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Posts from the ‘community engagement’ Category

On Making History

This guest blog post was written by Karida Brown, Founder and Principle Investigator of The Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project

History is made.

Being party to, or even sharing, the story of “what happened” is not enough. History requires access to the venues and institutions through which stories can enter the public sphere. What I am suggesting is that there is a certain legitimacy that comes along with being “out there”, on the record. Think about that one sensational story that circulates in your own family about a relative who did something grand back in the day—a grandfather who was an alleged spy for the CIA, an uncle who was secretly Martin Luther King’s best friend and confidant, a great-grandmother who passed for black or white but was actually full-blood Cherokee. Although they are often quite captivating, these stories only have currency in the private sphere, for they belong to the families, friends and communities that share a connection with them. And the traces of “what happened” are often embodied in repertoire: casual storytelling, song, dance, gestures, jokes, silences, and repetition. But they do not necessarily become a part of history.

In my own work I have come to think a lot about how some people’s experiences comes to earn the status of history—a public artifact—while other folk’s lives and memories remain private goods—invisible, tenuously believable, and slippery in hands of history.

Here’s an example. My research is based on the African American experience in and through Appalachia. When I turned to the archive, the media, and to the historical record to get started on my scholarly journey, I was disappointed to find a bounty of imbalanced representations of the white, toothless, backwards mountaineer, a trope that has continued to titillate the American imagination when it comes to the people of Appalachia. But where were the black folks? In fact, I personally knew Appalachia to be a diverse place that embodied a long history of Native American, European, Jewish, and recently Asian, Latino and Indian migrations. I knew about this diversity because my own mother and father were born in “bloody Harlan County,” an infamous coal mining community in the Appalachian region of southeastern Kentucky. And, like the thousands of other families in their community at the time, they were the children of black coal miners. Yet the disparaging image of the hillbilly persists. It was through these early encounters with the archive that I learned that history is largely a matter of who has the pen: Who gets to make history? Who gets to write about whom? And on what terms?

This is why I became an oral historian.

I took up the challenge of reconstructing the rich history of the African Americans who lived and worked in the company-owned coal towns of eastern Kentucky during the first half of the 20th century. As a descendant of coalminers’ sons and daughters, I was already familiar with many of the African American families, stories, and traditions that were associated with the region. But if there was to be a history of this experience, we had to make it.


EKAAMP interview #88 with Richard “Bo” Chapman in Lynch, KY | June 24th, 2014

Oral history was the only way to go about accomplishing this goal. I got an old-school Marantz plug-in audio recorder and hit the road. I of course went back to Harlan County to interview the few folks who still lived there, but due to the precipitous decline of the coal mining industry in the mid 20th century, few black families remain in the region. So I spent the last two years traveling across the country, from Newington, CT to San Jose, CA and everywhere in-between, conducting oral history interviews with the descendants of black coal miners from eastern Kentucky. I found that my participants were living archives.

Now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, they not only lived through the experience of growing up as black children in Appalachia, they also witnessed, lived, and were party to some of the greatest transformations of the 20th century—events such as the African American Great Migration, school desegregation, the urbanization of the American city, the pre- and post-Civil Rights era, and the election of the first black President. I learned early on that if I really wanted to get their story right, I had to learn to listen.

Listening is not a passive act. It requires sincerity, energy, care and humility (a practice that is easier said than done for us academics who are in the business of being know-it-alls). Listening is an act of giving. This was a game-changing epiphany for me, because it made me question my role as a researcher. Who was really in charge here? Oral history opened up the space for my participants and I to co-create historical records through relationship. As opposed to sharing a document to convey “what happened,” the participant becomes the author of his or her own history through storytelling—sharing moments of success and triumph, disappointment and shame, turning points, drama, and regrets. In my opinion, oral history is the most capacious instrument for capturing the complexity, and the sheer messiness, of life.

ekaamp dinner

EKAAMP Dinner at Love House, April 2015

Over 200 interviews later, I finished my cross-country oral history spree, and have since turned my attention to working on my first book manuscript about Kentucky’s coal camp blacks. But the oral histories I collected are way too good to keep to myself. History is a public artifact, right? So in 2013, I founded the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project (EKAAMP) in partnership with the Southern Historical Collection here at UNC Chapel Hill. Through this partnership we embarked on the journey of forming one of the institution’s first participatory archives—a practice through which communities take an active role in transmitting their history through archival preservation. In two short years, EKAAMP has blossomed in into a thing of its own. In addition to the collection of oral history interviews that I recorded for the project, individual participants have donated thousands of documents, photographs, and objects to the collection to ensure that their contributions to Appalachian and American history would not die with them. To that end, the EKAAMP collection will be made available to the public through the Southern Historical Collection at Wilson Library here in Chapel Hill.

Together, we made history.

Lumbee History Service-Learning Research Projects

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During the Spring 2015 semester, students in SOHP director Malinda Maynor Lowery’s HIST234: Lumbee History course completed four service-learning research projects in collaboration with partners and mentors on- and off-campus, including SOHP staff. We’re excited to share their finished products here:

Other collaborative partners include the Southeast American Indian Studies Program at UNC Pembroke and the North Carolina Collection at Wilson Library.

Work on Desegregation

This blog post was written by intern Samantha Gregg

“I didn’t care about wanting it for the mix, but I wanted it for equal rights. I wanted my children to have equal rights. If they would give me equal rights over here, I wouldn’t think about going over there.” – Vennie Moore on the integration of schools in Davidson, North Carolina.

As a “mining the archives” intern for the SOHP, I’ve spent hours this semester listening to first-hand accounts of the desegregation of North Carolina schools. I have heard the voices of students, teachers, athletic coaches, administrators, parents, community members, and church leaders as they relive their past, describing their views, involvement, and experiences with integration. I’ve come to especially appreciate the quote above by Vennie Moore because I feel it has captured much of what I have learned through these interviews: though the previous policy had been separate but equal, African American educational opportunities and facilities were nothing close to equal; not everyone was in support of integration for the same reasons, if they were in support at all; there was hesitation and fear by all involved; there was a fear by African Americans that their heritage and traditions would be covered, not combined, by the history of previously white schools.

Why? The reasons for integration were many: Brown v. Board of Education’s overturning of the separate but equal policy, a desire to correct the unfair institution that had defined the North Carolina school systems, like the rest of the United States, for far too long, or, like Vennie Moore, the knowledge that this was the only way African Americans would be able to truly have an equal opportunity for education.

How? Turbulence; outstanding individuals; understanding; danger; compromise; a driving sense of morality: these are just a few words that describe the integration of North Carolina schools. Though morally correct, the process of integration was difficult to navigate for everyone involved, having little precedent to follow. It was only through the excellence of understanding students, teachers, administration, and community members, the unifying power of athletics, and inspiring people’s refusal to settle for anything other than equal conditions any longer that made integration possible.

These are the reasons that I have come to love oral history as an intern with SOHP. The larger historical story of desegregation brushes over the different reasons integration was desired, the different ways in which it was achieved, and all the problems that continued to arise during and after integration, continuing today. As the SOHP’s mantra states, “you don’t have to be famous for your life to be history.” Though the interviews I’ve spent this semester listening to are not with celebrities, I have learned more about different viewpoints, experiences, reasoning, a

nd minority experiences than any textbook or major publication could present me with. This is what I have come to understand the value of oral history as in my time here: a way to preserve the differing experiences of all types of people in order to gain a full understanding of historical event.


Samantha Gregg

SOHP Mining the Archives Intern

Class of 2015

Giving Back and Oral Histories

The academic year is almost at its end, but the work of the Southern Oral History Program keeps its steady pace. In January, I began as a field scholar mostly clueless about the project on which I was working. Now, after a few months gaining perspective in the workroom, I anticipate a summer spent collecting oral histories for the “Black Roads” project.

Though eager to get out into the field, I am glad to have spent months working on better understanding the importance of the Southern Oral History Program. I have edited new transcripts and listened to many oral histories while simultaneously planning for summer fieldwork. My plans for this summer with Dr. Seth Kotch are shaped by the quality of the oral histories in the collections. We hope to expand the digital humanities aspect of the Program by video-recording onsite interviews for a web component in addition to collecting traditional oral histories. As we investigate issues of race and space in rural North Carolina, we consult an advisory board of transportation scholars, geographers, and noted experts of the rural south. With much excitement surrounding the project, I question the impact our efforts will have on the communities and people with which we work.

As a social scientist, I am concerned with improving the communities I research. Just a few weeks ago, I attended a brown bag presentation at the Institute for African American Research where my concern was substantiated. Leaders of the presentation reported that communities and individuals in them often feel let down by academics who come in and leave without giving anything (whether it be a gift card or a relationship) to the people being researched. As I sat in on the discussion that followed the presentation, I considered what I could do to in interest of having people who I interview feel good about working with me.

After listening to oral histories here at the SOHP, I realize that for many, the opportunity to share stories and have others listen may be of unquantifiable importance. The value that sharing has is noticed, and unfortunately, the SOHP often has to turn down solicitations for oral history projects due to a lack of time and resources.

As I get closer to going into the field, I hope to be mindful of how I operate as a researcher concerned with doing good. However, I will also be mindful of how great it can feel to to have your story recorded and shared.

First Annual NC Women’s Summit Connects Oral History to Policy Challenges

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SOHP founding Director Jacquelyn Hall (on far left) moderated and Field Scholars Brittany Chavez (third from left) and Joey Fink (second from right) participated on panel addressing “How We Can Create a Fair Economy for Women.” Picture credit: Megapixie

150 women from all over the state of North Carolina rose from their seats to applaud six UNC undergraduates, the first cohort of Moxie Scholars. The Moxies, as they are affectionately known, had just finished their original performance, “Every Time I Move, I Make a Women’s Movement.” Based on the oral histories they had collected as part of the Moxie Project: Women and Leadership for Social Change, the performance represents a collective reflection on feminist history and activism. The students’ passion, creativity and talent brought the entire audience of the First Annual North Carolina Women’s Summit to their feet—and tears to many of their eyes.

The Moxie Scholars performance was just one highlight among many at the summit, titled “Ms. Behaving: How North Carolina Women Make History. Rachel Seidman, Southern Oral History Program Associate Director, originally conceived of the summit and planned it in cooperation with Women AdvaNCe. The goal of the summit was to translate knowledge into action by putting oral history and other types of academic research in dialogue with practitioners. This dialogue educated, empowered and inspired the North Carolina women in the audience to take specific steps to address the challenges facing them and their families. Three panels addressed major questions that formed the basis for an overarching call to action: “How Do We Ensure Women’s Health?” “How Can We Protect Public Education?” and “How Do We Create a Fair Economy for Women?”

Drawing on historical evidence, panelists discussed striking changes in the role of women in North Carolina. Panelists explained how, dating back to the early 20th century, the state was once a national leader in protecting citizens’ health, providing public education, and investing in the public good. But over the last three decades, state-level policy changes have eroded the prospects of women and children. We now rank 47th in the country in key indicators of women’s health; teachers’ salaries have dropped from 24th in the nation to 48th; and currently half of single mothers in North Carolina live in poverty.

Panelists and moderators, including SOHP Founding Director Jacquelyn Hall and Field Scholars Joey Fink and Brittany Chavez, also provided specific recommendations for making progress. When asked who in the state was representing the interests of Latinas, Brittany directed the audience to the exciting and important work being done by youth-led organizations including Southerners on New Ground. She also encouraged the audience to explore the work being done by SOHP partner Hannah Gill, Director of the Latino Migration Project at UNC, and the program she oversees called Building Integrated Communities, a statewide initiative whose mission is to help “North Carolina local governments successfully engage with immigrants and refugee populations in order to improve public safety, promote economic development, enhance communication, and improve relationships.“ Audience members were encouraged to write letters to the editor, register voters, and volunteer for organizations. When a single mother of three children, struggling to make ends meet, asked how she could get involved with only two hours a week to spare, she was encouraged to realize what “a gift” two hours per week would be to organizations that desperately need her help.

Audience members came from around the state, including Charlotte, Robeson County, and Greensboro, and many said they got just what they were looking for from the event. Joey Fink reported, “From what I saw, the day served many, many of the women present so well, and will be an important first step in new networks and organizing efforts.” Danielle Koonce from Raleigh tweeted: “WomenAdvaNCe’s Summit has me pumped up. Going to use my pen as my sword. Ignorance is killing us.” Deborah Locklear posted on Women Advance’s Facebook page, “Thank You for the opportunity to attend such an empowering event. The knowledge and friendships will be utilized and cherished! Awesome group of Women!!!”

Mapping the Long Women’s Movement Launches

The new site, which allows users to navigate oral histories in new ways, aims to encourage discovery and listening.

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The Jackson Center

Interviews with Marian Cheek Jackson led to the creation of the Jackson Center for Saving and Making History.

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