25 to 27. Register for the conference at the RootsTech website. For more information on rPAAST at Auburn University, visit the group’s website.