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Oral History and Queer Activism in the Triangle Area

Written by: Aaron Lovett

As a sophomore student at UNC, I have only recently experienced oral history. Before coming to college, I didn’t have a strong understanding of what oral history meant. To me, the academic study of history was about learning of the past through texts – books, records, correspondence, and so on. It wasn’t until I became interested in learning about LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) history that I also discovered oral history. I wanted to research Southern queer history, which has only a limited, albeit growing, amount of literature devoted to it. It would only make sense that in a region that has traditionally been hostile toward anything other than the norm, queer history would not be thoroughly documented. But through the Southern Oral History Program, I learned that oral history could make up for what texts lacked: oppressed peoples’ histories. To me, the intersection of LGBTQ history and the field of oral history seemed natural. I decided that the best way to research Southern LGBTQ history was to learn about it from the people who devoted their lives to shaping it.

This past summer, I completed an oral history research project documenting LGBTQ activism in the Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill area since 1969. For me, what stood out most about this experience was how rewarding historical research is when one can learn about history from other people. Getting to know the people I interviewed, learning from them, and recognizing shared experiences and passions made the process deeply personal and enriching.

Among the seven activists I interviewed were Carlton Rutherford, Alexis Gumbs, and Carolyn McAllaster. Carlton Rutherford has been a pastor for several years at St. John’s Metropolitan Community Church in Raleigh, which offers an all-inclusive space for religious members of the LGBTQ community. His experiences as a gay man of color and clergy member bring light to the many intersecting identities of LGBTQ people. He offered important commentary on race and gender power dynamics in the LGBTQ community: how white gay men often retain privileged social positions, while queer women and people of color struggle against greater oppression.

Younger than most of the activists I interviewed, Alexis Gumbs is a widely published black queer feminist writer on LGBTQ topics, whose work records the histories of queer black elders. She gave me a queer woman of color’s perspective on the intersection between feminism, LGBTQ activism, and racial activism. As a member of Southerners on New Ground (SONG), an organization which strives to unite Southern LGBTQ people of various races, classes, abilities, cultures, and genders, Gumbs informed me of the vibrant history of black lesbian activism in Durham.

Carolyn McAllaster, a clinical professor of law at Duke University, has devoted the better part of her career to helping people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. She founded the Duke AIDS Legal Project, providing free legal representation and assistance to people living with HIV/AIDS, and the Southern HIV/AIDS Strategy Initiative (SASI) which advocates for federal funding to combat HIV/AIDS in the South. From her, I learned that the South has the highest rate of new HIV/AIDS diagnoses in the country, as well as the highest death rate due to HIV/AIDS. She emphasized that much needs to be done to minimize the social stigma associated with being HIV positive in order to increase testing and fight the spread of the disease.

Each of the people I had the opportunity to interview added a unique perspective on LGBTQ history, life, and activism. Bradley R. Batch, a UNC alumnus active in the college’s LGBTQ community in the early ‘70s, said in our interview that a single oral history is “like looking at a small slice of a photograph.” But with several oral histories, “at some point, even if you don’t have the whole photograph, you can fill in the gaps.” With my introduction to oral history now behind me, I’m content with how I’ve come to understand it as discipline, as a process, and as an experience – searching for slices of a photograph, stitching them together, and shaping a picture of the past.

Personal Narratives, Collective Memory

Written by: Michael Grathwohl

When I read or watch the news (on both sides of the political aisle) I find myself spending an inordinate amount of time lamenting that one person’s story told in minute detail can be spun in such a way as to overwrite the experiences of others to serve overtly political ends. These observations had made me cynical about the uses of personal narratives. But twice now I have observed, up close, the power of oral history, and it has begun to reshape my attitude toward the importance of stories.

My first experience with oral history as a pedagogical tool came in high school during my participation in the band for The Parchman Hour, a play written and directed by Chapel Hill playwright Mike Wiley that chronicles the experiences and struggles of the 1961 Freedom Riders during their integrated journey into the heart of the deep South. The play is named both for Mississippi’s most notorious penitentiary and for the make-believe variety show that the riders cooked up to keep themselves sane while imprisoned there.

Part of Parchman’s power is that its dialogue featured direct quotations of icons such as John Lewis and Stokely Carmichael right alongside those of folks who Cornel West might call “everyday people.”As a result, Parchman presents a refreshingly grassroots image of the movement, and that image is more dirty, more intricate, and, I would argue, more fruitful. The inclusion of testimonies from often-unheard participants adds important texture to the play’s portrayal of the movement; it has a gritty, truthful quality and doesn’t shy away from ambiguity. We see the Freedom Riders not as a monolithic group but rather as a collection of real people with real baggage and, sometimes, real disagreements with one another. The play is teeming with complexity: there is struggle within struggle, and the result is beautiful.

This summer I had another, perhaps more intimate encounter with oral history as a volunteer for UNC-Chapel Hill’s Southern Oral History Program. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the program helped carry out a large series of interviews on the industrialization of textile factories in North Carolina’s Piedmont region. The interviewees were predominantly former mill workers who had experienced these technological changes firsthand, and my first project at the SOHP was to prepare a research dossier for a new interview with Helen Lyerly, the daughter of one couple who had been interviewed thirty years earlier.

I was asked to come along for the interview for which I had compiled the dossier. I spent a good deal of time thinking about how the interview would go, what questions to ask, and how I should present myself. As it turned out, everything fell into place and I wound up thinking that the term ‘interview’is a misnomer: it was organic, fun, and moving in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. Mrs. Lyerly had also invited her sister and daughter-in-law to come, and the most glaring thought in my mind as I left was that oral history has important implications far beyond the confines of academia. We had all laughed, philosophized, and gotten choked up together for an hour and a half that went by in what felt like fifteen minutes. The interview conducted in the 1980s is the only recording of Mrs. Lyerly’s parents, and she said repeatedly how much she appreciated listening to their voices, hearing them tell stories she had never heard of how they met and fell in love. It was clear that oral history can be important on a human level even more than an academic one.

Not unlike The Parchman Hour, both parts of my project with the SOHP had the insistent feeling of something that is important in its particularity—the stories of the women and men portrayed in Parchman are engaging at least partially because they tell stories that few can truly relate to; part of their value is their novelty. Yet as I read through interviews with mill workers from Greensboro, Concord, and Burlington and participated in the interview, it also struck me that one of the sources of the power of the interviews was precisely their pertinence to a great many people’s own experiences. In their own ways, both the stories from Parchman and the Piedmont industry series form repositories of narratives that simultaneously reflect and help form the collective memory of a time. The kind of history work that resulted in The Parchman Hour and the Piedmont interview series is refreshingly democratic, and my volunteer work this summer with the SOHP helped me begin to rehabilitate the notion that narratives can be used positively in practice and not just in theory.

Michael Grathwohl is a 2014 SOHP Summer Intern. He is a rising senior at Earlham College in Richmond, IN.

Chapel Hill, Gay Rights, and the Spring Interns’ Oral History Performance

At three in the afternoon on Wednesday, April 30th, our undergraduate interns from this past semester performed the oral histories of their interviewees. Aaron Hayworth, Katie Crook, Coco Wilder, and Turner Henderson had each conducted two interviews with people who had been a part of Chapel Hill’s gay community during the seventies, eighties, and nineties.

I explore some key excerpts from the script below. The excerpts are indented and italicized, and my thoughts will stay in the regular format. You can find short bios for each interviewee at the end of this post.

Beginning of Excerpts

Dawkins: I knew that I was attracted to men sexually, but I didn’t know exactly what it was.

Carden: Well we weren’t into ‘out, o-u-t’ at that time….you’d get the hell beat out of you.

There’s nothing more refreshing sometimes than to hear something like the above statements to bring us to attention.

Carden: Chapel Hill was pretty liberal.

Kenan: But it was still kind of hush-hush.

E. Patrick Johnson: When I was here at UNC, there was no “coming-out process”.

Nakell: I think people were a little cautious in those days about being identified as members of the CGA [Carolina Gay Association].

What would it have been like to be gay at UNC during this time? What would it have been like to be straight?

 Nakell: I remember when I first became a faculty advisor to the Carolina Gay Association. I asked somebody…if he thought I’d lose any friends as a result of it. He said, “oh, you’ll probably get new ones!” Which turned out to be true!

Carmichael: I just didn’t feel at home [at the CGA].

Kenan: Most of the gay black men I knew, I knew through the Black Student Movement choir.

Phoenix: I didn’t feel like I fit in that crowd in the same way. So that’s what led me to create a network of gay people [at ECU].

Kenan: The CGA was more of a social function than a political one.

The mood shifted.

 Dawkins: Then people started getting sick….It was terrifying.

Carmichael: Nobody knew what it was. Finally they came out and said the word “AIDS” out loud but AIDS wasn’t in the news yet. Of course President Reagan didn’t say anything for six years.

Phoenix: I went to a lot of funerals.

Kenan: Everything changed with AIDS and ACT UP and Queer Nation and all those people…There was a  lag between Stonewall and that period…..Reagan was president, conservatism was on the rise. So, just speaking out…was a pretty radical thing.

Phoenix: Buncomb had found the AZT medication which was the first medication that gave you a shot at not having a death sentence from AIDS, but it was priced so high…trying to make a profit rather than addressing the epidemic.

Carden: You want something done you do it yourself.

Phoenix: [we laid] down across the road where the service delivery trucks [for the pharmaceutical company] came in…like you’re going to have to run over us if you want to go in and out.

 But ultimately, these interviewees were not defined first by their sexuality, like many outsiders view them. People are people are people.

Dawkins: In a lot of ways, I don’t think of myself as being a gay man anymore. I mean, I definitely am, but it’s not a major part of my life at this point…

Gates: It’s just one aspect of my personality…

And where are we today?

 Nakell: The law generally moves slowly and incrementally. And generally you want to take it step by step to establish…gay rights….I’m really astonished…with the speed at which it’s happened. It’s happening at lightning speed.

Kenan: For gay people, I think we are in for a much longer slog than we realize, because, as Lyndon Johnson said about the Vietnam War, it has to also be about winning hearts and minds. And I think that the window dressing is cool, but a lot of hearts and minds are far from being changed. And a lot of political correctness is masking that. I worry. As fast as things are happening, I don’t know how real that is.

Phoenix: We still have a tremendous amount of unemployment in the community, we still have…employment discrimination, we still have…discrimination in banking…and healthcare.

John Dawkins sums it up best.

 Dawkins: The biggest problem that gay people have is just being able to live their lives without harassment and without being judged for being gay. That’s getting better and better, but it’s still got a long way to go.

 Applause broke out. Aaron, Katie, Turner, and Coco had done an excellent job of unifying the interviews while paying attention to their differences and they did it with empathy. For me, it clicked.

For any marginalized group, visibility is power. There’s a movement currently going on in the South for gays and lesbians to talk with families and neighbors about their experiences because, as Randall Kenan quoted from Lyndon Johnson, it really is about “hearts and minds.”

Iris Murdoch wrote, “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” It is important to connect the dots between the national (or state, or local) discourse on gay rights and the individuals themselves. When it’s someone you care for, the struggles of these people become more real.

So it’s onward for the undergraduate interns, but speaking for the SOHP and the audience, we’re all grateful for the performance.

-Katie Womble

 

The Interviewees:

E. Patrick Johnson attended UNC in the 1980s. Now a professor at Northwestern University, his most recent project is Gathering Honey, a performance based on oral histories with African American lesbians in the South. He is also the author of Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men in the South.

Gary Carden has been a hair stylist in Chapel Hill since moving here in 1970. Carden was a pioneer in opening unisex salons and the gay bar, the Electric Company.

Dr. Phelps Gates was a classics professor at UNC in the 1970s. His recollections of gay “hotspots” on campus are of particular import.

Dr. Randall Kenan attended UNC as a student in the 1980s and is now a well-respected author and professor of English at UNC.

Dr. James Carmichael attended UNC in the 1980s for his doctorate in library sciences.

John Dawkins attended UNC in the 1970s and is now retired and living in Chapel Hill.

Dr. Terri Phoenix is now the director of the UNC-LGBTQ Center. Dr. Phoenix holds degrees from three universities and has worked and lived all over the South. The LGBTQ Center recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. Phoenix was recently interviewed by Frank Stasio of WUNC.

Barry Nakell is currently a layer in Chapel Hill. He was formerly a professor at the UNC School of Law and long-term advisor to the Carolina Gay Association.

Attached are some pictures from the performance, the interior of the program, a snapshot of a page from the script, and a really neat visual that reflects the contents of the script (courtesy of wordle.com).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on the SOHP Internship, 2013-2014

The academic year 2013-2014 has come and gone, and at the SOHP, we are sixteen interviews all-the-richer after two semesters of highly productive work from our interns. I had the privilege of closely working with each semester’s four interns as the SOHP’s Internship Coordinator. In the fall, Layla Quran, Ashley Templeton, Corinne White, and Grace Tatter served as SOHP interns, followed by Coco Wilder, Aaron Hayworth, Turner Henderson, and Katie Crook in the spring. Morgan Jones, a SILS graduate student, and SOHP associate director Rachel Seidman were instrumental as well, along with all other SOHP staff. These individuals made the internship a success, and it is only fair that I acknowledge each of them before diving into what promises to be an all-too-brief summary of their tremendous contribution.

Last August, we came up with a list of potential oral history projects for the incoming interns to choose from, all revolving around the history of student activism at UNC. Possibilities included anti-apartheid during the 1980s, the black student movement, and many others, but one stood out: the Carolina Gay Association (CGA) and the history of sexuality at UNC since the 1970s. The interns latched onto this idea, and we spent the next eight months exploring LGBTQ activism and social life at UNC and around Chapel Hill. In the University Archives, they found all kinds of documentation about the CGA in the records of the Chancellor, the Student Union, and in the Daily Tar Heel. They went through the CGA’s own newsletter Lambda and began to trace the history of its members as they confronted intolerance and isolation. They identified names, and they began reaching out to people hoping for a chance to interview them about their relationship with the CGA.

As with any oral history project, the interns made scores of phone calls and sent out countless emails to potential interviewees who might have something to say about the CGA or about gay life at UNC. Many were willing, and their stories will soon enrich our archive in important ways. Dan Leonard, one of the earliest leaders of the CGA, spoke with Corinne White about the CGA’s years of activism. Donald Boulton, a former dean of Student Affairs, shared with Layla Quran how the UNC administration supported the formation of the CGA, and how he continually rebuffed those who sent letters demanding that the university defund the CGA. Randall Kenan discussed with Turner Henderson the unfair choice presented to students who were both gay and African American, forced to identify as one or the other. Gary Carden, a long-time hair stylist in Chapel Hill, bluntly told Aaron Hayworth that he had done more than anyone else in the state for gay rights through his business. Together, these and the twelve other interviews shed light on myriad themes, including the contestations of “political” activism; the implications of being “out” or not; the devastation rendered by AIDS; the importance of gay social spaces; cross currents of race, gender, and class fitting into gay and lesbian lives; and the simple act of remembering, framing their pasts in lieu of today’s ongoing discussions about gay rights, identity, marriage, and freedom of expression.

At the end of each semester, the interns “performed” their interviews in front of an audience at the Love House and Hutchins Forum. In front of a packed room, they gave voice to those whom they had connected with during their interviews. Sharing their stories of joy, hardship, and possibility moved the audiences, and hopefully provided some closure to the interns as they encapsulated a long semester of rigorous and emotional work.

After the performance on April 30, everyone lingered for close to an hour discussing the interviews, the SOHP, the interviewees, and the overall project. Two semesters of work had come to a close, but it did not necessarily feel that way. Oral histories of LGBTQ voices are still too few, and the potential for future work is vast. Documenting their histories is a crucial piece of the southern past, and we hope this marks a beginning for increased scholarship.

-Evan Faulkenbury

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

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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.