Student Discovers Lessons in History and Future through Thesis Research

Charlie Zimmerman sits in front of a bookcase with several materials in front of him. He is reading a book titled "Mud on the Stars."

Fourth-year student Charlie Zimmerman chose his course of study based on a life-long love of storytelling. 

“I have always felt that my love of history comes from the fact that I love to hear stories,” says Zimmerman, a history major specializing in power, culture and society with minors in geography and leadership. 

As an avid listener and lover of stories, Zimmerman was naturally drawn to the work of journalist William Bradford Huie when he conducted a research project for a history course. 

“He constantly writes that he believes in the power of storytelling to change the world. He went so far as to title his unfinished memoir The Story Teller. Ever since I was introduced to his work, I have felt a connection with him.” 

Huie was a Southern journalist who focused on exposing injustice, primarily relating to the civil rights movement. His grandfather fought as a confederate soldier in the Battle of Gettysburg. Becoming disillusioned with the Southern cause after the war, Huie's grandfather raised his son and grandson to resist the Ku Klux Klan and all other remnants of the old Confederacy. Huie’s father was the only white man in the city of Hartselle, Alabama that was not a member of the Ku Klux Klan and imparted values of justice and honesty upon Huie as a child. After attending the University of Alabama, Huie decided that he wanted to fight for justice and create change in the world by becoming a “storyteller.”  

“Huie is best known for his interviews with J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, the murderers of Emmett Till,” said Zimmerman. “After they were acquitted, Huie interviewed them for Look Magazine, during which they admitted to the murder.” 

Zimmerman’s initial research project led to a desire to learn more about Huie and his work. Fortunately, he didn’t have to look far; Ohio State’s Rare Books & Manuscripts Library (RBML) is home to the William Bradford Huie Papers

A close up of the cover page for "The Story Teller" mansucript.

“The Huie Papers are extensive and include manuscripts, publications, correspondence, diaries, photographs, clippings and other material created by or related to Huie,” said Jolie Braun, RBML’s curator of modern literature and manuscripts. “They’re of interest not just to those studying the life and work of this important writer, but also to researchers studying American journalism, social history and the Civil Rights Movement.” 

“I want to produce a thesis where I look at William Bradford Huie’s life through his books,” said Zimmerman. “I am writing about Huie through the lens of a philosophy of ‘honest populism,’ his belief in reporting both the truth and exposing injustice. The Huie Papers include his notes and letters from just about every book he wrote, and I am looking at those in tandem with the books themselves to produce a picture of Huie’s thoughts on each subject he approached.” 

“We’re thrilled that Charlie decided to work with the Huie Papers for his thesis,” said Braun. “Doing archival research can seem a bit mysterious or intimidating if you haven’t done this kind of work before, but it’s really rewarding and fun, as well as an opportunity to develop new skills.” 

Zimmerman said that he has already uncovered several items that illuminate details of the journalist’s life. 

“I was able to connect the events of Mud on the Stars, his fictional semi-autobiographical work, with his real life through his unfinished memoir,” he said. “There are also a ton of interesting documents related to the Emmett Till case, including a contract signed by Milam and Bryant and an account of their confession to Huie.” 

While Zimmerman’s research with the Huie Papers provides a capstone to his undergraduate work, he also noted that his current interactions with the collection will impact his future aspirations. 

“I am planning to attend Vanderbilt University in their M.Ed. of Leadership and Organizational performance program with the eventual goal of working as a leadership consultant,” he said. “My philosophy of leadership is deeply affected by my background in history, and Huie was a leader who I can look up to. He was certainly an imperfect individual, but his courage and resolve to fight for civil rights and justice is something that I have taken many leadership lessons from.” 

When asked about his thoughts on undergraduate research at Ohio State, Zimmerman emphasized the opportunities that University Libraries’ collections provide. 

“Like many students, I had very little idea of the depth of information available in the Special Collections at University Libraries before I began my thesis research,” he said. “Through my studies, I have found that there are an incredible number of high-quality sources available to all students. I would strongly encourage anyone who has a research project to reach out to University Libraries to see if there is relevant information in the Special Collections, as there are a ton of stories waiting to be uncovered in this incredible department.” 

“We love having undergraduates work with our collections,” said Braun. “I’m always happy to talk to students who may interested in learning more about RBML’s holdings and how they might use them.” 

“There have not been many accounts of Huie’s life despite the huge impact he had on the world,” said Zimmerman. “I am hoping to try and do the story of his life justice as I tell it.”