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Oral History and Chapel Hill’s Gay Community in the 1980s

Written by: Turner Henderson

As you would probably expect, gay history in the US has followed a sporadic and turbulent course. In fact, to approach gay history in a traditional way by studying its documents, events, figures, and contexts pre-mid twentieth century, you would feel severely bereft of much that is substantial. In the words of one gay studies scholar who began his work in the 1970s, gay history is “an area of research for which there was no context, no literature, no definition of issues, and no sources that had ever been tapped.”[1] That description succinctly communicates why gay history is such a difficult field to get a grasp on. Even so, it’s not alone in this regard: as long as there has been history, there have been histories that have been subjugated, smothered, hidden, and hated. So, how do we as students of the past mitigate this problem?

To answer that question, I’d like to take a step back. If there is one thing that I have learned this semester as an intern at the SOHP, it is that oral history is especially valuable in certain situations where traditional historical sources are inadequate. There are countless examples of oral history documenting narratives that remain elusive in mainstream history textbooks. For evidence, just click here and browse through the SOHP’s projects. All people have historical perspectives to share, and collecting the stories from those who have never had the opportunity for their voices to be heard is an unbelievably valuable exercise, and one that seems tailor-made to address issues such as constructing gay histories.

With this in mind, I want to talk about my very first oral history interview. Last month, I sat down with Professor Randall Kenan, a local author and English professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. Professor Kenan, an openly gay African American, attended UNC from 1981 to 1985. Before meeting with him, I had a very loose timeline of gay history in my mind: the sodomy statutes of the 1940s and 1950s, Stonewall in 1969, the Sexual Revolution of the 1970s, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Like I said, it was a pretty loose timeline; there were obvious holes in my understanding, not to mention the fact that I knew little about individual experiences during any of these periods.

Right off the bat, Professor Kenan began to fill in my ignorance with ground-level information about pre-AIDS gay life at UNC. During his time as a student, gay activism was, as he noted pensively, “nascent.” It seems that the Carolina Gay Association was at a low point, with Kenan describing it as having a small membership and an even smaller political influence. In fact, helping me to bridge the period between Stonewall and the outbreak of AIDS, he painted a picture of an era of conservatism, when the Religious Right ran rampant and speaking out about being gay was unquestionably taboo. From listening to Kenan, it seemed clear that the heyday of free love and the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s had ground to a halt, with students such as himself knowing little about the activists and achievements that had come before them.

This idea manifested itself in the gay social scene that Kenan illustrated. In contrast to other interviewee’s description of a somewhat vibrant gay community in Chapel Hill in the 1970s, with gay bars and tea rooms occupying a place in town and on campus, Kenan depicted the lack of a formal social scene, with the bars having migrated to Durham. Striving to fill this void, the gay community met at bookstores and other places scattered around Chapel Hill and Carrboro, including the “Castle” on Friendly Lane, an all-gay male residence that threw parties once or twice a semester. Beyond this, however, Kenan portrayed a rather disjointed gay community, segregated by race and gender.

While living with his white group of gay friends on North Campus, he had to make a concerted effort to head to South Campus to socialize with his black friends. He doesn’t even remember knowing any lesbians. In fact, his characterization of the partitions in his social life led to his espousal of a stark reflection on the nature of being both black and gay in the early 1980s: he, and every other gay black man he knew at the time, had to choose one of their identities over the other. He couldn’t be both black and gay; he had to be either black or gay. This moment struck me as the most powerful of the interview.

For me as a student of history, this predicament faced by gay black men communicated a great deal about the state of gay rights and racial stigma in Chapel Hill: by the 1980s, neither community had been able to advance far enough for someone to be accepted within both simultaneously. There was a clear layering of marginalization. For me as a fellow human being, the fact that this was how things were spoke volumes about what Professor Kenan had gone through on a personal and emotional level. He kept repeating in a disillusioned murmur, “I just thought that was unfair…”

After I had digested the rich complexities that made up the interview, and listened to the whole thing a few times, I was left feeling somewhat frustrated. While I had naively set out to neatly compartmentalize history and bring, as best I could, the story of Randall Kenan and gay black life in the 1980s at UNC to some kind of order, I felt dissatisfaction with my ability to organize a coherent and comprehensive narrative. There wasn’t much gay political activism; gay social life was segregated; and the identities of gay and black could not coexist, at least in the eyes of society. Reality had poked holes in many of the things I thought I knew. I felt like I was lost in what all of this meant, and I was disturbed by a lot of what I had heard.

It took me a while, but eventually I thought to myself, isn’t that the point? After hearing the story of a man who has been doubly marginalized his entire life, whose identities have been repeatedly shoved to the fringes of society and history, shouldn’t I be unsettled? Shouldn’t I be asking questions and criticizing and reflecting? Sure, I knew some things about oral history prior to this interview, but the actual experience of sitting down and documenting someone’s life through their narratives and anecdotes does not allow itself to be composed into a clean and tidy product; how could it? Memory and life and stories get in the way of such a pipedream. But again, that’s the point: Professor Kenan’s memory and his storytelling had done a lot of the historical work for me, stressing what was important to him. And what was important to him is important to history. Listening to him narrate his own life illuminated aspects of gay history that textbooks would have been hard-pressed to reveal.


[1] D’Emilio, John. “Not a Simple Matter: Gay History and Gay Historians.” The Journal of American History 76.2 (1989): 435-442. Print.

“My Talent in Life is Being a Friend”

Written by: Katie Crook

I was a little apprehensive, to say the least. On a Friday afternoon at rush hour, I found myself driving away from the happy little bubble of Blue Heaven to a city with which I had absolutely no familiarity. I was nervous about finding parking, arriving on time, finding the right building. Mostly, I was nervous about my first interview for the Southern Oral History Program. I had no idea what to expect, hoping fervently that my recorder—and backup iPhone—would capture the interview I had anticipated for weeks. I was nervous about how the interview would proceed, what I would say, what he would say. In short, as I waited for Dr. Jim Carmichael to return to his fourth floor office at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, I wished I were back home in the familiar folds of Chapel Hill, with friends on this wintry Friday evening.

What happened next caught me completely off-guard. As I anxiously walked to my interviewee’s office, I caught my first glimpse of him. A small man, he was dressed in a fashionable leather jacket reminiscent of a cowboy, a resemblance echoed by his handlebar moustache. Dr. James Carmichael, an esteemed professor of library history, literally welcomed me into his cozy office with open arms, opting not for a handshake but a full hug. He graciously thanked me for coming to interview him and invited me to take a seat. Instantly, I felt my nerves disappear as we began discussing familiar topics, like the notoriously hellish parking in Chapel Hill. I found myself easing up, even smiling, as I plugged in my recorder and began asking my questions.

As it were, my nerves for this interview proved to be completely unfounded. Dr. Carmichael had me laughing and reminiscing right along with him as he detailed his life’s story, full of colorful characters like himself. Again and again, I was struck by the sincerity of his words and his complete vulnerability. We talked about his substance abuse, his “bizarre” wedding to ex-wife Bunny, the antebellum house he called home, and his road to sobriety. We talked about his lovers, his emotional turmoil, and his subsequent recovery and victory over alcoholism and mental illness. Clearly, my apprehension about interviewing a stranger was not shared by my interviewee, as he seemed to relish this opportunity to express himself.

Dr. Carmichael refused to shy away from sensitive topics, willing to discuss anything from his original rejection from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to the sexual favors he granted to a guard so he could place a phone call from jail. He talked about his lowest point, in the throes of mental illness and at odds with himself and his own sexuality. He discussed his recovery, his discovery of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and the many eccentric friends who helped him along his path to sobriety. In the end, this unassuming professor gave a profoundly honest and touching account of the incredible life he had led.

Dr. Carmichael’s life—as far as I could tell from the two hours I spent interviewing him that February Friday night—is not defined by failures or defeat. His story is one of marked triumph, over illness, abuse, and insecurity. Though he described himself as a “troubled” person as a young man, any trace of that trouble seems to have been replaced by his exuberance and love of life. His love of his family, friends, and cats (yes, his cats) was absolutely infectious, and I left his office wanting only to someday be able to spend more time talking to him about his life. During his interview, Dr. Carmichael said to me, “I think my talent in life is being a friend,” and after listening to two hours of his life story, I can certainly agree. Dr. Carmichael is one of those rare people that we only meet occasionally in our lives—full of life, humility, and a contagious love of all people. I felt truly honored to have met him.

As I was leaving his Greensboro office, I felt honestly disappointed that our interview was complete. As anxious as I had been just hours earlier, my interview with Dr. Carmichael was not only fascinating, but helped put my own life in perspective. I suggested that we should share coffee and more stories the next time Dr. Carmichael finds himself in Chapel Hill, as he often does for research. I sincerely hope he takes me up on my offer.

“When we’re talking about the South, first ask: Whose South?”

Written by: Coco Wilder

Professor Susan Irons posed this question to my Southern Literature class early last year. Its simplicity and truth still resonates. She argued that the idea of  “the South”  invokes a crafted, monolithic narrative of slave owners to segregationists to Bible Belt conservatives. Anyone who actually lives in or studies the South, however, knows it is so much more. I love the Southern Oral History Program because it is committed to documenting the histories of diverse and often overlooked Southerners.

Take Mandy Carter, for example. Carter is a life-long activist and her work ranges from the anti-Vietnam war movement to the Civil and Women’s Rights movements. Because of her race, gender, and sexuality—Carter is an African American lesbian—she experienced isolation  within each movement. After moving to Durham, Carter organized the gay community to vote against Senator Jesse Helms in the 1990 election. In her interview with the Southern Oral History Program, Carter explains the coalition’s strategy and reflects on lessons learned:

“We have to be visible, we have to be viable, and we have to organize a massive voter drive within the gay community….I think the thing we learned was that to strengthen the movement you’ve got to have a combination of electoral and grassroots…It was such a phenomenal thing we did, and even though we didn’t win the election, I mean we won because no one in the state of North Carolina had ever put something together like this before. No one has ever gone after Helms as visibly as we did, so even to this day you’ve got people saying ‘Oh, I can’t believe you did all that.’”

Carter’s interview reveals historic cross-pollination among movements and the urgency of resistance today.  Her interview is a gem, and exemplifies the need for an inclusive historical record. In an effort to broaden the record, my internship class is working to document the Carolina Gay Association and related activism at UNC. Last semester’s interns made great headway into the project, but several of us are now collecting oral histories from lesbians and queer people of color. Carter’s interview sets a great precedent for our research, but we are focusing on students activists this semester.

To get energized about the project, we interns collected a mini group oral history from senior Ping Nguyen about his experiences as a gay Vietnamese immigrant and activist at UNC.  Nguyen exuded passion and love, and he generously reflected on his experiences with racism, sexism, and apathy within the gay community at UNC today. I left questioning how I, as a white queer woman can do better and educate myself about my white, economic, and “passing” privileges. I think  my fellow interns left with a more nuanced understanding of how contemporary queer issues and activism transcends marriage equality campaigns.

On Saturday morning, I ran into Nguyen and SOHP Field Scholar Katie Womble at Historic Thousands on Jones Street in Raleigh (HKonJ). HKonJ puts the “Long” in the SOHP’s Long Civil Rights Movement and Long Women’s Movement archives.  The NAACP coordinated this “Moral March,” along with progressive faith leaders, labor and education unions, women’s organizations and others to demonstrate for a more just North Carolina. This year, HKonJ mobilized crowds to resist legislation that disproportionately affects already under-resourced communities of color. It is estimated that between 80,000 and 100,000 from all across North Carolina marched in protest, including two buses and countless carpools of UNC students. Reverend Barber, a key organizer, referenced the work of Dr. Martin Luther King and Ella Baker and implored the crowd to not just “curse darkness,” but work for light and justice in North Carolina.  Regardless of one’s political persuasion, 100,000 North Carolinians assembling on a cold Saturday morning to non-violently protest is powerful.

I left the march exhausted, inspired, and needing to use the bathroom. As I stood in a long line at McDonalds, I watched older black women and young white women organizing to take over the men’s bathroom. I joined in—nothing makes me happier than women conspiring to occupy the men’s room. One man standing behind me wore dreadlocks and the jacket of a historically black fraternity. He turned to the woman next to him and said, “you know, today was great, but we need to make sure all of us turn out to the polls and vote come November.”

I smiled, reminded of what speaker after speaker that morning had spoken into the microphone: this is not a moment, this is a movement.  Now that’s the South I’m committed to documenting. That’s the South I love.       

SOHP Featured in “Talkback” Panel following Sweet Tea Performance

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 3.02.59 PM

SOHP Associate Director Rachel Seidman and former Interim Director Della Pollock will be featured in a panel discussion about the many uses of oral history following the matinee performance on Sunday, February 16 of E. Patrick Johnson’s play, Sweet Tea.  Join us in this exciting opportunity to hear directly from E. Patrick Johnson, whose interviews with black gay  men and black lesbians of the South will be deposited here at the Southern Oral History Program, and to join in an engaging conversation about oral history and performance.

Jane M Saks and Project& present
SWEET TEA: BLACK GAY MEN OF THE SOUTH
Written and performed by E. Patrick Johnson
Directed by Joseph MegelBased on his award-winning book, E. Patrick Johnson stars in this new one-man exploration into the southern black gay community. A fascinating, validating oral history inspired by the author’s personal journey, Sweet Tea explores the perceptions, angst, triumphs and vulnerabilities of this minority within a minority. With passion and insight, Johnson reinforces the spoken-word tradition while challenging stereotypes – and finding humor, humanity and hope within.February 12-22, 2014
Durham Arts Council
120 Morris Street, Durham
Info and tickets: www.SweetTea-ThePlay.com

 

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.

For the love of the University

By Layla Quran for the SOHP

I sat in the massive lobby of the UNC Friday Center on October 31, 2013 waiting for Donald Boulton to enter.  At 3:30pm on the dot a friendly-looking, professional dressed Dean Don man walked in with a friendly smile. “You were right!”, I said to the receptionist as he had assured me Boulton would be there soon. Boulton and I walked into a smaller office and began the task of unraveling 26 years of student affairs at UNC, focusing on the creation of the Carolina Gay Association.

Boulton grew up in a small town and won a fellowship to travel after he graduated from a small university in upstate New York. The fellowship was for him to study religion in Germany, where he eventually became fluent in German and then traveled to the Middle East to live there for 2 weeks and study the newly discovered Dead Sea Scrolls. Boulton says “I saw the world in many different cultures”. Upon returning to the US, he began his doctorate at Columbia where he would met gay and lesbian students kicked out of their families for their sexual orientation. I mention these experiences because they contributed to his understanding and approval of the Carolina Gay Association years later. As he studied different forms of love in an academic setting, he also began to ask others about their value systems, and if they had a basic spiritual love for all of human kind.

Boulton describes entering UNC was like entering a time warp as female students were just beginning to be accepted into the freshmen class, and there were separate deans from men and women(which he got rid of by creating deans of students). One of his responsibilities as Dean was to recognize student organizations, and when he mentioned this that began our discussion on the Carolina Gay Association.

He was called into the chancellor’s office after his recognition of the CGA, where the chancellor said to him, “Don, do you realize what you just did? This is Bible country”. Boulton responded to the chancellor as well as to the several letters he would eventually receive from alumni, parents, and some members of the Board of Trustees by saying that he did understand the Bible and he was responded to the ‘law of the land’. Several other universities, including University Virginia and University of New Hampshire would come to reject the recognition of gay associations and be appealed by federal courts for doing so.

Boulton describes the CGA as becoming more comfortable over the span of 15 years, from being a group that was understandingly defensive at first to having more students come out and be more open of their sexuality. Barry Nakel, who was the advisor for the CGA for 10 years, was a tremendous source of support and continuity.

Boulton also spoke on different forms of love today. He said that the problem with the decisions made by individuals is the dismissal of a value system where love is the main component.

He said, “It is the lack of love. And it has no place in a college campus. It has no place in society, but it shows you, as one of my professors said, there’s a cyclical view of history that we come to acceptance and then we revert, we tend to repeat. But then he said even though we repeat, we tend to make a little movement forward. Like people are saying racism is being to come back, well it never left. But it has moved forward.”

Come see the Southern Oral History Program interns at the Love House on December 5th, at 3pm to hear more stories on the Carolina Gay Association and the sexual revolution at UNC.

 

Lambda, A Love Story

by Grace Tatter

Sherry Williamson cranked out much of  Lambda, the newsletter for the Carolina Gay Association,  from her Carrboro kitchen, brainstorming story ideas with fellow Carolina students and pounding articles out with a typewriter during the few spare hours she had after coursework for the journalism school.

Every month, she and fellow students in the Carolina Gay Association mailed the newsletter off in non-descript envelopes all over the Southeast; to other colleges, to underground gay bars in former milltowns, and, though Williamson would not meet her for years, to Williamson’s future wife, who was then a student at Radford College in Virginia.

Lambda was founded along with the CGA in 1974, and was the first publication geared toward sexual minorities in the state, and the only one for many years. Williamson spearheaded the newsletter from 1979 to 1980.

“It was really cool to know that the work that we were doing was affecting other people,” Williamson said when I sat down with her Nov. 7. “First of all, just to say that we’re here, and you’re not alone; there are other people here [...] There was a sense that we were doing something bigger than just being a newsletter or a calendar of events of what was happening on campus.”

A commitment to helping others imbued Williamson’s love of journalism and had informed  decision to come to Carolina the semester before taking over Lambda.

As a child, Williamson had looked at airplanes flying over the tobacco fields of her native Columbus County,  and promised herself she would go wherever those planes were going — far away. She loved her community and supportive family, but was inspired by the books she devoured, like Johnny Tremaine and Heidi, to travel beyond the rural tidelands. So, upon graduating from high school, Williamson headed across the state to Appalachian State University; the first person in her family to leave the Columbus-Robeson county area for school. One day, two reporters from the Charlotte Observer came to visit her English class in Boone.

“[Journalism] was certainly a way to do what I wanted to do, which was to write, which was to try to make a difference in the world,” she recalled. “And journalism can give you that opportunity, to put information in front of people, and with the hope that if people have information they can make, you know, good decisions.”

Her motivation to transfer to Chapel Hill was journalism, but she realized it was a chance to grow personally, too. She was sitting on her bed at Appalachian, flipping through the bulletin of activities at Chapel Hill, when she saw a listing for the Carolina Gay Association. The CGA was one of the only such organizations in the Southeast at the time, and Appalachian did not have a group for gay students. Besides, Williamson was not even sure if she was gay.

“I made a joke: ‘ I’m going to join the Carolina Gay Association!’ And everyone laughed, because you know, their own homophobia. And it was my own internalized homophobia, and I was just kind of testing the waters, to see a little bit how people would respond. But I knew internally that that was one of the things I was going to do, because I was starting a new life where no one knew me, and I was starting again.”

The Carolina Gay Association gave Williamson a community in which to grow, and an audience to hone her writing. But because she was concerned about the implications Lambda might have for her career outside of Chapel Hill, Williamson always used a pseudonym while on campus. Now she works at the Office of Communications at the Duke Divinity School, and can finally get the long overdue credit for hours spent on Lambda during her undergraduate career.

To hear more of Williamson’s story, and learn more about the early days of the Carolina Gay Association (now SAGA), come see the Southern Oral History Program interns perform at the Love House, Dec. 5, at 3 p.m.

Breaking the color bar: the integration of UNC’s basketball team

By Corinne White

Basketball is as much of a symbol of UNC as the Old Well. Tied up in the school’s rich basketball legacy are a complicated history of integration, alumni and administrative pressure, and, of course, victory and defeat.

The Tar Heels play in their first regular season game against Oakland University this Friday. As players and fans prepare for tip off, we listened to Ann McColl’s 1991 interview with civil liberties lawyer — and key player in the integration of UNC basketball — Daniel Pollitt.

Pollitt, who was also the faculty advisor for the university’s NAACP chapter, recalled memories of Charlie Scott, UNC’s first black scholarship athlete in 1966.

“He broke the color bar,” Pollitt said.

Pollitt also pointed to the trouble the school had at the time with attracting black applicants.  “The question was, ‘how do we encourage people to come here?’ We thought there should be role models, and that is sort of a maybe racist attitude, but we thought athletics is… We’d start there. It seemed like a logical thing to do, so maybe you should have a learned surgeon instead, but the reality of the world then at least, was that the role models were basketball players and football players.”

Davidson College was the first to recruit Scott, a top high school prospect, under Coach Lefty Driesell. But when Scott visited the school, a town restaurant refused to serve him.

“Charlie decided he didn’t want to go to a town where he couldn’t eat in the restaurants,” Pollitt said.

Pollitt accompanied 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree Coach Dean Smith to Laurinburg, N.C. on UNC’s first attempt to recruit Scott, along with a UNC medical student because Scott had pre-med aspirations.

“Dean Smith wanted the best basketball players he could get, but he also wanted to break the color bar,” Pollitt said.

Scott endured hateful chants from opposing fans, but still remembers fondly lessons from Smith.

“What he did more than anything else was to give me someone to look at in a different skin color that I could accept and see that everyone was not like the bigots, or like the racists,” Scott said in an August 2013 interview with the Raleigh News and Observer.

“He could not take away the words of those individuals, or the way those individuals acted towards me. Those things were there. What he did was give me a barometer to look at outside of the racism and bigotry.”

James Polk, the ballplayer

 

by Grace Tatter for the SOHP

Despite not having its own Major League Baseball team until the second half of the twentieth century, the South has produced many of the game’s finest players. Perhaps the most famous of which is Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play Major League baseball.

Robinson might be a saint to devotees of America’s great pastime, but even he had a temper.

To mark the end of baseball season (Go Sox!) and honor Robinson (who died 41 years ago today), we listened to Elizabeth Gritter’s 2006 interview with James K. Polk. An African-American trailblazer himself, Polk headed the Charlotte Bureau on Training and Placement and was a community leader in Charlotte.

But before that, Polk was a ballplayer.  His neighborhood, Grier Heights, churned out many professional athletes, and sports was one of the few points of interaction between white and black residents of the community. In 1948, Polk played for a Charlotte team that faced off against Robinson, who was travelling with Larry Doby, another MLB pioneer, on a barnstorming team.

Polk recalls:

“[…] I played second base that day. Jackie Robinson had not received a hit all the way down the line. So he hit a ball over second base. I went back and threw him out. When we changed innings he cussed me out. He cussed me.”

To learn more about the importance of sports to racial integration in Charlotte and in Polk’s Grier Heights neighborhood, check out the interview here:

http://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/sohp/id/8218/rec/1

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

womens summit panel

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!!!”