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Of Oral Histories and Obituaries: Reflections on My Summer Internship

Will Schwartz is a junior at Durham Academy.  He joined us here at the Southern Oral History Program as a volunteer this summer.  We were delighted to have him.  He helped us tackle a thorny problem—figuring out if there were interviews in our collection that had been closed to researchers long ago, but could now be opened up.  His hard work and dedication made a real difference and we are so glad that he helped make more of our treasure trove of voices available to those who want to listen.  The following is Will’s thoughtful reflection on his summer here.

I am a sixteen year old rising Junior at Durham Academy. I wanted to volunteer with the Southern Oral History Program (SOHP) at UNC because I am interested in history, and because I found the idea of oral history to be an intriguing format for learning about the subject. A lot of my work here was centered around sorting through the archives of the SOHP to find out what interviews could be opened. Through this experience, I learned a lot about the history of town, my state, and political parties.

Opening an interview means making it available to everyone. Interviewees often request that their interviews remain closed until a certain date or until after their death. My research involved finding if interview subjects were still alive. Though it did involve looking at lots of semi-depressing obituaries, this was a very enjoyable experience. By looking through obituaries I read many touching messages, read what hobbies and interests people had in the past, and saw what people are remembered for after their death. Along the way I learned a lot about American history in general, but especially about North Carolina and my town, Chapel Hill. This experience has given me a new appreciation for my town, and taught me about both the positive and negative aspects of its past. I heard about the social splits in the town and even about segregation of the schools. For example, when looking for identifying traits to look up to see if someone was still alive, I looked at the transcript of an interview about the relationship between the students at Lincoln High School and Chapel Hill High School when the schools were segregated.

After finding which interviews could be opened, I got the opportunity to listen to one of the interviews to see the fruits of my labor. The interview was of Hamilton Horton, a state senator in the North Carolina General Assembly. This interview took place on December 18, 1973. It covers such issues as the role of religion in politics, political realignment, conservative philosophy, and the North Carolina Republican Party.  

This interview was a very interesting opportunity to hear differences in the meaning of words between now and the 1970s.One example of how a word’s meaning has changed is progressive. Progressive has now taken on a meaning of liberal. However, in the 1970s when this interview was done, it clearly did not have this connotation as Senator Horton, a conservative, used the word to describe North Carolina in the context of being called the most organized and economically developed state in the South. For example, Senator Horton says that “South Carolina, which I think in many ways is more progressive than we, has far surpassed us in such things as energy acquisition . . . I don’t think our leadership has been especially imaginative or strong in trying to address our problems. We just keep saying, ‘oh, we’re the most progressive Southern state,’ and then don’t do anything progressive.” Clearly progressive meant addressing problems effectively and creatively in this context, and did not have the liberal connotations that it has today.

Senator Horton describes a time when those who had extreme political views were considered, as he calls them, “kooks.” Horton explains that often a conservative and a liberal can reach the same conclusion on any given issue, just that they would arrive at this conclusion by taking different routes. He describes conservatism as a philosophy that values the continuation of civilization, gives preference to existing institutions, and puts the burden of proof on people proposing new ideas. At this time the two political parties had already realigned, but were not yet as disparate in their views as they are today. Senator Horton makes a very good case for having a system in which there is such diversity of political opinions within the parties. Hamilton Horton cites the example of South American countries as what happens when political parties are too opposed. He says that the parties there are “180 degrees opposed to each other” and this makes cooperation very difficult. He wants to keep a system in which both parties have some liberals and some conservatives, even if overall the party may lean more in one direction.

It was also interesting to hear in what political issues religious groups were involved in the 1970s. Horton says in the interview that religious groups were not very involved in issues such as abortion and capital punishment. He says that they were more involved in issues concerning alcohol. He says that this surprised him, as he believes the former issues are more pertinent to churches. I found this interesting as now it seems like a given that abortion would be one of the issues in which churches are most politically involved. This shows that there has been a change concerning in which issues religious institutions are involved in the not-too-distant past. I found listening to an interview to be a very enjoyable way to learn about this aspect of religious involvement in politics. It was much preferable to simply reading or listening to a summary of the historical events.

During my time at the SOHP I also attended the final day of the workshop that SOHP lead for secondary school teachers about the use of oral history in their lessons. I think incorporating oral history into any teacher’s lessons would be a great idea. After learning about North Carolina politics through the interview of Senator Horton I see the full potential of oral history as a great way to get a first hand take on historical events.

This experience has been a very interesting way to learn about oral history and the history of the American South. I am very gratified that I was able to help to make more of the SOHP’s interviews available. This was a great opportunity to learn about my home state and town, and it was a pleasure to be exposed to this technique of studying history.

By Will Schwartz