Researching black history has its special challenges, Fred Whitted found.
Chief among them is many blacks didn’t exist — in the official record books, that is — before the Civil War.
“Slaves at that time were just listed as numbers in the census,” Whitted said. “They weren’t listed as people.”
Whitted, a local historian, is in the process of compiling a history of blacks in Fayetteville. The project will update a book that Whitted published 10 years ago. He is trying to fill in the gaps from the first book and detail the achievements of local African-Americans up through the early 21st century.
It’s a task that has taken the researcher to churches, homes of long-time residents and even the Library of Congress.
“When you start looking at what Fayetteville’s real history is, it’s really rich,” said Whitted in an interview at the Family Fellowship Worship Center, where he serves as an elder. “It’s one thing to know about people across the country, but there were movers and shakers here, too.”
Whitted, 55, grew up in Cumberland and Bladen counties. He graduated from Massey Hill High School in 1971. In 1975, he earned a degree in political science and history from Winston-Salem State University.
After working in sales, marketing, coaching and politics, Whitted began a career as a writer and researcher.
A 1995 project to detail the histories of black college towns led to a non-published book Whitted called “Fayetteville: Profiled in Black.” From that research, Whitted compiled a shorter, pictorial history of black Fayetteville.
That 128-page book is part of a “Black America Series” published by Arcadia Publishing in Charleston, S.C. It includes short profiles of local African-American political, sports, military and church figures and historic pictures.
There’s a photo of a carpentry class building a barn in 1916, a picture of the black 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion Airborne Division — the famed “Triple Nickles” — in formation during World War II, and many shots of Fayetteville State University sports teams.
Eric Moore has worked with Whitted on research projects. He believes Whitted’s work is very important, noting that “the African-American community has not had the greatest publicity in terms of positive things.
“Often, history is basically ‘his story.’ If ‘he’ didn’t write it, it didn’t exist,” Moore said. “Fred has kind of taken it upon himself to be the ‘he’ so that he can tell the story.”
A decade after the book was published, Whitted decided it was time for an update.
For the past year, Whitted has been scouring the archives at local churches, libraries, newspapers and schools for pictures and documents. He has interviewed local people, some of them couples who have been married for more than 50 years.
Whitted also visited the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where audio recordings of former slaves are archived. Whitted said the recordings were done as part of a Works Project Administration (WPA) project in the 1930s.
Because they had no birth certificates, he said, many of the blacks recorded on the tapes weren’t even sure exactly how old they were.
“One of the eeriest things in the world is to listen to those old tapes,” Whitted said. “You get to hear people talk about what they went through and their relationships.” Surprisingly, Whitted said, “there is very little animosity.”
Whitted said most of his research dates to the 1796 founding of the city’s oldest existing place of worship for blacks, the church that is now called Evans Metropolitan A.M.E. Zion.
Other than church records, data from that era is hard to come by, Whitted said. “There’s very little history of slaves, except sprinklings here and there, until about 1865,” he said.
But Whitted said there are plenty of local African-Americans about whom details are known. Their stories deserve to be told.
Like rhythm and blues artist Bill Curtis, a Fayetteville native who founded The Fatback Band and toured with Aretha Franklin, among others.
Or William A. “Gus” Gaines, Fayetteville State University’s winningest coach, who revived the school’s sports programs after World War II.
Or Edward Evans, a former slave who served as principal of Fayetteville Graded School for 35 years.
Taken together, Whitted said, the stories create a picture of a people who achieved great things despite sometimes overwhelming odds.
“The biggest thing is all the great things that were done that people don’t talk about,” Whitted said. “So much of the negative is presented, but there are so many more positive images out there if we choose to look for them.”
Whitted said his updated history book should be published in July.
The author said he hopes the finished product leads to a fuller understanding of the community — and not just for African-Americans.
“There are gaps in our history that need to be filled,” Whitted said. “And in filling those gaps, we get to know each other better.”