Inside the James E. Shepard Library, just before entering into the office of Andre D. Vann, coordinator of university archives, you notice black and white portraits that date back to the early 1900s.
In a showcase table there are depictions of the African-American experience, especially as it played out in the American South. There are photographs of NAACP and CORE marches – all engaged in the struggle for improved working conditions and the desegregation of Durham’s public facilities. Above that is another photograph of a march in Chapel Hill. Its caption reads: “walk/freedom.”
Then there’s the hang sign that bluntly says: “archives.” It all gives you a sense of what Vann is passionate about.
Once in Vann’s office you see a desk covered with books, notebooks and journals. Stockpiles of folders fill his shelves.
Vann isn’t just the coordinator and head of the direction of archives at N.C. Central University. He is what many might call the NCCU’s repository. He recounts a recent telephone call when an NCCU professor opened with these words: “If anybody can answer this question, Mr. Vann can answer this question.”
Vann grew up in Henderson, N.C., where he lived within walking distance of his uncles, aunts, grandparents, and other extended family. His father, Edward, owned a small grocery store. From early childhood Vann learned about the importance of treasuring history and a close community.
“It was my grandparents who introduced me to old pictures of distant cousins and family members,” said Vann.
On top of serving as NCCU’s archivist Vann has published books in the
Arcadia Black America Series that photographically explore the black experience in North Carolina.
“Durham’s Hayti,” (1999), which he co-authored with Beverly Washington Jones, pictorially, with historical photographs, examines Durham’s prosperous and culturally rich Hayti neighborhood — its churches, schools, and businesses.
In “Vance County, North Carolina” (2000) Vann provides a pictorial history of the educational, spiritual, commercial and civic contributions of the county’s black citizens.
“I like to write about people’s lives and their experiences because that’s how we learn and grow,” said Vann. “Most of the time I’m writing about a person or people who have passed away, it’s my task to prepare them for the next generation of people who might not know who those people were or person was.”
Coming from humble beginnings Vann may never have imagined that he would one day become an archivist at a public university where he plays the important role of safeguarding and storing NCCU’s past, both physical and digital. “Well I’ll say I’ve made some milestones, but of course I’m not at that stage yet where I have taken stock for what I have done,” said Vann. “I initially thought I was going be public school teacher.”
Vann describes his role as a “heavy burden,” but one that presents many opportunities to talk and deal with a lot of people that ordinarily he wouldn’t have the chance to meet.