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Oral Historians, Seize the Interview!

Author: Rob Shapard, SOHP Field Scholar

It’s usually the act of recording an interview with an interesting person that reminds me of the value of oral history, such as the chance it provides to add meaningful voices to the historical record. But every once in a while, this value is highlighted by an interview that has not actually happened, and never will.

This was my experience recently when I indulged in a detour from my dissertation-writing to read about a man named William Cicero Hammer. A key figure in my dissertation, forester and Raleigh native William W. Ashe, wrote to Hammer in 1925, hoping to influence his thinking on forestry issues. Ashe cared what Hammer thought because Hammer was a member of Congress, and also the owner and editor of the local newspaper in Asheboro, N.C. I became curious about Hammer and soon found an entry for him in the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, edited by UNC professor emeritus William S. Powell.

W.C. Hammer was born near Asheboro in 1865, just a few weeks before the end of the Civil War. He attended UNC and became a public-school teacher and then an attorney. He went on to win local office in Asheboro, serve as a U.S. attorney, and hold a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat from 1920-30. Hammer bought his local newspaper in 1891 and renamed it the Asheboro Courier, which he and his wife owned for some forty years. While in Congress, Hammer tried to stay connected to the newspaper business. But in fact, his wife, Minnie Lee Hancock Hammer, gradually began to run the paper and the couple’s other business interests, according to the dictionary entry, written by Kay M. Hamilton. She also did things like give a Fourth of July speech in 1930 for her husband, when he was too ill to appear. W.C. Hammer died two months after that speech, and Minnie Hammer was asked to serve the rest of his congressional term. She declined the office and stayed in Asheboro to focus on family, church, and business.

By that point in my reading, W.C. seemed interesting enough, but Minnie really was the fascinating figure to me. The dictionary had a separate entry on Minnie Hammer that told how she graduated from Salem College at age 19, married, and began serving her church in many capacities, such as president for twenty-five years of the Woman’s Missionary Society of the N.C. Annual Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church, and the first woman on the executive committee of the unified General Conference of the Methodist church. She proposed the creation of the Methodist Protestant Children’s home, which was built in Denton and relocated to High Point in 1913, and she was a leader in establishing High Point College ten years later. Hammer also was president of several local clubs in Asheboro for many years and dubbed by others in the town as “Asheboro’s First Citizen.” She continued to run the Courier before selling it in 1938. She lost her only child, Harriette Lee Hammer Walker, in 1943, and Hammer passed away in 1959 at age eighty-five.

I found myself grateful for these tidbits about Minnie Hammer’s life, but also disappointed that her memories and perspective on her life were permanently out of reach. I wished she were available to speak for herself about some of these experiences and what they meant to her. In other words, I wished that she could sit down for a couple of hours and record an oral history. How would she look back on the course of her life and make sense of it? How did she experience world-changing events like the two world wars, the Great Depression, and the beginnings of the civil rights movement? As a white woman in the South during these decades, what limitations did she face, and what opportunities? Many more questions arise. The dictionary gives hints about how she might answer such questions, but hearing Minnie Hammer’s memories directly from her would have been fascinating, and an invaluable glimpse into her life and times.

As an oral historian, I find it helpful to be reminded that meaningful lives like Minnie Hammer’s end every day, and a lasting, first-person account of these lives usually escapes us. This awareness probably is the most powerful source of urgency in our work. Time always is short for connecting with people and preserving their stories. And for non-historians, let this spur you on as well. If you have a cherished family member, friend, or local figure who is willing to talk, seize the opportunity to record their stories, and give them the gift of your attention.