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Breaking New Ground – now online!

This post was contributed by Adrienne Petty.

Three years ago, historians Mark Schultz and Adrienne Petty set out on an urgent mission to record the stories of African American farm owners. Time was of the essence. Land ownership among African Americans peaked during the early twentieth century and continues to decline. Fearful of losing their stories forever, Schultz, a professor at Lewis University, and Petty, a professor at the City College of New York, led a team of undergraduate and graduate students from universities throughout the South in collecting and preserving digitally recorded oral history interviews for their project, “Breaking New Ground: A History of African American Farm Owners Since the Civil War.” The fruits of their labor are now available on the Southern Oral History Program site. Funded by a $230,000 collaborative research grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the collection includes more than 300 interviews with black farm owners and their descendants from Maryland to Oklahoma. The collection covers a range of topics related to farming, landownership and post Civil War U.S. history, including Reconstruction, the Great Depression, the world wars, the Civil Rights Movement, and the contemporary black farmers’ activism.

The goal of “Breaking New Ground” is to explore how rural black families “made a way out of no way” and became farm owners against considerable odds, how land ownership affected their experience of the Jim Crow era, and how their privileged positions shaped the destinies of their descendants. We want to ask, How did some black farmers acquire land? Did land ownership empower African Americans in the racially segregated South? How did African American land ownership differ in different parts of the region? What was their legacy? Answers to these questions and others will deepen our understanding of an essential, but overlooked, element of southern history.

Adrienne Petty is a descendant of black farm owners and is currently working on a book entitled, Standing Their Ground: Small Farm Owners in the South. Mark Schultz, author of The Rural Face of White Supremacy: Beyond Jim Crow, has recorded hundreds of interviews with Georgians, many of which are already in the SOHP collection at the Southern Historical Collection in Carolina’s Wilson Library.

We hope that the oral histories we collect as part of this project will not only lay the foundation for a history monograph that fills a glaring gap in the scholarship, but also creates a rich resource for historians, students, teachers, and researchers of all kinds.

You can access the 300+ interviews from this project in the SOHP database here.

James Polk, the ballplayer


by Grace Tatter for the SOHP

Despite not having its own Major League Baseball team until the second half of the twentieth century, the South has produced many of the game’s finest players. Perhaps the most famous of which is Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play Major League baseball.

Robinson might be a saint to devotees of America’s great pastime, but even he had a temper.

To mark the end of baseball season (Go Sox!) and honor Robinson (who died 41 years ago today), we listened to Elizabeth Gritter’s 2006 interview with James K. Polk. An African-American trailblazer himself, Polk headed the Charlotte Bureau on Training and Placement and was a community leader in Charlotte.

But before that, Polk was a ballplayer.  His neighborhood, Grier Heights, churned out many professional athletes, and sports was one of the few points of interaction between white and black residents of the community. In 1948, Polk played for a Charlotte team that faced off against Robinson, who was travelling with Larry Doby, another MLB pioneer, on a barnstorming team.

Polk recalls:

“[…] I played second base that day. Jackie Robinson had not received a hit all the way down the line. So he hit a ball over second base. I went back and threw him out. When we changed innings he cussed me out. He cussed me.”

To learn more about the importance of sports to racial integration in Charlotte and in Polk’s Grier Heights neighborhood, check out the interview here:

First Annual NC Women’s Summit Connects Oral History to Policy Challenges

womens summit panel

SOHP founding Director Jacquelyn Hall (on far left) moderated and Field Scholars Brittany Chavez (third from left) and Joey Fink (second from right) participated on panel addressing “How We Can Create a Fair Economy for Women.” Picture credit: Megapixie

150 women from all over the state of North Carolina rose from their seats to applaud six UNC undergraduates, the first cohort of Moxie Scholars. The Moxies, as they are affectionately known, had just finished their original performance, “Every Time I Move, I Make a Women’s Movement.” Based on the oral histories they had collected as part of the Moxie Project: Women and Leadership for Social Change, the performance represents a collective reflection on feminist history and activism. The students’ passion, creativity and talent brought the entire audience of the First Annual North Carolina Women’s Summit to their feet—and tears to many of their eyes.

The Moxie Scholars performance was just one highlight among many at the summit, titled “Ms. Behaving: How North Carolina Women Make History. Rachel Seidman, Southern Oral History Program Associate Director, originally conceived of the summit and planned it in cooperation with Women AdvaNCe. The goal of the summit was to translate knowledge into action by putting oral history and other types of academic research in dialogue with practitioners. This dialogue educated, empowered and inspired the North Carolina women in the audience to take specific steps to address the challenges facing them and their families. Three panels addressed major questions that formed the basis for an overarching call to action: “How Do We Ensure Women’s Health?” “How Can We Protect Public Education?” and “How Do We Create a Fair Economy for Women?”

Drawing on historical evidence, panelists discussed striking changes in the role of women in North Carolina. Panelists explained how, dating back to the early 20th century, the state was once a national leader in protecting citizens’ health, providing public education, and investing in the public good. But over the last three decades, state-level policy changes have eroded the prospects of women and children. We now rank 47th in the country in key indicators of women’s health; teachers’ salaries have dropped from 24th in the nation to 48th; and currently half of single mothers in North Carolina live in poverty.

Panelists and moderators, including SOHP Founding Director Jacquelyn Hall and Field Scholars Joey Fink and Brittany Chavez, also provided specific recommendations for making progress. When asked who in the state was representing the interests of Latinas, Brittany directed the audience to the exciting and important work being done by youth-led organizations including Southerners on New Ground. She also encouraged the audience to explore the work being done by SOHP partner Hannah Gill, Director of the Latino Migration Project at UNC, and the program she oversees called Building Integrated Communities, a statewide initiative whose mission is to help “North Carolina local governments successfully engage with immigrants and refugee populations in order to improve public safety, promote economic development, enhance communication, and improve relationships.“ Audience members were encouraged to write letters to the editor, register voters, and volunteer for organizations. When a single mother of three children, struggling to make ends meet, asked how she could get involved with only two hours a week to spare, she was encouraged to realize what “a gift” two hours per week would be to organizations that desperately need her help.

Audience members came from around the state, including Charlotte, Robeson County, and Greensboro, and many said they got just what they were looking for from the event. Joey Fink reported, “From what I saw, the day served many, many of the women present so well, and will be an important first step in new networks and organizing efforts.” Danielle Koonce from Raleigh tweeted: “WomenAdvaNCe’s Summit has me pumped up. Going to use my pen as my sword. Ignorance is killing us.” Deborah Locklear posted on Women Advance’s Facebook page, “Thank You for the opportunity to attend such an empowering event. The knowledge and friendships will be utilized and cherished! Awesome group of Women!!!”

A Briefe and True Account: OHA 2013

Current SOHP staff Rachel Seidman, Jaycie Vos, Seth Kotch, and Malinda Lowery made their way to Oklahoma City, formerly known as Indian Territory, for the annual meeting of the Oral History Association (OHA), Oct. 9-13, 2013.

Read more

“I found that indeed there was a homosexual behind every tree…”: Dan Leonard and the CGA

By Corinne White for the SOHP Field Notes Blog

He still has a bright blue Vote Against Amendment 1 yard sign on the front porch of his crumbling split level, and a tiny rainbow pinwheel flag adorns the top of his driveway.

Inside, from where I sat on the leather La-Z-Boy couch, I could see a bookshelf full of psychological and medical literature about homosexuality, embroidered Bible verses on the walls and a kitschy collection of mugs.

A few sunny Fridays ago, I interviewed Dan Leonard, founder of the Carolina Gay Association, Carrboro resident and registered nurse. During his time at UNC-Chapel Hill, Leonard also worked as a counselor in the Human Sexuality Information and Counseling Services.

When my fellow interns and I decided we would tackle sexuality at UNC in the 1970s as our research topic, I was hesitant to take on such a sensitive topic. But as I dug deeper into the archives in Wilson Library, uncovering letters from alumni angry about the CGA, finding old Lambda newsletters and learning more generally about the LGBT rights movement I became more excited to tackle an under-documented part of history.

As a lifelong North Carolinian, Leonard had extremely valuable insights to share regarding southern identity, discrimination and especially gay life in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area.

Growing up in rural Davidson County, he remembered feeling like an outsider: “I just didn’t fit in. I talked – since my parents were college-educated – I talked like my parents and not country southern people talked. So that got me being odd right off. So being odd or different from such an early age was sort of normative for me, that I never really fit the mainstream anyway. As I say negative statements about homosexuality were not made because it wasn’t discussed.”

Before coming to Chapel Hill for medical school, he had quite an interesting impression of the town: “I had heard from the time I was in junior high or high school that ‘Now, in Chapel Hill there is a queer and a Communist behind every tree.” So you know, when I came here in 1965, I found that indeed there was a homosexual behind every tree – well, every other tree – the Communists were behind every other tree.”

He decided to establish the Carolina Gay Association to give gay students a safe space to meet each other, and most importantly to take part in consciousness-raising groups. The CGA first met at the Newman Catholic Student Center. To increase visibility on campus, the organization posted on the cube in front of the student union, and, in one humorous occasion, on the pillars of Wilson Library: “You know when rush in the fall and all those fraternities and sororities put up rush notices. So one year, someone designed and made a poster that had ‘Lambda Lambda Lambda’ on it and it said ‘Rush the CGA!’”

Leonard continues his work as an advocate for LGBT rights today, as a member of a group for LGBT seniors at Carrboro Town Center.

Listen to other Southern Oral History Program interviews on the history of gay men in the south here.

The Fall’13 Internship Project: the Carolina Gay Association and the sexual revolution at UNC

This year, the SOHP is continuing its internship program with a new batch of four undergraduate students at UNC. The topic for our oral histories this semester is the Carolina Gay Association (CGA), LGBTQ rights, and the sexual revolution at UNC. As someone who worked on the Gender non-Specific housing campaign last year, I was very excited to research what techniques the LGBTQ community

The Fall '13 SOHP Internship Team

The Fall ’13 SOHP Internship Team along with the Archival Liaison, Morgan Jones

used in order to receive recognition and equal rights at UNC and in the Triangle area. Listening through interviews with past gay Carolina students and Chapel Hill community members, I was inspired by the amount of community support received in Chapel hill for the CGA and LGBTQ community whether it was a church allowing gay and lesbian individuals/allies to meet in their building or a local bar which hosted ‘Gay nights’ for the LGBTQ community to socialize and meet one another.

As much support the gay and lesbian community received, there was also backlash from the administration and other student groups on campus. I can speak for all of the interns here in saying we hope to share with UNC and the Chapel Hill community both sides of the issue. There is certainly no single Truth in oral history or life, but rather a multitude a narratives from individuals based on personal experience. We will share the interviews, and allow you to decide.


Below are quotes on the topic and  particular research interests by each of our student interns and Graduate student Intern Coordinator, Evan Faulkenbury

Layla QuranLayla Quran:

“Oral history provides a powerful opportunity to capture unheard narratives from our past. Never is this more true than with the case of the Carolina Gay Association and the sexual revolution at UNC. I look forward to exploring how figures of authority-including city council members, professors, and university administration (both those identifying as LGBTQ and not) fit into the emerging sexual revolution at UNC, integrated into the gay community, and challenged opposing forces at the time. I am curious as to how these individuals, commonly thrust into the limelight, understood their identities as both gay and powerful in the city or state of North Carolina as a whole.”


Grace Tatter

Grace Tatter: 

“I am interested in gay student activism at UNC because the student body is currently grappling with the role of student activism a s a counter to oppressive politics and social norms. Our interviewees will give us a yardstick for how far we have come on issues of sexuality and sexual health, as well as shed light on the roots of our contemporary quandaries — and have some really good stories to boot!”


Ashley Templeton:

Ashley Templeton“The focus of my interviews for our project on the Sexual Revolution of the 1970s will be on student and faculty activism to promote sexual education during this time. My interests include a new and popular class at the time, Health 33, the only class that offered a comprehensive education on sexuality; the pamphlet and weekly Daily Tar Heel column, “Elephants and Butterflies,” which answered student questions about sex; The Human Sexuality Information and Counseling Services, a student-run counseling department that helped answer students’ questions about themselves; and the evolution of the campus’s perceptions on sexuality as more information became available. ”


Corinne White

Corinne White:

“I was excited to learn more about the LGBTQ movement in Chapel Hill because I feel a lot of people, including myself, have a nonexistent or limited awareness of this topic. I think people have a tendency to forget how much progress the LGBTQ movement has made in a relatively short time compared to other marginalized groups. I wanted to not only uncover personal stories of the LGBTQ community, but also gain a more systemic understanding of the LGBTQ community, backlash to the movement and consciousness raising on campus.”


Evan Faulkenbury:

Evan Faulkenbury


“I’m interested in our topic on gay and lesbian activism because it is an underrepresented movement within the historical literature. Oral history is particularly suited to uncover this fascinating social movement, and I look forward to seeing the interns’ research as they connect the history of gay and lesbian activism at UNC Chapel Hill to wider themes such as feminism, student militancy, and the South since the 1960s.”



The most oppressed narratives are certainly the ones which deserve the most attention. Next year is the 40th anniversary of the Carolina Gay Association, and we cannot wait to see what kind of stories we can share with the CGA and the Carolina community as a whole. We hope to put on the pedestal of human conscious the untold stories of the CGA and the sexual revolution at UNC, so that those looking both in the past and searching forward can have guidance in endeavors for equal rights for all human beings.

The Legacy of ‘The Feminine Mystique’

This year marked the 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique, the 1963 book by Betty Friedan.

Describing the period between World War II and 1960, Friedan explains the cycle of women marrying young, having large families after moving to the suburbs, and ultimately abandoning their own ambitions.

A suburban housewife herself, Friedan began the book by asking women why they felt so stifled by the household role they carried. Friedman 1971BettyMarchbegins the book by describing ‘the problem that has no name’, the reason for the widespread unhappiness of American women in the 1960s. She goes on to explain her own decisions in conforming to the pressures of society, and states that women need meaningful work beneficial to society as a whole in order to achieve the gighest potential of self-actualization. Friedman promotes education and meaningful work as the main method to escaping the feminine mystique.

Feminism and what it means to be empowered as a woman varies on a local and global scale, and the Southern Oral History Program has been there to document the voices of women wfemininemystique1ho have defined for themselves what role they can and should play in society.

For example, Lorayne Lester was the first female Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and one of the first five women to achieve full professorship at the college. In her interview, Lester talks about the hiring of women at the University and the effects of Title IX. Lester says,

“I guess I came across as a very smarta** woman, but the workload was massive…so I will admit that I was more than once taken aback by a faculty member or department head getting absolutely irate at hearing the truth about something.”

You can find more interviews from women in leadership roles in the south by visiting the SOHP project ‘The Long Civil Rights movement: The Woman’s movement in the south here