UNC Charlotte instructor to make history at Levine Museum

Brenda Tindal, a Charlotte native and PhD candidate who teaches at UNCC, will succeed the retiring Tom Hanchett at the Levine Museum of the New South.
Brenda Tindal, a Charlotte native and PhD candidate who teaches at UNCC, will succeed the retiring Tom Hanchett at the Levine Museum of the New South. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

Levine Museum of the New South will announce Monday the appointment of a new historian, only the second to occupy the post since it opened its Seventh Street center in 2001.

Brenda Tindal, a Charlotte native and PhD candidate who teaches at UNC Charlotte, will succeed the retiring Tom Hanchett.

“I’m in love with what I do,” said Tindal. “You have to do the things that give you oxygen. History gives me oxygen.”

Tindal, 34, the antithesis of the graybeard historian stereotype, said she applied for the job because joining the Levine in a lead role was a career dream.

“I saw the job announcement and couldn’t help myself,” she said. “One thing I like to say about museums is there’s never a poverty of imagination, and that’s certainly true of the Levine.”

‘I’m in love with what I do. You have to do the things that give you oxygen. History gives me oxygen.’

Brenda Tindal

Tindal’s appointment signals a new era of leadership at the museum, which is also losing Emily Zimmern, its president, to retirement. A search committee is hunting for a successor to Zimmern, president since 1995 when the Levine was a fledgling museum without a permanent home.

With the job comes the mantle of being Charlotte’s most prominent public historian and one of the leading voices in the profession in the Southeast.

“Charlotte has many prominent historians, but they tend to be working hard within an academic setting,” said Hanchett, who joined the Levine in 1999 and became the go-to expert about Charlotte for national media during the Democratic National Convention. “Given the museum’s long commitment to having a PhD, Brenda becomes the city’s most prominent public historian.”

Hanchett said Tindal has been earning a national reputation as a young scholar on the rise, getting invited to historical conferences in the United States and internationally.

“She is a warm, listening person who cares deeply about making history connect to people today,” Hanchett said.

Zimmern said Tindal’s deep connection to the city – she grew up here, graduating from Independence High School, and returned after her advanced-degree programs at Emory University in Atlanta – was one thing that set her apart from others.

“We think Brenda’s tops in all of our categories, a brilliant young scholar,” said Zimmern. About 50 candidates were initially considered.

“She has a passion for public history – a commitment to public history as well as the skill set – and someone with a great collaborative spirit.”

Zimmern said the museum’s board did not want to wait until a new president was named to fill the historian post. They wanted the new historian to have time to work with Hanchett, who is leaving at the end of the year.

Zimmern plans to depart at the end of October. Steve Bentley, the Levine’s chief operating officer, will take over as acting president until a permanent replacement is named, probably in the first quarter of 2015.

“We’ll have new team Levine,” Zimmern said. “I think that’s good. …

“Tom and I are both Boomers. Our educators are so young and creative and using new media and new approaches. As you think about how you engage younger people in history, having someone of their generation is a better way to get at all of that.”

Young bookworm

Tindal grew up on the north side and the Pineville area. Her mother was a nurse at Carolinas Medical Center and her father was in the paper manufacturing business. Both still live here, as does her older sister. Tindal’s twin sister lives in Durham.

When she’d get lost as a child, her parents wouldn’t go searching the neighborhood. They’d first look upstairs, where they’d usually find her curled up with a book or encyclopedia.

She loved the debate team in high school and was planning to become an attorney when she went to UNC Charlotte as an undergraduate political science major.

That changed when she started going to an urban U.S. history course taught by associate professor Gregory Mixon her sophomore year.

“I got goosebumps sitting in that class for the first time,” Tindal said. “That was a Eureka! moment.”

She switched to history studies and was admitted to the McNair Scholars Program, which prepares promising students for graduate studies.

Fun or archives?

One weekend the McNair scholars were at Emory University. They were planning a break at Six Flags amusement park, said Jeffrey Leak, a UNCC English professor and faculty president.

Tindal asked if she could skip Six Flags and spend the day in Emory’s archives, Leak said.

“To that point and since, I’ve never had a student make that request,” said Leak. “I knew then that she’s going somewhere and going to do transformative things.”

Tindal spent the day in archival bliss, exploring the papers of Louise Thompson Patterson, who founded the Harlem Suitcase Theater with Langston Hughes.

Back to the library

When Tindal started in American Studies at Emory in 2005 while pursuing her post-graduate degrees, she landed a job back at the library and worked her way up to manuscripts and rare books.

She helped organize the newly-acquired papers of Alice Walker, whose novel “The Color Purple” won the Pulitzer Prize.

“They were unsorted. Going through the boxes, the material that no one had gone through, was so exciting.”

After that project, she worked with the papers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Andrew Young.

She continued her archival work during a fellowship at Princeton University, working with the university’s public policy collection.

Levine’s mission

One hallmark of the Levine Museum is that it has never been a “shiny penny” institution that hews to a traditional, upbeat narrative of history. It is nationally known for exploring uncomfortable, unpleasant truths about the post-Civil War South with exhibitions that have focused on such topics as lynchings and the struggle for school desegregation.

‘She is committed to telling a story from multiple perspectives, and I think that’s what the Levine Museum of the New South is about. There’s not one story line; people make history from a variety of perspectives.’

Levine historian Tom Hanchett

“That’s one of the things that made her an appealing candidate,” Leak said. “Her work fits into the mission and purpose of what the Levine has been.”

Hanchett cites her dissertation research as evidence of that. Tindal has focused on the activism of the wives of martyred civil rights leaders – Coretta Scott King, Myrlie Evers and Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X.

Tindal said she expects to continue the Levine’s mission.

“This place is the exemplar of courageous inquiry,” she said. “History is not about victors. History is about blemishes. This museum is not afraid to inquire into those blemishes.”

Brenda Tindal

Age: 34.

Education: BA history and Africana studies, UNC Charlotte, 2004; MA American studies, Emory University, 2010; PhD, history and culture, Emory, expected this fall.

Present: Teaches four courses as a lecturer at UNCC.

Past association with the Levine: Researcher and assistant on the exhibit “Courage: The Carolina Story That Changed America;” researcher on “Purses, Platforms & Power.”