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Shared Resonance In University History

By Charlotte Fryar

The unusual thing about interviewing students and alumni of UNC-Chapel Hill as a student and alumna of the same institution, is just that—you are always connected in some way to the stories that people share about their time at Carolina. Even across interviews with alumni who were never on campus at the same time or traveled in very different social or academic circles, I often hear a shared institutional resonance, which has to do with the particularity of being a student at Carolina.

I’ve come to expect that shared connection when interviewing alumni, whether it manifests itself in shared geography (You know where the Pit kinda sinks in and fills up when it rains, by the Daily Grind, well it isn’t that any more now is it? Well I was walking across when…) or shared experience (I got interested in UNC watching basketball with Charlie Scott…or Michael Jordan…or Vince Carter…or Tyler Hansborough). As an interviewer, I look forward to these moments in oral history, both because they help to warm the formality of an interview, and they powerfully echo, that despite difference in age or race or any other marker of identity, that we have something in common. And as an historian, I am always looking for shared connections and experiences to help make sense of the past.

But recently, it was a lack of shared experience that resonated deeply with me. In the last two months, I’ve interviewed three black alumni (or soon-to-be alumni) of UNC about their undergraduate experiences, which included discussions about their relationships with faculty members.

Renee Alexander Craft, a professor in the Department of Communications and a member of the Class of 1994 (and the SOHP’s former acting director), said this about the importance of having faculty support her and her ambitions: “Every message I had gotten from the time I got to campus said you are powerful, you are capable, you can change the world, and so I came back with no notion otherwise.” A sense of her own power as an undergraduate student repeated through the interview as she described the faculty members who gave their time to her and her aspirations.

Renee Alexander Craft featured in The Daily Tar Heel, 1992

Renee Alexander Craft featured in The Daily Tar Heel, 1992

I heard this sentiment too from Christopher Faison, a member of the Class of 2000 and current program coordinator for the Men of Color Engagement Office. In his interview, he listed the faculty members, many in the former African-American Studies and History Departments, who had challenged and supported him as an undergraduate student. “The more I learned about UNC’s history,” Chris said, “the more I understood how important my time was at UNC, and to take advantage–to understand the shoulders I stood on.”

Chris Faison, President of the Black Student Movement, 1999-2000, in Black Ink.

Chris Faison, during presidency of the Black Student Movement, 1999-2000, in Black Ink.

When I sat down for an interview with a current student and member of UNC’s Honor Court System, Kendall Luton, I was expecting a similar description of affirmative support from benevolent professors. But Kendall described a different phenomenon he has witnessed from faculty. “Going through the Honor System,” he said, “I see a lot of professors interact with students of color, male or female, and a lot of these students are first generation students that are coming through the Honor System process. And I’m seeing the professors talk down to them, and that’s not what should be happening.”

This was a reminder for me that oral history is so rarely only a way to learn about the past or to record the events of the present. Oral history confronts us with experiences we might think we can guess at, especially when everyone on campus is walking around in a loss-to-Duke haze, but simply cannot. And more than the illusion of shared experience, because we are all part of the network of the University, we are implicated in each others histories and experiences.

For those of us who hold multiple relationships to Carolina—I, myself, am an alumna, graduate student, staff, and sometimes-instructor—there is obligation to evaluate in what ways your current position affords you an understanding on your past position and calls on you to act accordingly, as a teacher and as a mentor. Renee described this obligation to listen and act with eloquence and passion: “The last thing I’ll say about those wonderful mentors, so often when I said, ‘Thank you’ and ‘I don’t know how to repay you,’ they said ‘pay it forward.’ So I’m very clear on what it is I must do and why I have to do it.”

Back Ways Updates: Placing the History of Harvey’s Chapel

By Rachel Cotterman


Head stone and foot stone of the original Harvey’s Chapel

Last week I took a walk out to the former Harvey’s Chapel AME church site in the woods on the southwest side of Hillsborough, led by Harold Russell–a lifelong member of the church and community historian–and Tom Magnuson–one of the founders of the Backways project and the director of the Trading Path Association. Starting on a small path, we quickly veered off into the forest, guided by Tom’s GPS and keen eye for the subtle signs of former habitation. I’ve been walking in the woods for Backways a lot recently, and my gaze is beginning to train itself towards small piles of milky quartz, fence lines, chimney stones, and the slight depressions of overgrown roadbeds cut into the earth that give us hints of places once called home. The woods around the former chapel site are full of these signs, indicating that far from being “untouched” forest, this place is host to many layers of human history and social life.

img_8369-300x225Harvey’s Chapel grew out of a “brush arbor” worship community, establishing their first fixed location in these woods in 1892. After moving locations twice, the congregation built a chapel about 2 miles from the original site in the 1940s, where they continue to gather today. Many of the current members are descended from the founding group of black families. The Backways project reached out to Harold Russell after we learned that Harvey’s Chapel was forced to move from the original site in the 1930s when the road on which it was located fell into such a state of disrepair that the congregation could no longer access the church. We are currently working to uncover more information about the process that led to the closure of this road, as well as to understand more about the experiences of the people who lived, worked, and worshiped along it, and I will share more on this blog in the coming weeks and months.

img_8375-300x225The former church site sits high up on a ridge, overlooking the calm and shallow water of Crabtree Creek. Many of the graves in the cemetery are marked with head and foot stones without visible inscriptions, although a few have engraved markers. One of the last people buried in the cemetery was Eddie Haithcock in 1935. Mr. Russell’s ancestor, John Wesley Thompson, is buried nearby. The outline of the church foundation is still visible, the entrance marked by two large milky quartz stones.

Mr. Russell was born after the church moved from this initial site, but the church community continued to baptize children in the creek for some years afterwards. When we approached the creek he told me with a big smile, “I think I was baptized here.” We found a spot that looked as if it had once been dammed for a baptismal pool, and a terraced area on the bank above that had been lined with quartz.


Harold Russell at the entrance of the old church.

It’s hard to put into words the power of reconnecting to places like this that have been written off the map. I recently moved back to the neighborhood where I grew up, about a mile away from Harvey’s Chapel. Learning more about the layered histories embedded in the landscape I call home has been so deeply meaningful for me, and I can only imagine the significance of this place for the members of Harvey’s Chapel whose ancestors worshipped, celebrated, mourned, and were laid to rest here. Mr. Russell’s dedicated work to preserve the Chapel’s history is a testament to the power of place, and it also hints at the forces that have attempted to erase black and rural places from public memory: when Mr. Russell was researching the former site, he discovered that it wasn’t included in the public land records, and had to go through an extensive process to get it entered using the original deeds. He describes the process here:

You can listen to Darius Scott’s complete interview with Harold Russell in the SOHP archive and read Mr. Russell’s history of Harvey’s Chapel on the church’s website.

For more information on the Back Roads, Back Ways project, click here.

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.

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.

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


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.