Visitors to Greensboro can now learn some of the city’s lesser-known history while walking around downtown—no pamphlets or tour guides required.

Say you walk past a vacant storefront on South Elm Street. It’s been empty for years yet there is a brand new QR code (one of those black and white boxes with the squiggly lines inside) pasted onto the window. Scan the code with your smartphone and you’ll see that this spot used to be Fordham’s Drug Store, one of the first businesses on that street. You can browse through old photos, learn about the old-fashioned soda fountain and the local celebrities who worked there, and leave your own comment or question.

“History is right here under our feet, if we just scratch the surface a little bit,” says Lorraine Ahearn, a UNC journalism PhD candidate who helped make this innovation possible.

Ahearn, a successful reporter and columnist, believes journalists have a lot to offer the world of research. She enrolled in a digital humanities class where she was assigned to a team working on a public history project about downtown Greensboro. As a newspaper reporter who had spent 20 years living and working in Greensboro, Ahearn brought a lot of local knowledge to the table.  

Six public history grad students at UNC-Greensboro had spent the previous semester amassing huge amounts of city data—digital photos, oral histories, public records, and census data—but they didn’t have a platform to organize and present all the information.  They turned to the Digital Innovation Lab at UNC-Chapel Hill and the Main Street, Carolina platform. Ahearn acted as a liaison for the UNC-G students, and became instrumental in the production of the website—assisting with the design, writing the copy, and fact-checking everything.

Main Street, Carolina allows history curators to integrate multimedia content into historical maps of cities and towns across North Carolina. Overlapping maps from different time periods illustrate the changes across a city over the decades. Viewers can click on a map of Greensboro in 1896 and then click on a map of the city in 1919 to see what changes took place between those decades. “It would take whole pages of text to explain how much the city changed over those years,” Ahearn says. “But here you can just see it with a single click.”

In addition to interactive maps, the website is home to a collection of oral histories. Part of the work of the UNC-G students included recording interviews with Greensboro residents. “They weren’t just going to the library archives and amassing known, documented history,” Ahearn says. “They were looking for things that had not been documented—peoples’ memories.”

These oral histories help to preserve the histories of structures that no longer stand. The Edgeworth Female Seminary School, for example, was established by John Morehead and once stood at the corner of Edgeworth and West Market Streets. “He had five daughters and there was no school in Greensboro to educate them, so he started his own school,” Jim Schlosser said. Though the school burned down in 1872, the grounds remained a special place for young women, and particularly young couples. “A lot of guys used to take their girlfriends to walk around the ruins of the school, and court them there,” Schlosser said. Fittingly, the Kathleen Bryan YMCA is now located there. You can listen to Schlosser’s interview, read newspaper articles, and see old drawings of Edgeworth Female Seminary on the website.   

Windows to the Past is not only a new way to make Greensboro’s history more accessible and relevant to the general public; it’s also a strong tool for researchers. “Back in the day, if you wanted to do a comparative study, you used to have to go from library to library and go through rolls of microfilm,” Ahearn says. “But more and more we have this digital capacity. We can do bigger studies in much shorter amounts of time.”  

Lorraine Ahearn is a Ph.D. candidate and Roy H. Park Fellow in the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She received a Graduate Education Advancement Board Impact Award for her contributions to Windows to the Past: People, Places and Memory in Downtown Greensboro.