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To History and Beyond

Alumnus James Sorrell’s Bequest to Provide Boost to Public History Program

James Sorrell sitting on bench and dressed in red shirt
James Sorrell, who earned a bachelor's and master's degree in history from NC State, retired from the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

A degree in history can unlock a door to the past — and your future. Just ask alumnus James Sorrell. 

“Even as a child, I enjoyed listening to the adults, particularly those of my grandparents’ generation, talk about their past experiences,” says Sorrell, who landed his first job with the  State Archives of North Carolina as a student at NC State. “A major in history was a perfect fit for me.”

Sorrell spent his 38-year career documenting the state’s history through photographs, audiovisual materials, military papers, maps … you name it. He retired from the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, now the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, in 2014. At the time, he was head of the special collections section and supervised staff at the regional offices in Asheville and Manteo, as well as a team of archivists in Raleigh.

“A knowledge of the history of North Carolina and of the United States is essential,” Sorrell explains. “Archivists must understand how and why records and papers were created — and the circumstances surrounding their creation.”

James Sorrell sitting in chair
Sorrell says the student-faculty ratio in the Department of History allowed for a more individualized academic experience.

He’s now giving back to the place he got his start and helping public history students forge their own paths. Through a recent bequest to the Department of History, Sorrell will support the next generation of curators and chroniclers.

“This gift is an incredibly generous investment in the future of the public history program at NC State,” says David Zonderman, head of the Department of History. “Our students will benefit for generations to come.”

Supporting Our Future

Sorrell’s generous bequest will be used to support a number of initiatives within the program, including student recruitment, assistantships, research support and expenses for enrichment activities such as national conferences and symposiums.

“This graduate program is one of the jewels in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences crown,” he says. 

This graduate program is one of the jewels in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences crown.

When support is provided directly to students, preference will be given to students who have worked in the LGTBQ+ community — or have an interest in LGTBQ+ issues. It’s a cause that hits close to home for Sorrell.

“It seems to me that LGBTQ+ history and the contributions of LGBTQ+ individuals are left out of the historical narrative of this state and of this country,” he says. “It’s important to me, as a member of the community, to make an effort to rectify this situation by preparing archivists, curators, site managers and other professionals to tell our own history and to ensure that this history is included.”

A Premier Program

NC State offers a master’s and doctoral degree in public history. The program, which ranks among the top in the nation, prepares students to work in a variety of public and applied history settings — including historic sites, museums and libraries. They work closely with award-winning faculty in a collaborative, hands-on environment.

“Our nation and world needs public history more than ever,” Zonderman says. “We need to bring historical knowledge, insights and perspectives to bear on so many challenges facing us all today — whether it is climate change, racial justice, economic inequality or protecting democracy itself.”

Sorrell says the program aligns directly with NC State’s mission as a land grant university, and he hopes his support will help take it to another level. 

“They prepare individuals to bring history to all citizens of North Carolina and the nation,” he says. “Let’s make it the best program in the nation, and that takes money.”