A Look Into Chatham’s Past: Ella Sullivan’s project shares local history

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A month after graduating from Northwood High School, Ella Sullivan wasn’t taking a vacation.

Instead, she was completing her Girl Scout Gold Award project, which explores the history of Chatham County through 11 notable figures from Chatham’s past.

The project — “A Look Into Chatham’s Past,” completed by Sullivan at the end of July — focuses on promoting community identity.

“I’m always interested in local history. I’ve grown up in Chatham since I was born, and my family’s from around here, too. So I wanted to look into that,” Sullivan told the News + Record. “The issue that I was addressing was loss of community identity in Chatham County, due to new people moving in and not having easy access to resources for culture and history.”

In 2018, Chatham was the sixth-fastest growing county in North Carolina, according to North Carolina Demography, and Sullivan said that growth was a big influence for her project. Many new, and some longtime, residents don’t know about Chatham’s rich history.

Among the figures Sullivan’s project highlights are lauded enslaved poet George Moses Horton, North Carolina’s first female sheriff Mary Myrtle Siler and country musician Charlie Daniels. Featuring an interactive map, short podcasts, biographies and photos, the project highlights historical figures from all across Chatham.

“By highlighting these differences and the impact each of these figures made — whether bad or good — A Look Into Chatham’s Past aims to inspire current residents of Chatham to look at the bigger picture,” Sullivan wrote on the project website. “Just because you live in a rural North Carolina county doesn’t mean you can’t change the world.”

A first year at UNC-Chapel Hill studying journalism, Sullivan wanted to incorporate both history and storytelling in her project, which was the culmination of her 13-year Girl Scout career. The Girl Scout Gold Award — received upon successfully completing a project — is the highest honor a Girl Scout can earn, and the project aims to emphasize a recipient’s betterment of self and ability to improve the world. To qualify, the project must be led and organized by the recipient and should address a unique need in the community.

The completion of Sullivan’s project lined up with Chatham County’s Chatham 250 year-long celebration commemorating the county’s sestercentennial anniversary. Last summer, Sullivan worked as the communications intern with Chatham 250. The group promoted Sullivan’s project upon its completion, linking to it on their site and co-hosting an Aug. 10 presentation on her project.

“Ella has created an impressive multimedia website celebrating notable Chatham County historical figures for her Girl Scout Gold Award,” said Hilary Pollan, community partners analyst with the county manager’s office. “... she’s headed (to) the UNC School of Journalism, and has a promising future ahead of her.”

Including the Aug. 10 presentation, Sullivan has shared her project with community groups three times, and has another presentation lined up for Sept. 5 with the Chatham County Historical Museum.

At times, Sullivan struggled to find the motivation to work on her project, she said, particularly as COVID-19 impacted her school schedule last semester.

“But once I was able to sit down and do it,” she said, “it was definitely worth all the work that I’ve put into it.”

By interacting with Sullivan’s project, people can learn about other notable Chathamites: Simon Green Atkins, who was born in Haywood to two former enslaved people and would become the founder of Winston-Salem State University and the North Carolina Negro Teachers’ Association; James Iredell Waddell, a Lieutenant for the Confederacy born in Pittsboro, and Mildred “Mama Dip” Edna Cotton Council, a southern chef and entrepreneur born in the Baldwin township.

After more than 80 hours of research, writing, recording, podcast editing and web design later, Sullivan is proud of her work. Now, she hopes people will continue to learn from it.

“I hope they learn at least a little bit about Chatham’s history and maybe one person in specific,” she said. “And also realize that there are resources online to learn about your local community. It’s definitely harder to learn about the local community, but I think that ‘A Look Into Chatham’s Past’ and other local organizations are a great resource for learning about local history.”

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.

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