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In Remembrance of Dianne Levy (1946-2016)

dianne-levyIn Memory: Dianne Levy (1947-2016)

Last month Dianne Levy, a lifelong feminist and peace activist, died at her home in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. I met Dianne in the early 2000s when I was a student at a small college in Jefferson County, Tennessee, and I’m forever grateful that I did. As a young woman at a conservative campus that was militant in its enforcement of gender conformity and heteronormativity, I needed the likes of Dianne in my life.

Tired of daily doses of sexism, a group of female students—with the help and support of female professors—began organizing our own version of a consciousness-raising group. It was through that group that we found our way to Dianne, who was the director of SafeSpace, a domestic violence shelter. We invited her to speak at one of our meetings.

Dianne was a powerful, no-nonsense, brilliant woman, and she was militant in making her case that gender oppression was real and destructive. I’m sure she arrived to the meeting in a whirlwind, her long hair streaming down her back, talking fast and with an accent unfamiliar to those of us who had never lived anywhere but Tennessee. She passed out worksheets that charted different kinds of violence, and she was blunt in her delivery. I had grown up hearing the whispers or seeing the signs of women who had been beaten up by husbands. I once had been physically threatened by a high school boyfriend. But until I met Dianne I never thought about those moments as systemic gender oppression, historically condoned by legislative bodies, law enforcement, churches, and within families. Diane taught me that only within my short life had spousal abuse even been recognized by the legal system, and much work was yet to be done.

I credit Dianne for shepherding me to my own feminist consciousness. In the weeks following our meeting, our group visited the SafeSpace office, and some of us went through alliance training. We also planned a “Take Back the Night” march and rally. Somebody vandalized our posters publicizing the march. The evening of the event our group was woefully small but energetic, knowing that the messages we conveyed were important. We stood on the campus lawn facing the road, carrying candles and chanting slogans. A group of male classmates drove by in an open jeep and taunted us, yelling “Beat your wives!” We were hurt and angry, but the jeers only reinforced why we were there.

About a decade later I was working on the oral history project, the “Long Women’s Movement in the American South.” I had forgotten Dianne’s name by that point, so I asked other interviewees if they could help me find the woman with the long hair who led the battered women’s movement in Tennessee. When I found her, Dianne invited me to her farmhouse in the mountains. She had retired, and she was making ends meet by working as a census taker and other side jobs. We sat at the sturdy kitchen table, brimming with the late summer harvest from Dianne’s garden. She shucked and cleaned corn while we talked. Dianne was a vivid storyteller. I was, once again, a rapt audience.

Dianne was born in London, England, in the 1940s. She was a toddler when she and her family, who were Jewish, immigrated to Brooklyn. A few years later, they moved to Kentucky, where she suddenly lived in a world structured by Jim Crow segregation, a world in sharp contrast to Brooklyn. In the 1960s, Dianne returned to London and joined the anti-war movement, networking with groups across Europe and publishing a leftist, underground newspaper. She and antiwar activists also began “liberating” empty buildings, picking locks and letting families inside to squat. That’s when she began to notice women who were fleeing abusive partners. By the early 1970s, she was back in the U.S. and made her way to the Mountain South, drawn to the back-to-the-land movement. Before long she bore witness to abuse in her new community and began sheltering women. Those informal relationships would expand into the battered women’s movement, of which Dianne was a trailblazer. She was the founding member of the domestic violence shelter SafeSpace, and she was the Tennessee representative to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. She was also a founding member of the TN Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Southeast Coalition Against Domestic Violence. She lobbied to change statutes in TN, and she led trainings in communities and within the criminal justice system. She also worked with numerous organizations to expand women’s economic opportunities. Dianne received a litany of awards for her decades of public service.

Dianne’s story encompasses more than I can do justice to here. Below, I have edited Dianne’s story of her growing awareness of domestic violence in her Tennessee community. She painted a richly detailed and painful portrait of how she came to shelter women who had been beaten, raped, and threatened by their spouses, and who had no hope of justice in the legal system. She began with the story of Johnnie. (Please note that this story contains graphic descriptions of violence.)




Let me tell you this; this is an important story. I don’t know if you know Grassy Fork or that area. Back thirty or forty years ago it was really a remote section of the county and it was very rough roads. Nothing was paved back in there, which made me happy. I was happy to disappear into the woods. At the fork of the road I lived on there was a cement block building, which was maybe thirty feet long and sixteen feet wide. It had a back door and it had a front door and it had two front windows and that was it. There was nothing to it. I was coming out one day and I saw Johnnie’s truck parked there so I stopped and looked in and there she was, and I said, “What are you doing?” because she had a farm and four kids and she had a son-of-a-bitch for a husband, too. Oh, one day I was out at her place and Johnnie had all this stuff all over her arms, and I said, “Johnnie, have you got ringworm or did you run into some poison, or what’s going on with you?” She looked at me like I was really an idiot and she said, “Those are bruises.” It turns out that her husband was a drunk and he was the kind that used drink as an excuse and I mean he raped and pillaged and beat. I’m sure he raped all of his kids, not to mention Johnnie, and beat her and the kids to a bloody pulp time and time again.


I’d already found out about the bruising and when I stopped at that building that day and said, “What are you doing here?” she said, “That’s a steel door, got bars over both those windows, and he can’t burn this building.” And so she rented that little building probably for about thirty bucks a month. I don’t know if there was an outhouse there. There was an electric line and she had a refrigerator. She had a little counter not as big as this table and on the counter she had like two loaves of light bread and three onions and some bananas and some Beanie Weenies or something. That was her stock from the store. Sighs. Many a night Johnnie would run out of the house, grab the kids, and she’d lock herself in that building, many, many a night.


So, it was Christmas day 1975, probably 2:00 in the afternoon maybe, and I had a call. It was Gracie, one of her daughters, and I guess Gracie was nine. She said, “Mama says come quick.” So I jumped in my little VW bug, and she lived maybe five miles up the mountain from me. I got up there in time and there was a deputy up there. So Christmas Eve they’d finished the tree and got all the presents out and they were waiting for Paul to come home, and he never came home that night. The next morning they waited for him to come home all morning to open presents and he didn’t come home. They went ahead and opened presents, and they waited and waited on Christmas dinner for him to come home and he didn’t come home. They’d been up all night, so they eat Christmas dinner early, and she had fallen asleep. Johnnie had fallen asleep on the couch, and she woke up and he was standing over her with a knife at her throat saying, “You’re going to die, bitch.” Johnnie was a strong woman. She’d been fighting him for years, and he was drunk, and so they struggled and struggled and struggled. And Gracie went into the bedroom and got the pistol that Johnnie kept loaded under her pillow, because it wasn’t the first time this had happened. And Gracie threw the pistol across the room, tossed it across the room to Johnnie—I mean you can just imagine it. And Johnnie caught the pistol and it went off. I mean he’s after her with the knife. The bullet slices right through here and gets his—aorta?  Is that what it is? And so he was bleeding to death. She called the law and called the ambulance. But he died.


I got up there in time. The ambulance had just left and the deputy was just waiting for me to get up there so I could keep the kids so they could haul her off, and they hauled her off to jail, Christmas day. Hauled her off to jail, charged her with manslaughter. I think they released her late that night because I think we had the kids back to her the next day. So she was charged with murder, and she was convicted of murder, even though it was clearly self-defense. They didn’t think anything about convicting her for murder, and then they let her go. And they laughed about it because Paul was a cop fighter and he’d had big fights with the cops for years. They hated him and he was always dangerous to them, too. They would make jokes about it: “Good going, Johnnie!” and stuff like that. Well she was devastated. I mean the more you suffer the more emotional attachment you have.  They’d been abused for years horribly, but that doesn’t mean the emotional attachment isn’t there. It was horrible for her, convicted of murdering her husband who she hated and loved, and being joked about at the courthouse about, “Good going,” you know, “That’s great!” They’d pat her on the back; horrible.


I discovered in that time that there were no laws to protect family members. Basically a man could assault his family at will, rape, beat, terrorize, whatever he wanted to do. And the law and the preachers and everybody went, oh, well that’s his business. So I was astounded and very soon I started getting calls.


Somehow word had gotten out.  [One day she got a call from a woman fleeing an abusive spouse.] I said, “Why’d you call me?”  She said, “Somebody told me there was a woman helping battered women in Cosby.”  I went, “Who is it? [Laughs] Who is that woman?”


So that began a real stream.


I became the representative from Tennessee to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. For me the organizing was every bit as important as providing safety. It was important to provide safety, don’t get me wrong. There was no way I was not hooked into safety for women and children. But it was clear to me that we had to change society.


The rest of the interview can be found here:


Jessica Wilkerson

Visiting Scholar, American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Assistant Professor, University of Mississippi

New Roots Receives the 2016 Elizabeth B. Mason Project Award (Major Project) from the Oral History Association

new roots screenshotIn 1993, the Oral History Association established a series of awards to recognize outstanding achievement in oral history. We are delighted and honored to announce that New Roots/Nuevas Raíces: Voices from Carolina del Norte is the recipient of the 2016 Elizabeth B. Mason Project Award (Major Project). Congratulations and many thanks to our wonderful colleagues and supporters at the Latino Migration Project in the Institute for the Study of the Americas, University Libraries, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Read more and learn about other award recipients here.


New episodes of Press Record, our podcast about the joys and challenges of learning history by talking to those who lived it, are released three times each semester on SoundCloud and iTunes. Check it out here!

Collection Spotlight

In 2014 and 2015, field scholar Evan Faulkenbury conducted interviews with conservative women activists in the South. Speaking with fourteen women in North Carolina and Virginia, Evan asked them about their lives, activism, beliefs, and impact on the communities around them. Now, we’re featuring this collection as part of the Long Women’s Movement series. Learn more and listen to clips here.

Voices into Print: Publishing the SOHP’s Intern Project on UNC Gay Activism

By Evan Faulkenbury

I have to admit, now that almost three years have passed, that I secretly wished my students would pick a different topic. It was my first month on the job at the Southern Oral History Program, and I was sitting in my class of four students, listening to them choose to focus their collective oral history project on the history of gay student activism at UNC Chapel Hill. A librarian from the Southern Historical Collection was in our class, listing off collection after collection the archive held of different student organizations. My students had several options, but when the librarian talked about the papers of the Carolina Gay Association (CGA)—founded in 1974, and with abundant primary sources that few had ever looked at—my students’ eyes lit up. The decision was made: we would do an oral history project on the CGA and gay activism at UNC.

I inwardly cringed. I knew nothing about gay history. How was I supposed to teach a class on oral history, with a collective project on gay history at the center? To make a long story short, I learned quickly. Along the way, I became as interested in the topic as my students, listening in awe to the voices of those they interviewed—CGA members, university administrators, people from the Chapel Hill community. We focused on the same project during the next semester, and by the end of the academic year, my eight undergraduate students had interviewed sixteen people, put on two public performances, and helped document a piece of UNC’s history too long hidden from view.

But we didn’t stop there. With one of my students, Aaron Hayworth, the two of us decided to write an article about what we had uncovered about the CGA. We heard about a call for papers from the Oral History Review for a special issue on LGBTQ Lives. We thought our project on the CGA would be a perfect fit, and Aaron and I worked over the summer to write a first draft. We wanted to write a long piece on the wide history of the CGA, as told to us by our interviewees. We had heard so many fascinating stories about the university, the CGA, discrimination on campus, the South, and how they had come to terms with their sexuality. We didn’t want our interviews to just sit in an archive; we wanted to write about it and share with a bigger audience.

So, Aaron and I sat down to write an article on the CGA. I don’t mean that figuratively, but literally. For much of the article, we wrote it together, sitting beside one another, figuring out the best language to use. We divided up some parts and wrote them separately, but for the most important parts of the article, we wrote them together. Then, we edited together. And edited, and edited. It was a great experience to collaborate with a former student of mine. No longer was I the teacher and him the student, but we were partners, figuring out history together.

They’re called “rough” drafts for a reason. Our first draft was unfocused, and we didn’t present a substantial argument. We got caught up in the voices of those we interviewed, hoping they would “speak” to the reader. But we needed to do more. Luckily for us, the editor and two anonymous reviewers sent back our first draft with instructions to revise and resubmit, and they included many helpful suggestions. Aaron and I got back to work. We threw out much of the first draft, re-wrote the entire piece, and re-submitted it to the Oral History Review. We’re happy to report the journal accepted it, and you can read it in the latest issue here.

Let me leave you with one lesson I learned: don’t let your oral history interviews sit still in an archive. Write about them! Create podcasts; perform live shows; anything to share your interviews and the voices of those you recorded with the wider public. Even if you don’t know much at the start—like me!—you can work your way through it and ensure that more people share in the richness of oral history.

You’re invited!

Join us for these two upcoming oral history performances:

On April 28th, the SOHP Undergraduate Interns will stage a performance based on their interviews with the Black Pioneers, the first group of students to desegregate UNC Chapel Hill. Details here.

And on May 5th, students from the HIST 670 Oral History Seminar will perform works based on their research from this semester, which focused on entrepreneurship and race/class/gender. Details here.

We hope to see you there!

“Daddy, you know, had never heard of a woman doctor”

This blog post was written by SOHP Intern MaKayla Leak

makayla editedThe quote above can be found in SOHP’s collection entitled American Women in Medicine. This collection of interviews was conducted by SOHP’s founding director, Jacqueline Hall in 1972 and Sara Fowler in 1974. This collection provides listeners with personal accounts into the lives of the first women to attend medical school in the South. Since we are approaching the close of Women’s History Month, it is fitting to highlight a collection in the SOHP archives that celebrates the accomplishments of women who walked both this campus and others. As a woman studying science at UNC with aspirations of becoming a medical professional, the stories in this collection were more than inspiring to me.

After 1897, North Carolina women no longer had to travel outside of the South to obtain a four year degree that was comparable to that available to men. It was not until 1916 that women were admitted to the UNC School of Medicine. One hundred years later, women have done more than break the mold–they have created a new mold all their own. Today, the number of men and women enrolled is mostly proportionate, with women making up nearly 53% of the current UNC medical school cohort.

The interviews in this collection are eye-opening, personal, and tell the stories of a group of individuals that was, and in some instances still is, marginalized. While some interviews tell of accounts typical of the time period, others elaborate on specific instances. Ruth Henley’s interview is one in the collection that is particularly striking. In my opinion, Ruth Henley is a revolutionary and sassy southern woman that made an everlasting impact on this campus. For example, she recounted the lack of a “women’s johnny” inside the medical school. Ms. Henley, who attended UNC School of Medicine in 1932, discussed her frustration with having to cross the street to enter the zoology building just to use the restroom. She credits the construction of a women’s restroom in the medical school to her constant complaining of the unnecessary inconvenience. As the only woman in her medical school cohort, Ruth Henley was referred to by her male classmates as “Betty Co-ed.”

Henley was interviewed in Winston Salem at the practice she worked in at the time. Ms. Henley, who specialized in gynecology, told of women traveling from places like Charlotte, North Carolina, in order to be seen by a female physician. She mentioned how common it was to casually hear conversation around the office and elsewhere about how WOMEN were not fit to specialize in obstetrics or gynecology. Ruth Henley’s interview highlighted many issues facing women of her time. The stories told by Ruth Henley and others are the missing pieces of history that our project strives to expose.

With aims to shed light on the stories of women such as Ruth Henley, our very own field scholar, Taylor Livingston, has used the interviews from collections such as this one to create a tour of “The HER-story of Women at Carolina” with the UNC Visitors’ Center. As we celebrate women’s history in March and always, we must remember those who paved the way for women on campus today and henceforth. Women like Cora Zeta Corpening, the first woman to attend UNC School of Medicine, and Ruth Henley may not have been famous, but their lives and stories are nothing short of history.



To view more of the video clips created in collaboration with Taylor Livingston’s Women’s History walking tour of UNC, click here.

Thinking of the Food Workers

charlotte editedThis blog post was written by SOHP undergraduate intern Charlotte Eure

“I just can’t help but sit around and look at these workers – some that’s been here for years and all like that, and they’re so devoted and everything, and believe in doing it right – I just, you know, think sometimes somebody, you know – like management or someone – should just think of ‘em… some time.”
Mary Smith

One of the first topics to draw my attention after delving into the history of the SOHP as a new intern was that of the Lenoir Food Workers Strike of 1969. In the mid-1970s, SOHP founding director Jacquelyn Hall conducted interviews with many of the key players from the movement to improve the treatment of cafeteria workers on UNC’s campus, and now nearly 40 interviews on the topic can be found in the SOHP archives. During my first semester at UNC, I produced a zine about slaughterhouse workers and the impact of animal agriculture on rural communities in North Carolina for Professor Tanya Shields’ class on ‘American’ Women, Art, and Activism, and the threads of food worker marginalization were immediately apparent between that and the strike. With the 2015-2017 university theme as Food for All: Local and Global Perspectives, now seems the perfect time to turn our attention to the often overlooked individuals involved in food work.

In 1969, black cafeteria workers at UNC Chapel Hill were receiving low wages and working unpaid hours under negligent white management. This was happening during the long and tumultuous years of desegregation on campus, and the newly formed Black Student Movement was integral to raising awareness of these issues and holding the university responsible. Although demands were initially met after the February strike, the university soon outsourced management to independent corporation SAGA, who reinstated unfair policies and practices, leading to a second strike later in the year.

The food worker strikes at UNC nearly fifty years ago were not anomalous, but are one chapter in the ongoing story of our complex relationship to food and its production and dissemination. Food worker marginalization on our campus mirrors that of our state, where most of the major agricultural industries have been relegated to rural areas primarily populated by poor communities of color, a conscious decision by industry leaders to keep the harsh realities of food production hidden from the population majority in cities. We’re presented with humane-washed marketing of idyllic farms where workers and animals are happy. However, the vast majority of the food we buy packaged and prepared in stores is a far cry from its origins, which are deeply intertwined with the lives and wellbeing of workers.

From long, laborious hours in contact with pesticides and under the hot sun while harvesting plant foods to the dangerous and violent practice of raising, slaughtering, and processing animals, individuals in food production face some of the harshest working conditions and often receive some of the least protection and lowest wages. Cafeteria workers at UNC in 1969 used their voices and position in the setting of the academy to influence change with the support of students and faculty, but they still experienced setbacks. Many workers outside the academy do not have access to these resources to address their concerns. Agricultural industries are especially keen to exploit immigrants who may not be aware of their rights, and the rural environments often present limited choices for work that can support a family.

Whether we see them behind counters in Lenoir or Chipotle, or whether we never see them at work in fields and slaughterhouses, how often do we recognize the people who work to feed us? We think often enough about the way the food impacts us as its consumers – whether it’s the memories, the traditions, the flavors, or the presentation. We talk about nutrition and culture and preference, but when do we talk about food workers? How can we get closer to the reality of every stage of the work that goes into feeding people? When examining deeply the injustices often inherent to many of the systems in the US, the risk of losing hope can become overwhelming. How do we envision systems for feeding ourselves that take human health and safety – both physical and emotional – into account?

All these questions point me to a class I am taking this semester with SOHP Acting Director Renee Alexander Craft, in which we are discussing racial politics and reading black speculative fiction. In the course, an emphasis is placed on both learning the history of systems that rely on the exploitation and marginalization of those who exist outside the dominant norm and imagining new and different possibilities for the future. When Mary Smith and Elizabeth Brooks, two black women on the social margins of our campus, led cafeteria workers on strike demanding justice in 1969, they saw both the faults in their immediate situation and a future beyond. We live in a time that is futuristic in many ways but still tied steadfastly to a traumatic past – a time when past oppressions have not ended but have merely morphed into new versions of themselves. I hope we will take advice from Ytasha L. Womack’s Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture and recognize that “the imagination is a tool of resistance.” This means acknowledging the problems that exist and envisioning ways to not just ameliorate them but to uproot them and plant new seeds in their place.

Like many of us, partly as a result of the system’s operations to render much of itself invisible, I am rather removed from the world of food production and work. To bridge the gaps can seem daunting, but a great place to start is in the archives of the SOHP where we can listen to the voices of those who have struggled against the injustices that plague food work. Their lived experiences provide crucial insight into the realities of the past and allow us to begin to imagine a future where our food systems invest less in profit and more in life.

New Roots/Nuevas Raíces Website Now Live

We’re excited to announce the launch of the New Roots/Nuevas Raíces website! This digital archive and information system is a joint effort between the Latino Migration Project, SOHP, and University Libraries under the direction of Dr. Hannah Gill. It’s a fully bilingual platform for sharing the oral history interviews collected as part of the New Roots: Voices from Carolina del Norte project, which focuses on stories of migration, settlement, and integration in North Carolina. Explore it now!

We thank the generous support of The National Endowment for the Humanities.

K-12 Oral History Map of NC

As part of our outreach to K-12 teachers, SOHP has launched a project called “Mapping Voices of North Carolina’s Past,” an interactive map featuring short clips from oral history interviews. Learn more about it here.