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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.

Oral History in the Classroom

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.

Alex Ford

Alex Ford

devinholman

Devin Holman

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.”[1] 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.”[2] 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.

[1] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 153.

[2] Laurel Schmidt, Social Studies That Sticks: How to Bring Content and Concepts to Life (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2007), 3-4.

Remembering Cliff Kuhn

This piece was written by SOHP Founding Director Jacquelyn Dowd Hall.

cliff kuhnOn 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.

 

Collection Spotlight

In 2012 and 2013 SOHP conducted a project on early African American credit unions in North Carolina, after the Self-Help Credit Union in Durham suggested the idea and pointed out the value of these credit unions in their communities. Now, we’re featuring this collection as a part of our Rural South series. Learn more and listen to clips here, and stay tuned for the full interviews!

Photo: Rev. Joseph L. Battle during his SOHP interview with Rob Shapard and Joey Fink

Join us at the 2015 NC Women’s Summit

SOHP is excited once more to co-host the annual North Carolina Women’s Summit, alongside Women AdvaNCe, Scholars for North Carolina’s Future, and the Women’s Center at Wake Forest University.

The summit, held on Thursday, September 24th from 9:00AM – 4:30PM, will feature two special guest speakers Neera Tanden and Melissa Harris-Perry.  Tanden is President of the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC; and Harris-Perry is an MSNBC news show host, professor, and Director of the Pro Humanitate Institute.

To purchase your ticket and learn more about the event, visit the website here. We hope to see you there!

All for One, and One for All: The Role of Athletics in School Desegregation

This blog post was written by SOHP Mining the Archives intern Liz Kennedy.

This semester, my fellow intern Samantha and I mined the SOHP archive for clips on school desegregation in the South, looking specifically in North Carolina. We listened to the different perspectives from all sides of the school integration debate: teachers, students, staff, parents, and administrators. We also heard from different sides down the racial line: a Black student and a White principal probably had two very different perspectives on school desegregation, and we wanted to explore both sides of that story. That’s one of the cool things about oral history— it really allows us to explore the side of history not talked about in our textbooks. It’s the most primary of all historical sources, because it allows us to hear people’s stories from their own perspective. It gives a voice to the voiceless, and a platform to the preferably unheard.

Luckily for us, hundreds of oral histories have been captured from the time of school desegregation. The desegregation of American public schools started in 1954, after the Supreme Court Case Brown v. Board of Education ruled separate-but-equal schools unconstitutional. Despite this, it would take over a decade for most Southern schools to finally integrate; Durham public schools weren’t fully integrated until 1963, with Chapel Hill following suit in 1969.

When we talk about schools integrating, we tend to view our not-so-distant past through a more positive light. We think of things like the backlash surrounding Little Rock 9 as exceptions to an otherwise smooth transition.  But the truth is, school desegregation was a long, difficult process that lasted over a decade, with lots of opposition from segregationists, some of which became violent. As we continued listening to interviews, a pattern eventually emerged from the stories of the interviewees: schools may have desegregated, but very few actually integrated.

Even though there was a lot of hostility during school desegregation, what we found was that there was a lot more commonality than we thought.  The one thing that seemed to unite Black and White, if only for a couple of hours, was athletics. We kept hearing, over and over again, that school athletics broke color barriers on the field. Those students had to cooperate as teammates. A lack of team unity meant certain defeat, and no athlete likes to lose. They had to choose the team over their own biases, and the best part was, it showed off the field too.

In a 2000 interview with Charles Adams, one of the several coaches that led student athletes in Cary, North Carolina during this tumultuous time, “the schools could not have integrated without athletics.” The camaraderie that students built up on the field found itself translating to the classrooms and halls of their schools. Players became teammates, and teammates became friends. It started to influence their fans, too, some of which had protested the very unity that now existed on the field.

In the words of Adams, “I think you can look back and really credit athletics as being the single most success story in integration, not just in North Carolina but in the South, in the country.” As we celebrate over 50 years of school integration, it is important to acknowledge the importance of school athletics in breaking color barriers, and the connecting force athletics provide for students, even today. 

Liz Kennedy
SOHP Mining the Archives Intern
Class of 2015

#UNCCalls4HurstonHall: UNC and White Supremacy

This blog was written by SOHP undergraduate communications intern Bryan Smith.

In this article, I reference several individuals whose oral histories can be found in the SOHP’s archives. By clicking the hyperlinks in this post, a new SoundCloud window will open up, where you can play a portion of those interviews.

 

When I began writing this post, it had been almost 2 weeks since anyone had used the #UNCCalls4HurstonHall tag on Twitter. At the time I feared this represented a conclusion to the issue: the Department of Geography would remain housed in “Saunders” Hall, and the call for Hurston Hall would go unanswered. For the opponents of renaming the building, and for those who chose to ignore the issue, this would have been a victory. The argument that Saunders, chief organizer in the Ku Klux Klan or not (he certainly was), died in the late 19th century and was simply “a man of his time,” thus safely buffering UNC’s present and recent past from the taint of white supremacy, would have won out. In the subsequent weeks and months however, the rallies by the Unsung Founders Memorial and Silent Sam and the protests outside the building itself proved not to be solitary, transient blips on the radar indicative of life on UNC’s campus. Despite the controversy and unpopularity of revealing and labeling racism in the acts, people, and settings in which it persists, the movement has continued. This semester’s entire push is, in fact, already the product of decades of activism that is part of the ongoing fight to change UNC’s landscape to match the needs and spirit of its community. As an intern with the SOHP, I’ve had the opportunity to do my own part by researching some of the white supremacist events tied to UNC’s own history. In doing so, I’ve attempted to explore the patterns of white supremacy and response by the Black community.

 

Primarily, I’ve searched our archives to research two events in this web of white supremacy. The first of these was the invitation given to David Duke to speak at UNC in 1975. Duke, a Grand Dragon in the KKK at the time, was to give a speech in Memorial Hall, and was paid through student fees to do so. Insulted by this use of student fees, UNC’s Black Student Movement protested, as former member Paula Newsome recalls, through heckling until he was eventually shouted down from the stage. Cathy Stuart, a former co-president of the Campus Y, also remembers the event, but felt conflicted about the BSM’s response. In the context of the First Amendment and the overturning of the Speaker Ban Law less than a decade before, she says: “[…] don’t we defend the right for someone to speak–whatever it is–even if we don’t like it.”

 

Compare this to a second event that took place on UNC’s campus five years earlier in 1970. On November 21st of that year, a white supremacist motorcycle gang called the Stormtroopers killed a local Black student (though not a UNC student) named James Cates. On the night of the murder, UNC was hosting an all-night, integrated dance in the Student Union. Clashes between Black youths and the Stormtroopers had been occurring all night, but culminated fatally when Stormtroopers stabbed Cates after he pulled a straight razor during one of the fistfights. Initially, police prevented anyone from moving Cates to the hospital, resulting in his death in the back of a police cruiser at 3:30 that morning. Black youths in the Chapel Hill area retaliated by firebombing parts of the Northside community (the Institute of Pharmacy and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools Administration building). The Stormtroopers were brought to court, but the charges were ultimately dropped. Raney Norwood, a friend of Cates, recalls both the events leading up to Cates death and the subsequent firebombing of Northside and trial. Norwood is critical of the firebombing, while also acknowledging that peaceful protest was “not enough” in the face of injustice. Norwood also remembers James Cates death as the first time the Black community came together in Chapel Hill. The University’s response to James Cates’ murder is characterized by inaction. This is a fact remembered by Ashley Davis, a participant in the 1969 Food Worker Strike, as an example of the University’s leniency on violence committed or planned by white community members, especially students.

 

In researching these two events over the past semester, I’ve come to a couple of realizations. First, that the reactions to white supremacist actions associated with the University are almost always criticized or qualified in some capacity. That is, the legitimacy of Black community response always seems to be questioned. I’ve also discovered that white supremacist actions are poorly documented. They are talked about relatively infrequently, for example, in the life histories recorded in the SOHP’s archives. Outside of the archives, sources of information are limited to Daily Tar Heel articles, blog posts by authors that are impossible to contact, and fliers for memorializing events that are otherwise unrecorded. Together, I think that the struggles for legitimacy and memory form not only a stumbling block for scholarly research, but also for continued activism.

 

Now, as I reflect on Hurston Hall, this stumbling block is at the forefront of my thoughts. Since I’ve began working at the SOHP, I’ve listened to the oral histories numerous rebels, protestors, academics, and everyday people who have challenged my notions of what it means to be an activist and of my own activism. As I learned more and more, I would become frustrated; my internship (in addition to my classes and work) often felt like a time commitment that hindered my ability to be active myself. I’ve certainly gained a greater appreciation and respect for the activists who do manage to balance their personal, academic, and political lives, but I’m also now aware of the opportunities that the SOHP really afforded me. Encountering the past through the voices of those who lived it raised in me many of the questions I received when I’d report my findings to friends and family: “Was there really so much violence at UNC? How could that have happened? Why didn’t I know?” On a personal level, the SOHP showed me how remembering not only made me want to be a better activist, but be active, period. The SOHP has also shown me that the more people forget the less legitimate events feel. These are lessons I wish I’d learned earlier, and ones I hope to pass on. UNC continues to call for Hurston Hall; if we call for memory too, the number of active, passionate, and diverse students will swell until the University must heed it.

Bryan Smith

SOHP Communications Intern

Class of 2015

Spring 2015 Intern Performance

Don’t miss our Spring 2015 undergraduate interns‘ oral history performance this Wednesday, April 29th at 1:00PM. Samantha, Liz, Holly, and Bryan will present the culmination of their semester’s work on the history of feminist activism at UNC. All are welcome to join us! For more information, visit the event page here.