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.
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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.
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!
This blog post was written by SOHP Intern MaKayla Leak
The 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.
“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.”
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.
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.
This post was written by former undergraduate interns Alex Ford and Devin Holman. Alex is a senior majoring in Middle Grades Education and plans to teach social studies at a middle school or high school. Devin is a junior majoring in History and Political Science and plans to teach social studies at the high school level.
As part of our internship, we worked on mining the SOHP’s archive looking for content-rich interview clips that teachers can incorporate into their curricula (see the new K-12 Map, “Mapping Voices from North Carolina’s Past”). As future educators, we have been considering the many potential uses of oral history in our future classrooms while working on this project. We have mostly focused on the social studies classroom, but we believe that oral history can bring value to classrooms in a variety of subject areas.
First and foremost, oral histories can serve as content resources for students. Oral history interviews can provide richer and fuller accounts of important historical events than textbooks and other traditional sources can offer because of the interviews’ personal nature. Not only do oral history interviews give voice to perspectives that are often unrepresented in traditional curricula, but they expose students to valuable firsthand accounts that expand upon and complicate the typical third-person “objective” narrative found in conventional curricula.
Relatedly, critically evaluating sources is an important skill taught in social studies classrooms. Students should be able to recognize the values and limitations of each source they encounter and consider the role that point of view plays in how a source interacts with the historical narrative. We believe that oral history sources can both supplement and challenge the existing historical narrative while also developing these critical thinking skills. Challenging this narrative is especially necessary when entire groups of people are excluded from the conversation. Oral history can be a pivotal tool for teaching students to consider how power is related to the creation and preservation of the historical record. In this way, teaching history can serve as a form of social justice.
Using oral history in the classroom can help students realize the relevance of history and historical processes in their everyday lives. Oral historians recognize the importance of emphasizing this relevance; the SOHP’s motto is “You don’t have to be famous for your life to be history.” Though the historical record has often been shaped by the hands of the few and elite, we know that these individuals have not been the sole shapers of the flow of history in reality. Michel-Rolph Trouillot articulated this idea that “we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands.” Through the realization that past historical moments have been influenced by many rather than few, students will hopefully embrace that they too can be makers of history rather than passive observers. The importance of “ordinary” individuals becomes especially clear when oral histories are used to tie larger national themes of history into local contexts. Because the life histories of individuals tend to be closely tied to their local environments, oral histories can serve as gateways into understanding local histories and their relationship with national historical trends.
The standardization of educational content has reduced the subject of history to a compilation of facts that must be memorized for a test. Laurel Schmidt has asserted, “In short, we’ve taken the social out of social studies. As a result, many students graduate from high school without ever realizing what history buffs have always known – that history is first and foremost an engrossing story about people, full of daredevils, dunderheads, and scoundrels.” We see oral history as a solution to this problem because it brings these colorful characters back into the classroom. Because students are listening to the stories and actual voices of real people, they are more likely to develop empathy for individuals who are different from themselves and for these individuals’ experiences. Alternatively, students may encounter oral histories of individuals to whom they relate, which can validate students’ own experiences and encourage self-acceptance.
Educators can also incorporate oral history into the classroom as they teach the process of conducting historical interviews as a skill set. Interviewing others gives students a sense of agency as creators and interpreters in the historical process and a deeper understanding of the value of oral history. After having participated in the oral history process in the classroom, students are more likely to take initiative in their lives and communities to collect oral histories that they think are important. Beyond the value of conducting oral histories, this dual inquisitiveness and proactivity can give students the confidence and consciousness to become more effective citizens.
 Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 153.
 Laurel Schmidt, Social Studies That Sticks: How to Bring Content and Concepts to Life (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2007), 3-4.
This piece was written by SOHP Founding Director Jacquelyn Dowd Hall.
On November 8th, an SOHP stalwart and dear friend Cliff Kuhn died of a heart attack in Atlanta, GA. Cliff was an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, where for more than two decades he has inspired a love of history in students. He was 63 years old.
I’ve known him since shortly after he graduated from Yale in 1974. He was one of a number of young people fascinated by the South who came through town and slept on our couch in the early 1970s. In a sense he never left—well, he left our couch, but not the South. He got a Ph.D. in history at UNC Chapel Hill and was part of the team that conducted the interviews and wrote the initial working papers that led to the publication of Like a Family: the Making of a Cotton Mill World in 1987.
He was a font of boundless energy, enthusiasm, and generosity. He loved to talk. At the same time, the tributes pouring out of Atlanta rightly say that the city “has lost it greatest listener.”
Passionate about local history, Cliff recorded hundreds of interviews with the people of Atlanta and frequently appeared on independent radio and the local NPR affiliate, WABE. He worked tirelessly to preserve the memory of Atlanta’s 1906 race riot and led walking tours of Atlanta that educated perhaps thousands of people about that event as well as about the city’s labor history. In 1990 he published Living Atlanta: An Oral History of the City, 1914-1948 (UGA), co-authored with Harlon E. Joye and E. Bernard West. He was a recipient of the Georgia Governor’s Award in the Humanities, the Turner Downtown Community Leadership Award, and the Martin Luther King Torch of Peach Award, among many other honors.
In 2001, he published Contesting the New South Order: The 1914-1915 Strike at Atlanta’s Fulton Mills (UNC), which David Carlton (Vanderbilt) described as an exploration of “not only the history of southern industrial labor, but also the tangled interplay of race, class, and ethnicity, in the Progressive-era urban South.” At the time of his death, Cliff was working on a book about the sociologist Arthur Raper and had published an eloquent article based on that work in Southern Cultures.
In 2013, Cliff helped to bring the Oral History Association (OHA) to Georgia State University and became its first executive director. Cliff was an irreplaceable advocate for oral history and public history in the classroom, the academy, and the community. The OHA is struggling with how to go on without him.
His wife, Kathie Klein, and their sons Gabe and Josh will be in our hearts. A memorial service will be held next month in Atlanta.