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Creating our UNC Women’s History Tour

Sophia Hutchens is a fourth-year undergraduate and the program assistant of the Southern Oral History Program. She created and continues to lead a specialized, one-hour walking tour on women’s history at UNC.

The women’s history tour was a tremendously exciting project to work on. The tour expanded my knowledge about Chapel Hill and UNC, strengthened my passion for public history, and allowed me to engage the public with the past. I was able to share and explore issues that I care deeply about, such as student activism and queer movements.

My goal for the tour was to show the many different stories of people of marginalized genders who are connected to UNC, to recognize and name the people whose stories are not usually told. I wanted to include information about staff, faculty, students, and other community members in order to provide a more holistic and representative vision of UNC’s history. I also focused on the stories of people of color and queer folks, who are often underrepresented. I hoped to underscore the sacrifices people made to study and work here, but also highlight the remaining struggles and challenges.

While there were so many stories and issues that I wanted to cover, I knew that I had to be realistic about the limitations of the tour. I found this quote from Karen Parker comforting, “I realized there were a lot of things that needed doing… Through the written word, everybody was going to be elevated to a new status. I found out very quickly that it doesn’t work that way. You feel very fortunate if you help one, two, three, four, five people.”

When preparing the tour, I first reviewed notes from Taylor Livingston’s version of the tour. Taylor was a field scholar and intern coordinator for the SOHP who led “Digging in Our Heels, Angels on Campus: The History of Women On Campus,” a walking tour that was co-sponsored by the UNC Visitor’s Center. While I pulled the majority of my content for the tour from other sources, Taylor’s notes allowed me to evaluate how many stories could be told and how many locations could be visited in an hour-long walking tour.

Next, I utilized UNC’s archives to create a general timeline of the university’s history and obtain general historical context. I utilized several publicly available resources, including the Southern Historical Collection, the SOHP’s interview database, UNC libraries’ digital exhibits, UNC’s virtual museum, and “Names in Brick and Stone: Histories from the University’s Built Landscape,” a project produced by Dr. Anne Mitchell Whisnant’s students in HIST/AMST 671: Introduction to Public History. The tour would not exist without these expertly crafted resources, and I am so grateful for the historians who worked to create them and the support they were given in order to do so. With a particular emphasis on women, I collected information about leaders, student and staff activism, the establishment of UNC programs and buildings, changes in the admissions process, and more.

SOHP walking tours typically utilize audio recordings from our interview database. The tour guides share about a person or event and then play a related clip from our archives. I decided to instead read selections from interviews, to avoid technological difficulties and make it easier for guests to hear, and after the tour share a playlist of the clips with the guests. I wanted the tour to present stories from UNC’s history that had strong, related interviews that I could perform. This meant that there were people who I could not include in the tour. For example, I wanted to tell the story of Gwendolyn Harrison, the first Black woman to attend UNC. UNC rescinded her acceptance to her graduate program after she arrived on campus and they realized that she was Black. Harrison decided to fight their decision and file a suit. UNC soon readmitted her and she was able to attend summer courses, but she did not complete her Ph.D. Unfortunately, we do not have an interview with Gwendolyn Harrison so she is not an official part of the tour (though I have spoken about her with some guests while walking to the next destination).

I also chose stories that had stronger connections to sites on campus, and then narrowed those down further by their proximity to each other. While we have captivating interviews with Christina Stickland Theodorou and Amy Lockland Hertel, two of the four Native American students at UNC who founded the Alpha Pi Omega sorority in 1994, their related locations were too far from other sites in the tour. Ultimately, the availability of a related interview and location determined whether an event or person could be incorporated into the tour.

Even after this selection process, I had a surplus of possible stories to include. This is when I pulled out the sticky notes so that I could envision the tour as a whole. I filled pages of my notebook with lists of people and descriptions of their relationships with UNC. For example, when examining Anne Queen, the former director of the Campus Y, I considered her roles as a leader, collaborator, and change maker on this campus. Anne Queen’s work helped create spaces for students that are dedicated to making this campus a better, more inclusive space. I wanted to balance stories of people who changed, challenged, and struggled with UNC.

In the end, I chose a group of people and events that covered a wide span of time in UNC’s history, had connections to powerful interviews in our database, and portrayed the different, often overlooked struggles experienced by people of marginalized genders. I especially enjoy sharing the story of Pauli Murray, a queer, gender nonconforming Durham native who was denied admittance to UNC’s graduate school in 1938 on the basis of their race. Pauli Murray was a descendent of Cornelia Smith, an enslaved woman who was baptized at the Chapel of the Cross, as well as a slave owner who was a member of UNC’s Board of Trustees. Pauli Murray became an attorney, poet, activist, educator, and priest. You can learn more about Pauli’s incredible story through the Pauli Murray Project.

After writing my script, I practiced the tour with several people, including friends, family, and colleagues. Sara Wood, the SOHP’s project manager, helped me refine the overall story of the tour and provide a consistent message. Lindsey Waldenberg and Spencer Anderson, staff from the Visitor’s Center, gave me critical advice on the technique of leading tours.

Guests of the tour have had a wide range of knowledge about women’s history at UNC. Some of my peers have never of people like Elizabeth Brooks, while other guests were friends with people highlighted in the tour! This encouraged guests to have conversations with one another while we traveled to different locations. They have often shared resources, knowledge, and contact information. This sense of community has stuck with and inspired me.

Keep an eye on the SOHP’s newsletter and social media to find out about future tour dates! Email Sophia Hutchens at smosgh@live.unc.edu if you have any questions.