SOHP intern Kimberly Oliver is a junior undergraduate student double majoring in History and Anthropology and minoring in American Indian and Indigenous Studies. Originally from Greensboro, North Carolina, she grew up visiting endless museums and historic sites, developing a love of history that she now plans to turn into a career in public history.
As a history major, I am well acquainted with the issue of representation and the incompleteness of the historical record. Oral history has proven to be an important tool in filling silences for one of my recent projects.
This semester I am conducting an extensive research project into the suffrage movement at North Carolina’s State Normal and Industrial School (what would later become the University of North Carolina at Greensboro). This college, founded in 1891 as an institution to train North Carolina’s women to be public school teachers, became a place where young women learned how to be leaders. Teaching and advocacy for the interests of public schools provided an entrance into political and public life, and lead naturally to students demanding participation in those spheres by being able to vote. While researching a movement built on the idea of creating a space for women’s voices to be heard, I knew it was imperative that my project be centered on the voices of students, and oral history provided this gateway.
Several interviews with graduates of the Normal School can be found in the SOHP archives, and I found two interviews with Kathrine Robinson Everett to be particularly compelling. Everett graduated from the Normal School in 1913, before attending Columbia University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In the 1920s she became one of the first women to graduate from UNC’s law school, and went on to have a successful career as a lawyer and local politician. Everett’s life was notable for what interviewer Pamela Dean describes as its “unusual route,” yet she doesn’t think of herself as a pioneer. She says “You just do what comes and what you believe in. You don’t stop and think whether you are a pioneer … I had several firsts but they were just because I happened to be there at the right time.” Reading about Everett’s accomplishments on their own, it would easy for a historian to automatically assign the label of “pioneer” to her and to imagine that she thought of herself as a trailblazer for other women. Yet, doing so is imposing one’s interpretation of a person’s experience onto their history. Oral history allows Everett to share her own story and give an accurate portrayal of how she interprets the retrospect meaning of her experience.
In a project investigating a movement resulting from the demands of women that their voices be heard, oral histories allow these women to continue to speak for themselves. This field acknowledges the agency of a wider group of historical actors in a way that written sources often cannot. Kathrine Everett noted that the Normal School “nurtured independent thought” in its students, and using oral histories allows my research to capture those independent thoughts of students, both in content and in methodology.