Thanks to friends, I got a hold of some documents posted by the North Carolina Genealogical Society, that are integral to the story of the destroyed records in Franklin County. I am reposting those documents in the timeline I have laid out below, and at the end of this document.
If anyone has anything additional to add, I would certainly appreciate it. I have a feeling this is just the tip of the iceberg.
August, 1964 – “Franklin County Records Inventory and Schedules” conducted by the State Department of Archives and History, Raleigh, N.C. This document (available here: FranklinCtyRecordsInventory09-1964) is a 50-year-old document detailing the contents of the Franklin County Court House records, and indications from NC Archives on which materials are to be disposed of, how, and when. This document is crucial in understanding what follows below. In effect, what happened, is that in 1964 the NC Archives gave recommendations for the destruction of materials, but for some reason the folks in Franklin County chose to ignore the instructions, and saved the materials in the basement. This document comes back into play in October 2013, and is used as the basis for the folks in the 21st century NC Archives, strongly urging destruction of what the community in Franklin County deems to be a critical records of their cultural heritage.
May, 2013 – Franklin County Clerk of Superior Court, Alice Faye Hunter resigns. A new Clerk is appointed; Patricia Burnette Chastain.
Mrs. Chastain discovered that the basement of the courthouse has been abandoned for many years. Upon opening the basement she found old documents, books, and records in a state of disarray, some destroyed by mold, some in boxes, some piled and strewn on the floor. Neglect and water damage, repairmen periodically in and out of the room without concern for the arrangement of documents, and failure of some of the boxes, resulted in an unorganized, unhealthful mess.
At some point during May, 2013, Ms. Chastain contacted Diane Taylor Torrent of Franklin County Heritage (a volunteer association of amateur and professional genealogists, historians, and citizens interested in Franklin County history) in order to assist her in assessing the historical significance of the materials, and (ostensibly) to determine what should and could be salvaged.
A cursory examination revealed that there were documents in the room from many Franklin County agencies, including; the court as well as register of deeds, county finance, board of education, sheriff’s office, county jail, elections board and others. Some records dated back as far as 1840.
May 16 – The Heritage Society of Franklin County, NC, presented a program to its membership along with members of the community to discuss the best way to proceed. Present were local historians, genealogists, friends of the library, the arts council, the new Clerk of Court (Ms. Chastain) and County Commissioner Sidney Dunston. All present were shown photos of the basement and the condition of the records.
May 25, 26, & 27 – Ms. Chastain and Ms. Torrent spent three days removing trash, broken furniture, discarded carpet, etc. from the basement, so as to make space to reach and work with the documents.
According to Ms. Torrent, “Mrs. Chastain recognized the value of having a group of genealogist(s) and historians available who were willing and able to ascertain the historic worth of these records to the community and asked the Heritage Society to review, record, digitize and preserve the records. Due to space constraints and conditions in the basement it was decided that only a few would be allowed to begin the work. The Heritage Society provided the appropriate protective gear for the work to begin. Masks, gloves, sanitizers, etc. were bought by the Society and placed in the basement for the use of everyone entering.”
Late May, early June, 2013 – Work began, using a few volunteers, to collect loose documents from the floors and to place them in boxes for later, more thorough examination. A variety of box types were used, including recycled boxes from county agencies with recent dates on the labels. (It has been presumed that the dates on the labels caused some confusion among both County and State workers, later in the review of the room, giving them the impression that the boxes contained very current records which might pose a threat of identity theft or privacy violation. In fact there were no records more recent than 1969 found by workers sorting through the materials.)
The following is a description of the early investigation, accounted by Ms. Torrent of Franklin County Heritage Society; “Immediately we found Chattel Mortgages from the 1890’s, court dockets from post civil war to prohibition, delayed birth certificate applications with original supporting documents (letters from Grandma, bible records, birth certificates, etc), county receipts on original letterhead from businesses long extinct, poll record books, original school, road and bridge bonds denoting the building of the county, law books still in their original paper wrappings, etc., etc. etc. The list goes on and on. Our original feelings of shock that the records were there and in such bad condition led to feelings of joy that they were still there and that someone had thought to retain them for us to discover so many years later.
“Each book or box opened produced a new treasure. A letter, stamped and in the original envelope, from a Franklin County soldier serving in France during the First World War asking the court to be sure his sister and his estate was looked after while he was away. A naturalization paper from the late 1890s for an immigrant from Russia escaping the tyranny of the Czar. A document from County Commissioners in the early years of road building requesting another county repair their road as it entered the county. Lists of county employees and what their wages were in 1900. A court document paying the court reporter who took the depositions in the “Sweat Ward” case, (Ward beheaded a man in the 1930s and later became the last man to be lynched in the county). Postcards, county bills, audits, cancelled checks, newspaper clippings, store ads from long gone businesses. Boxes and boxes of court cases covering the years of prohibition, a docket from an individual accused of running a “baudy house” within the city limits, a photo tucked now and then inside a book, one of the courthouse unseen since the 1920s. Again, nothing was in any order and many of the boxes were combinations of records from many decades.”
June 2013 – Ms. Torrent contacted the County and requested new, durable records boxes, to replace the recycled office boxes and liquor store boxes the team of volunteers working on the project had been using up to that date. She received 40 boxes from the County.
The Heritage Society contacted the North Carolina State Archives for advice on handling old documents and the best archiving method. (Sarah E. Koonts, Director of the North Carolina Archives, records the date of contact as August, 2013 in her October, 2013 letter to Patricia B. Chastain, Franklin County Clerk of Court. See Letter Here: Koontz2Chastain-10-29-2013)
June and July, 2013 – According to Ms. Torrent, the North Carolina State Archives determined that their division should have control over the basements contents. The NC Archives sent “a representative” who looked through the basement and said “they would get back to us with a report on the next steps.”
- According to Sarah Koonts letter of October 29, 2013 (linked above), two representatives were sent on August 21, 2013. These were NC Archives employees Tom Vincent and Carolyn “Carie” Chesarino.
- At some point, Carie Chesarino and Sarah C. West; Safety and Health Specialist, NC Administrative Office of the Courts, also visited the Franklin County Courthouse, as is shown in Ms. Wests’ report of October 21, 2013. See that email to the left.
In the meantime, the Franklin County Heritage Society continued working in the cramped and moldy environment of the basement while waiting for an assessment from the NC Archives. June and July were very wet months and many days workers were unable to enter the basement, due to unhealthful conditions (damp and mold.)
August, 2013 – August 5, 2013 Steve Trubilla, on behalf of the Franklin County Heritage Society, made a request at the County Commissioner’s meeting, to provide adequate space for the preservation to continue.
Within the same time frame, JM Dickens, a local business owner, donated the use of office space across the street from the courthouse. Additionally, Franklin County citizens donated supplies.
The Franklin County Commissioners agreed to provide electric and water to the donated offices for six months.
Holt Kornegay, Franklin County Librarian, attended the August meeting of the Heritage Society and offered to train volunteers to use a computer program designed to archive the records so that they would integrate into the existing system and be accessible to the public.
A request was made to The United Way to supply the Society with computers and Steve Trubilla donated a scanner/copier.
August 13, 2013, Mrs. Chastain, Franklin County Clerk of Court, provided trustees to begin moving the records to the newly donated space. All of the new, clean file boxes, repacked with the old, dusty records from the basement floor, were moved to the upstairs space
August 13 – 16 – Diane Taylor Torrent was out of town on business.
August 15, 2013 – An issue of proper insurance arose, temporarily stopping progress. Superior Court Judge Bob Hobgood offered to pay for the insurance for the 6 months that the offices were in use.
During this general period – The Heritage Society was told to “Stand Down” by County Management (it is unclear who “County Management” refers to, whether it was Chastain, the County Commissioners, Angela Harris, the Franklin County Manager, or just who.) The reasoning for this order was for the need to preserve “chain of custody” for sensitive materials like adoption records, birth records, etc. This concern arose erroneously, according to Ms. Torrent, due to the use of recycled boxes with contemporary labels, which were used to contain much older documents that were not related to the labels on the boxes which contained them. Nevertheless, the order to cease working was given until all the county agencies with documents in the basement could be contacted.
Sometime prior to August 16, 2013 – At some point during Ms. Torrents few days long absence, someone allowed access to the basement and to the donated room. According to Ms. Torrent, “It was now that I discovered that during my absence, access had been obtained (not through chain of command and the Clerk of Court) and county management (eds. note, this statement implicates Franklin County Manager, Angela Harris) had allowed people from the elections board, education, register of deeds and the State Archives and others to go through the basement and the office and remove items that they deemed to be under their control. Items were strewn about the office floor and boxes that had been carefully stacked were opened and askew. ALL of the new white file boxes were gone, taken by the State Archives. There was no way of knowing who took what or what was missing. No one had left a log.
“Our immediate question was how did this action fall within the chain of command? How was it better to have so many hands and eyes on the records searching for what may be theirs rather than a few careful historians organizing and sorting? The time capsule was now compromised and we no longer had control of the integrity of the records.”
After August 16, 2013 – Mrs. Torrent was allowed limited access to the remaining documents in the basement to do a cursory inventory of what remained. According to her reports, she was not given access or time to do more than simply label the remaining boxes with a rough idea of what was in them. None of the many ledger books were opened or reviewed.
At some point it was discovered that North Carolina State Archives personnel removed all the new white boxes containing some of the salvaged documents (these are the boxes that had been requested in June, to replace recycled boxes) to the North Carolina State Archives in Raleigh.
October 10, 2013 – Diane Taylor Torrent provides, at the request (date unknown) of Patricia Burnette Chastain and officials at the North Carolina Archives, a partial inventory of the documents contained in the Franklin County Courthouse basement. Of course the supplied inventory is incomplete, as the work had barely begun when the Heritage Society was ordered to “Stand Down”.
October 21, 2013 – Sarah C. West, Safety and Health Specialist, NC Administrative Office of the Courts, provides to Patricia Barnette Chastain, Franklin County Clerk of Court, her full report on the state of the basement and associated water damage and mold damage throughout the building. The document is available here (West2Chastain10-21-2013), but in essence Ms. West, a health and safety inspector – not a historian – recommends the destruction of all documents in the basement, many in the building’s Law Library, and more in Judge Hobgood’s office – on public health grounds – due to the presence of mold spores, which have contaminated every crevice and article of paper in the building.
October 29, 2013 – Rebecca McGee-Langford, Assistant State Records Administrator, Government Records Section Manager, North Carolina State Archives, sends a letter to Patricia B. Chastain, Franklin County Clerk of Superior Court, Louisburg, N.C. In this letter (found here: Koontz2Chastain-10-29-2013), she states that she provides a “detailed listing of the records stored in the courthouse basement”. However, this statement cannot be true, as no single agency or individual has had access to the basement or the records in order to compile a “detailed list”. The Heritage Society had more time with the materials than any other entity, but they were ordered to “stand down” as soon as their work had begun in earnest.
Following her claim of “a detailed list”, Ms. McGee-Langford restates the destruction schedules detailed in the August 1964 document referenced at the beginning of this post.
Ms. McGee-Langford closes her letter with the following conflicting (given the dire health and safety warning) statements:
“The State Archives of North Carolina has taken possession of 15 boxes of civil and criminal case files, 4 volumes of Justice Dockets, Criminal Court (1960’s), and 1 volume of Records of Magistrates (1880’s). These records were in better condition than the records that remain in the basement. These records will be preserved by the State Archives.
“In conclusion, we urge county officials to take immediate action to destroy these records. No other disposition is advised, including donation of the records to a non-government entity for any reason. The health and safety issue concerning these records outweighs all other considerations.”
Following this letter from Ms. McGee-Langford at the NC Archives, Ms. Torrent inquired, first to the County Commissioners, then to her state representatives, then to the Governor himself, why the documents retained in “pretty” clean boxes were judged safe to be carried off – even though they had originated from the same contaminated environment as all the other records (still contained in recycled boxes), when the inspector’s report clearly stated a contamination risk by mold particles invisible to the naked eye. Ms. Torrent got no response, except that the NC Archives representatives deemed these records “clean”.
November 15, 2013 – In an email from Carolyn (“Carie”) Cherisino, Head of Records Description Unit, Government Records Section, NC Archives, to Becky McGee-Langford, Ms. Cherisono states, “Upon examining the photographs provided, it has been determined that the documents in question are not of historical value and should be destroyed along with the rest of the records that had been stored in the basement of the Franklin County Courthouse.”
She elaborates, “The permanent retention of every government record being an unsustainable enterprise, the Government Records Section of the State Archives of North Carolina carefully analyzes government record-keeping systems and statutory obligations in order to identify record series of enduring value.”
Ms. Cherisino then goes on to cite three examples of records from the basement, which in her opinion are of little historical value, or are redundant to copies that exist in the North Carolina State Archives, as supporting her decision and her logic. Just three documents, from many thousands that were never examined in the basement at the Franklin County Courthouse.
Friday, December 6, 2013, after 5:00 PM – Without prior notice to either the Franklin County Heritage Society or other citizens with an interest in preserving these materials, a crew (unknown exactly who they were, who hired them, or what agency they may have been working for) showed up in full Hazmat suits, in white, state-owned vans, and under the silent, cooperative protection of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department. They requested and gained access to the Franklin County Courthouse basement. Over the course of a few hours they carried away all the contents (all boxes, papers, and all the ledgers – everything.) They removed these materials to the Franklin County Animal Shelter incinerator and began a many day’s long process of burning the materials.
See photographs of the men in hazmat suits here: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.553905598031235.1073741837.366834443405019&type=3
See photos of some of the destroyed documents here: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.556194484469013.1073741838.366834443405019&type=1
See a WRAL news story, which aired Wednesday, December 18, 2013, here: http://www.wral.com/news/local/video/13230617/#/vid13230617
Email from Chesarino to McGee-Langford, dated November 15, 2013, see image below.