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Chatham County, NC

In close proximity to the Research Triangle Park and the cities of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, largely rural Chatham County, North Carolina, is facing the problems and the opportunities associated with social, economic, and environmental upheaval. Affluent commuters and retirees, many recently arrived from the Northeast, have been the catalyst for new development that often conflicts with the interests of longtime residents and traditional farmers, who find it increasingly difficult to hold on to their land or make their living in the county. Real estate prices continue to rise, subdivision threatens the county’s remaining large farms and open tracts of land, older African American residents express lingering resentment over the fact that they were disproportionately affected by the creation of a recreational lake, and the county grapples with the potential environmental impact of a proposed nuclear waste dump. Meanwhile, Chatham’s demographics have been drastically altered by an influx of Latino immigrants, who now constitute almost a quarter of the population in a county where race relations between blacks and whites have historically been strained. These issues – and more – make Chatham a microcosm for the dramatic changes underway in North Carolina and much of the South.

Coordinated by Spencie Love, the Southern Oral History Program’s “Listening For a Change” project in Chatham County germinated in response to requests for an oral history survey from the Chatham Historical Association and Chatham’s Black Historical Society, and grew as the focus of an Introduction to Oral History course taught by Love at UNC in the fall of 1999. In order to understand recent developments in the context of history, the project has been conducting interviews that document life in Chatham County since World War II, concentrating on race relations (including the effects of desegregation), new immigration, land use, and ways of life. An overarching theme in the project’s work is an exploration of the meaning of “community” in Chatham’s past, present, and future.