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Righting the Past: Preserving History Through Obituaries

June 6, 2023 | Brandy Gottlieb |

J.T. & Mary L. Spann, courtesy University Archives and West Florida History Center

Ancient traditions hold that everyone dies twice. The first time is when their heart stops beating. The second time is the last time their name is ever mentioned. 

“Righting the Past” is working to preserve the memory and dignity of those who passed by writing obituaries for local citizens who never received them. The model used by “Overlooked,” a similar project published by the New York Times, launched in 2019, served as an inspiration for “Righting the Past.” 

The project was a natural collaboration for historians who have been working on local history for a number of years. Dr. Jamin Wells, UWF associate professor of history, said, “We've been working together for a while and this was a great opportunity for us to share these stories with a broader audience.” 

The project, which began in January 2023, will include approximately 25 obituaries with one being published every two weeks. The features will continue to appear in the Pensacola News Journal’s Sunday editions through January 2024. The obituaries’ publications will serve as permanent historical records. 

According to Wells, the features are “loosely framed” as obituaries. For some of the deceased, he said, a lot of information remains. For others, there are only fragments. For the latter, the contributions depend on the context and historical points of known data to develop the obituary. 

Robin Reshard, local historian, is one of the team’s project editors. Of her involvement, she said, “It is pretty cool to research, write, edit, and celebrate the lives of these men and women.  I am honored that their descendants trust us to write about the past and always pray that we get it right for the future.” 

 “It is pretty cool to research, write, edit, and celebrate the lives of these men and women. I am honored that their descendants trust us to write about the past and always pray that we get it right for the future.” - Robin Reshard 

Reshard shared the story of Mary A. E. Higgins, a retired school principal and teacher, who was born in 1855 and died at 91. 

In addition to the team of local historians, community leaders have also been invited to write. Councilwoman Teniadé Broughton, who also serves as team editor, wrote the feature of John Sunday, Civil War veteran and prominent citizen. Other contributors have included Mayor D.C. Reeves, Quint Studer, Scott Satterwhite and UWF students. The project has also partnered with area organizations and historical societies such as the National Park Service, Gulf Islands and Pensacola Lighthouse and Maritime Museum.

Joe Vinson is a ‘23 UWF alum who recently received an M.A. in History with a specialization in public history. He said that last spring, Councilwoman Teniadé Broughton first mentioned the idea for this project to him and he is glad to see it come to fruition. “It's been a pleasure working with this amazing group and learning the stories of these individuals whose lives and achievements were not widely told.” 

He had already been conducting research into Walker W. Thomas, wondering why this dynamic young man disappeared from newspaper records after 1920. Vinson found a death certificate that indicated Thomas had passed from tuberculosis in 1921 while residing in New York. Of Thomas, Vinson said he “felt a real sorrow that his story was cut short.” Vinson’s article appeared in the May 8th PNJ publication. 

Reshard sums up the heart and intent of the project.

“The ‘Righting the Past’ project is an amazing opportunity for our collective community to learn and celebrate the lives of those who contributed to the development and growth of Northwest Florida.  I hope that by reading these obituaries, others will see and understand the rich experiences that have been overtly and covertly left out of history -- and that their hearts and minds will be moved to advocate for change in how we tell our stories in history books, historical organizations, archives and collections, the media and in our families. 

Read more about ‘Righting the Past’ at the Pensacola News Journal. 

Learn more about UWF’s History programs at