By Victor Allison/reporter
Over the past two decades, TCC’s student population increased by more than 25,000 hitting the 50,000 mark. Despite the population boom, one of the district’s oldest cornerstones has yet to see the benefit from those gains.
Within that same stretch of time, the Heritage Room on NE Campus, a modest-sized community archive on the bottom floor of J. Ardis Bell Library, which chronicles the history of North Texas, has seen the exact opposite of a boom as its popularity among students has dipped, leaving the archive with a chamber full of artifacts but void of its driving engine.
It’s a grave departure from its previous stature in the 70s and 80s as a must-stop, said district archivist Tom Kellam. In those days, donations poured in and NE history students helped to pump out volumes of history collections including a series on black heritage, which tells the history of local African American communities in Tarrant County after emancipation. Contributions like those helped the repository’s holdings climb to 8,000 items.
Its seminal project is the Records of Mosier Valley, which documents the history of a community just south of Hurst settled by freed blacks in the 1870s.
Now, original research from students is rare. Donations have slowed. And more importantly, an archive that’s nearing its 44th anniversary has little cache in the district and has turned into a hard sell, said Kellam.
“The purpose of it was to give history students a chance to work with primary source documents and do real nuts-and-bolts research,” Kellam said. “Our goal is to restore this to what it originally was.”
He’s been working on that plan since 2011. But, he said without a big push from the district to boost the archive’s notoriety, the work hasn’t been easy. He’s now almost single handedly had to launch a campaign to reignite interest in the archive and to rescue the century or more of history stowed away there.
“It’s pretty much still an unknown resource,” Kellam said. “We are trying to make this a district-wide resource”
Built in 1975, after local history enthusiasts approached NE officials about creating a space to commemorate the history of Tarrant County, the Heritage Room became a top site for the preservation of North Texas history related materials.
The site would soon house oral histories, and antique photograph collections dating back to the times when locals still rode horse and buggy. It even boasts a large collection of international artifacts from Africa and South America, mostly donated from local history enthusiasts. Over time, the Heritage Room would develop into one of the largest community college repositories in the state, according to the TCC website.
Some of its affiliates, like Fort Worth activist Lenora Rolla, who assisted with research on the Mosier Valley project, would go on to make history themselves. After her work at Heritage, she would establish a museum, named after herself, dedicated to the history of local blacks in Fort Worth.
Kellam said the arhive’s downward spiral began in the 1990s, following the retirement of its founder and driving force, former NE history instructor Duane Gage.
“When he left and retired, it just sort of fell into a state of neglect,” he said. “It had no real institutional support,”
Old filing cabinets, antique bookshelves and a dusty microfilm machine still line an original brick wall.
The paint on the interior, including on a tribute mural commissioned in the 70s, has dulled and all but lost its original color.
Compared to other modernized study spaces in the basement of J. Ardis Bell Library, the archive seems retrograde for 21st century students.
Kellam was brought in by TCC officials in 2011 to help bring the Heritage Room up-to-date. And, he’s spent a majority of the time since just reorganizing the filing system and digitizing material.
“It’s taken me awhile to get things in shape, “ said Kellam.“Now we’re at the point where we can really start getting it out there.”
But, a student population spread across six campuses may prevent many from becoming familiar with a resource confined to NE Campus.
“A lot of students are what they call PCP students: parking lot, class, parking lot,” SE student Somari Tobin said. “You just go to class. You just go to what piques your interest, and that’s it.”
Krista English works as a cataloguer for the district and has helped Kellam create a digital archive that makes copies of material in the archive available online.
“I think faculty are the key to awareness,” she said through email correspondence.
Kellam said he plans to tour the district this fall in an effort to get faculty and admin on board. He’ll make stops at libraries around district showcasing some material from the archive, like a book he’s publishing with TCU that features late 19th century “wanted” posters from the Heritage Room’s Special Collections.
“It functioned for many years as a resource for students,” Kellam said.
But, now its a ghost town.