Skip to content

Archive for

“When we’re talking about the South, first ask: Whose South?”

Written by: Coco Wilder

Professor Susan Irons posed this question to my Southern Literature class early last year. Its simplicity and truth still resonates. She argued that the idea of  “the South”  invokes a crafted, monolithic narrative of slave owners to segregationists to Bible Belt conservatives. Anyone who actually lives in or studies the South, however, knows it is so much more. I love the Southern Oral History Program because it is committed to documenting the histories of diverse and often overlooked Southerners.

Take Mandy Carter, for example. Carter is a life-long activist and her work ranges from the anti-Vietnam war movement to the Civil and Women’s Rights movements. Because of her race, gender, and sexuality—Carter is an African American lesbian—she experienced isolation  within each movement. After moving to Durham, Carter organized the gay community to vote against Senator Jesse Helms in the 1990 election. In her interview with the Southern Oral History Program, Carter explains the coalition’s strategy and reflects on lessons learned:

“We have to be visible, we have to be viable, and we have to organize a massive voter drive within the gay community….I think the thing we learned was that to strengthen the movement you’ve got to have a combination of electoral and grassroots…It was such a phenomenal thing we did, and even though we didn’t win the election, I mean we won because no one in the state of North Carolina had ever put something together like this before. No one has ever gone after Helms as visibly as we did, so even to this day you’ve got people saying ‘Oh, I can’t believe you did all that.’”

Carter’s interview reveals historic cross-pollination among movements and the urgency of resistance today.  Her interview is a gem, and exemplifies the need for an inclusive historical record. In an effort to broaden the record, my internship class is working to document the Carolina Gay Association and related activism at UNC. Last semester’s interns made great headway into the project, but several of us are now collecting oral histories from lesbians and queer people of color. Carter’s interview sets a great precedent for our research, but we are focusing on students activists this semester.

To get energized about the project, we interns collected a mini group oral history from senior Ping Nguyen about his experiences as a gay Vietnamese immigrant and activist at UNC.  Nguyen exuded passion and love, and he generously reflected on his experiences with racism, sexism, and apathy within the gay community at UNC today. I left questioning how I, as a white queer woman can do better and educate myself about my white, economic, and “passing” privileges. I think  my fellow interns left with a more nuanced understanding of how contemporary queer issues and activism transcends marriage equality campaigns.

On Saturday morning, I ran into Nguyen and SOHP Field Scholar Katie Womble at Historic Thousands on Jones Street in Raleigh (HKonJ). HKonJ puts the “Long” in the SOHP’s Long Civil Rights Movement and Long Women’s Movement archives.  The NAACP coordinated this “Moral March,” along with progressive faith leaders, labor and education unions, women’s organizations and others to demonstrate for a more just North Carolina. This year, HKonJ mobilized crowds to resist legislation that disproportionately affects already under-resourced communities of color. It is estimated that between 80,000 and 100,000 from all across North Carolina marched in protest, including two buses and countless carpools of UNC students. Reverend Barber, a key organizer, referenced the work of Dr. Martin Luther King and Ella Baker and implored the crowd to not just “curse darkness,” but work for light and justice in North Carolina.  Regardless of one’s political persuasion, 100,000 North Carolinians assembling on a cold Saturday morning to non-violently protest is powerful.

I left the march exhausted, inspired, and needing to use the bathroom. As I stood in a long line at McDonalds, I watched older black women and young white women organizing to take over the men’s bathroom. I joined in—nothing makes me happier than women conspiring to occupy the men’s room. One man standing behind me wore dreadlocks and the jacket of a historically black fraternity. He turned to the woman next to him and said, “you know, today was great, but we need to make sure all of us turn out to the polls and vote come November.”

I smiled, reminded of what speaker after speaker that morning had spoken into the microphone: this is not a moment, this is a movement.  Now that’s the South I’m committed to documenting. That’s the South I love.       

SOHP Featured in “Talkback” Panel following Sweet Tea Performance

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 3.02.59 PM

SOHP Associate Director Rachel Seidman and former Interim Director Della Pollock will be featured in a panel discussion about the many uses of oral history following the matinee performance on Sunday, February 16 of E. Patrick Johnson’s play, Sweet Tea.  Join us in this exciting opportunity to hear directly from E. Patrick Johnson, whose interviews with black gay  men and black lesbians of the South will be deposited here at the Southern Oral History Program, and to join in an engaging conversation about oral history and performance.

Jane M Saks and Project& present
Written and performed by E. Patrick Johnson
Directed by Joseph MegelBased on his award-winning book, E. Patrick Johnson stars in this new one-man exploration into the southern black gay community. A fascinating, validating oral history inspired by the author’s personal journey, Sweet Tea explores the perceptions, angst, triumphs and vulnerabilities of this minority within a minority. With passion and insight, Johnson reinforces the spoken-word tradition while challenging stereotypes – and finding humor, humanity and hope within.February 12-22, 2014
Durham Arts Council
120 Morris Street, Durham
Info and tickets:


Oral Historians, Seize the Interview!

Author: Rob Shapard, SOHP Field Scholar

It’s usually the act of recording an interview with an interesting person that reminds me of the value of oral history, such as the chance it provides to add meaningful voices to the historical record. But every once in a while, this value is highlighted by an interview that has not actually happened, and never will.

This was my experience recently when I indulged in a detour from my dissertation-writing to read about a man named William Cicero Hammer. A key figure in my dissertation, forester and Raleigh native William W. Ashe, wrote to Hammer in 1925, hoping to influence his thinking on forestry issues. Ashe cared what Hammer thought because Hammer was a member of Congress, and also the owner and editor of the local newspaper in Asheboro, N.C. I became curious about Hammer and soon found an entry for him in the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, edited by UNC professor emeritus William S. Powell.

W.C. Hammer was born near Asheboro in 1865, just a few weeks before the end of the Civil War. He attended UNC and became a public-school teacher and then an attorney. He went on to win local office in Asheboro, serve as a U.S. attorney, and hold a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat from 1920-30. Hammer bought his local newspaper in 1891 and renamed it the Asheboro Courier, which he and his wife owned for some forty years. While in Congress, Hammer tried to stay connected to the newspaper business. But in fact, his wife, Minnie Lee Hancock Hammer, gradually began to run the paper and the couple’s other business interests, according to the dictionary entry, written by Kay M. Hamilton. She also did things like give a Fourth of July speech in 1930 for her husband, when he was too ill to appear. W.C. Hammer died two months after that speech, and Minnie Hammer was asked to serve the rest of his congressional term. She declined the office and stayed in Asheboro to focus on family, church, and business.

By that point in my reading, W.C. seemed interesting enough, but Minnie really was the fascinating figure to me. The dictionary had a separate entry on Minnie Hammer that told how she graduated from Salem College at age 19, married, and began serving her church in many capacities, such as president for twenty-five years of the Woman’s Missionary Society of the N.C. Annual Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church, and the first woman on the executive committee of the unified General Conference of the Methodist church. She proposed the creation of the Methodist Protestant Children’s home, which was built in Denton and relocated to High Point in 1913, and she was a leader in establishing High Point College ten years later. Hammer also was president of several local clubs in Asheboro for many years and dubbed by others in the town as “Asheboro’s First Citizen.” She continued to run the Courier before selling it in 1938. She lost her only child, Harriette Lee Hammer Walker, in 1943, and Hammer passed away in 1959 at age eighty-five.

I found myself grateful for these tidbits about Minnie Hammer’s life, but also disappointed that her memories and perspective on her life were permanently out of reach. I wished she were available to speak for herself about some of these experiences and what they meant to her. In other words, I wished that she could sit down for a couple of hours and record an oral history. How would she look back on the course of her life and make sense of it? How did she experience world-changing events like the two world wars, the Great Depression, and the beginnings of the civil rights movement? As a white woman in the South during these decades, what limitations did she face, and what opportunities? Many more questions arise. The dictionary gives hints about how she might answer such questions, but hearing Minnie Hammer’s memories directly from her would have been fascinating, and an invaluable glimpse into her life and times.

As an oral historian, I find it helpful to be reminded that meaningful lives like Minnie Hammer’s end every day, and a lasting, first-person account of these lives usually escapes us. This awareness probably is the most powerful source of urgency in our work. Time always is short for connecting with people and preserving their stories. And for non-historians, let this spur you on as well. If you have a cherished family member, friend, or local figure who is willing to talk, seize the opportunity to record their stories, and give them the gift of your attention.