Meet Andre Vann, A Griot For North Carolina’s African American Community

Oct 7, 2019

Andre Vann has always been enchanted by the stories of others. He grew up in a small, tight-knit community in Henderson, N.C. that was founded by his great-great-grandmother. He was rooted to his family history in that neighborhood, surrounded by his relatives and close family friends.

As elders sat on porches and talked about the way things once were, Vann listened intently — and early on, his family took note of his love for history. Vann took that passion and turned it into a career as the coordinator of university archives at North Carolina Central University, where he is also an instructor of public history.
 

Host Frank Stasio talks to the spirited historian about what it was like to grow up in such a close community, what stories are often overlooked in the field and what he plans to do next.

Interview Highlights

Vann on his great-great-grandmother, Rebecca Hawkins, who founded the community he grew up in:

She then conveyed the deeds to my great-grandfather and all his other siblings … And so I told folks she was building expectations — expectations, not just for them, but for the next generation because they can never sell those properties. They had to convey them to their children. So here it is, a woman who had limited literacy skills, but had wonderful business acumen and was smart enough to know that this land could never be sold. And so the property we have today, the deed goes back to the 1890s ... And so that community we call Mobile — that is so emblematic of that work that she believed in: that you own your own — even in the midst of segregation, even in the midst of Jim Crow.

On how being raised in his small community shaped his decision to pursue history:

I think the career chose me. I think that's the best way to look at it. - Andre Vann

I think the career chose me. I think that's the best way to look at it. Having an experience of growing up in that community and being embraced with that history and that culture and past, and understanding really my sense of place.

On the histories he likes to focus on in his research:

History is all about us. And it's all intertwined in our life. No matter where we move, history has a place. And I knew that I could have a way to contribute to that history by, some would say, writing people into history. And that's what I like to do, write people into history whose narrative and story sometimes has not always been told.

On why all four of his books are centered on photographic history:

I use photographs as a very visual manner and way to sort of help tell the story of how African American lives have unfolded in the past. And again, it sort of gets back to the idea of self-image and self-representation … When I look at photographs from the 1880s and 1890s, they are just as revolutionary as someone holding a gun, because they push back against the notion, the ideas that have been built up that African Americans [were] second-class citizens not deserving of basic human rights and dignity ... The photographs help to tell the stories of that self-image and self-representation and the power that comes along with that.