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Posts from the ‘oral history’ Category

Life, Family, and Community in Appalachia by Caroline Efird

SOHP field scholar Caroline Efird is a PhD student in the department of health behavior at Gillings School of Global Public Health.

Have you ever been to a goat and lavender farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains? If not, it is every bit as idyllic as you can imagine. On a breezy day in July, I had the pleasure of sitting down to iced tea with a vivid storyteller named Marilyn Cade, a (semi) retired nurse and farmer. While you will not be able to see all of the lovely scenery, you too can listen to Mrs. Cade’s interview by visiting the Stories to Save Lives: Health, Illness, and Medical Care in the South project found within the Southern Oral History Program’s archive.

In her interview, Marilyn Cade shared detailed anecdotes about her life, family, and community in the South Toe River region. As healthcare providers, Cade and her husband moved to the region about 45 years ago, to offer much needed medical care to a rural, Appalachian community. As an oral historian and public health researcher, I was especially interested in learning how the healthcare needs of her community have changed throughout her lifetime. In particular, Cade was deeply concerned about the recent closure of the labor and delivery unit at her community’s nearest hospital.

Marylin Cade: “…to think that the dangers for people having a healthy and safe delivery [in this community] have gone backward, I can’t put into words how shocked I am that medical care was better forty-five years ago. I really can’t get over it. And I don’t know what the new solution is going to be. We are feeling very sad and stricken by [the closing of our labor and delivery department]. Our children are through having babies, but our friends’ children aren’t finished. All the people that we know and work with, our whole larger community in the mountains has a deep threat to health. And it’s not just mother and child care, it’s across the board. If all you can get is excellent emergency care, then you have already put yourself in danger. People are in meetings, people are protesting, people are writing, people are doing everything that they can think of to do to help alert both the community to the fact that it’s changed and then the people who are doing this or the people who could change it. So whatever can be done right now in the face of this is being done.”

The words and actions of Marylin Cade and other members of her community are both haunting and inspiring. Local healthcare advocates are actively engaged in trying to raise awareness about this critical need, as they do their best to advocate for the return of the labor and delivery department. However, the current reality is that pregnant residents must drive over an hour on windy roads through rural Appalachia to reach a hospital that offers obstetric services.

I wonder, how can oral historians support the work that is already occurring in this community? We have documented their calls for change in a public archive, but what would it look like for us to reinforce their efforts in other ways? How can their stories help save the lives of women and infants in their mountain community? These are the types of questions that we Field Scholars are pondering as we head into the spring semester. Our goal is to share their oral histories more broadly, through both academic and public platforms, so that the voices of these narrators can help ensure that this “deep threat to health” does not go unnoticed by the people who have the power to change the situation.

Accepting Care in a Space of “Unknown and Disruption” by Ina Dixon

Tim Schwantes was interviewed by Ina Dixon in October 2018 for SOHP’s Stories to Save Lives project. He gave his consent for his interview to be archived with the Southern Oral History Project at UNC-Chapel Hill and for Ina to write about his powerful interview. 

I interviewed Tim Schwantes in the fall of 2018, a few years after his wife’s cancer diagnosis. The diagnosis was serious and rare—a neuroendocrine tumor—and Tim and his wife Anna had to face it at a young age with their young son, Sam. But I had always known Tim as an energetic and enthusiastic caregiver; I assumed he could tackle this new obstacle in stride.

Some background about Tim: He lives an especially active lifestyle and takes health seriously in both his professional and personal life. He makes a priority of getting exercise daily and eating healthy foods. His private life is governed by similar commitments to health he practices in his public work. Tim works with Healthy Places By Design—a Chapel Hill based nonprofit that supports communities in improving their health through changes in local policies and the built environment. I met Tim around 2015 while he was working in this role as a consultant in Danville, Virginia, helping to pull together a regional Health Collaborative. In Danville, I got to see firsthand that Tim was good at his job—his energetic and affable nature allowed him to connect and inspire a wide array of people to action for better public health.

I wanted to know how this independent extrovert was dealing with a serious health crisis affecting his young family. Tim agreed to sit down with me for an interview for the Southern Oral History Program’s Stories to Save Lives project, which explores the past and present experience of health and medical care in North Carolina. Tim was open and candid about the burden of Anna’s cancer on their family, his health, and his identity. Some of what he said surprised me.

Health is not an impersonal topic, as Tim’s personal experience of illness shows. Each one of us will experience similar illness, death, and loss at some point in our lives. Yet, too often we rush to conclusions about how to live healthier, longer, better. Since at least the 1940s, North Carolinian medical boards have been calling for “more doctors, more hospitals, more insurance.” (The Good Health of All North Carolina (1945) NCHH-54. North Carolina History of Health Digital Collection: http://archives.hsl.unc.edu/nchh/nchh-54/nchh-54-000.pdf ) The answer has been, to many in the medical field, give people greater access to, and better quality, care and they will be able to fulfill their health and vitality.

Tim’s own work falls in line with similar thinking: give people access to support systems that encourage health—walkable neighborhoods, healthy foods, access to healthcare, and robust community leadership—and these communities will, in turn, be healthier. Yet at an individual level in the United States, perhaps the path to health is not as clear as having access to “more” or “better.” What I learned from Tim is that health is about access, but not just one’s access to services, support and people. Health is also about giving access to these networks of support and people at moments of deep vulnerability.

Throughout Anna’s illness, Tim’s family had the benefit of loving community support. With backgrounds and professional experience in public health, both Anna and Tim could navigate the maze of healthcare and advocate for quality care for Anna. They had health insurance. Yet access to love, care, and financial support were not enough to guarantee health, or ameliorate the physical and psychological toll of this particular illness. Tim had the support of a loving community, but welcoming it meant giving up a part of his identity—and perhaps an illusion—as a self-sufficient provider for his family. In his interview, Tim reflected that though he appreciated all that his friends and family was doing to support him during Anna’s illness, their support was often at a cost to him.

The more people came to help him, the more Tim felt he needed to maintain his image as a self-sufficient and in control caregiver.

Tim wanted to maintain order and calm even as he was helpless against his wife’s vicious cancer. Allowing his in-laws, friends, colleagues, and even his son to access this experience of helplessness would erode his sense of strength and independence. It wouldn’t matter that Tim had access to the networks he needed at this time—there was a part of him that didn’t want them. If he let people access him, by providing meals or helping out with childcare, it would make the reality of his helplessness all the more real.

We have to acknowledge this interior aspect of the experiences of health and medical care. It is not enough to have access to robust systems that encourage health and vitality. The systems we access must be sympathetic to the reality of patients’ vulnerability—a vulnerability that is at odds with what many of us desire to be: independent, in control, and able to provide and care for others. Accepting care often means relinquishing control and being taken care of, rather than caring for. Our medical care, support networks, and providers must acknowledge that illness is a crucible that strips us to our most vulnerable selves. Our health systems and caregivers must be good stewards of that bare human state.

Tim’s crucible changed when Anna died in June of 2019, some months after his interview. Even with this loss, the interview continues to give voice to the weight of vulnerability during times of illness and need. Tim’s openness about his experience offers a lesson to health providers as well as to those of us who will have to, at times of medical crises like these, give support or allow others access to our experience. Tim’s story was one of the interviews that stuck with me in my time with the Southern Oral History Program working on Stories to Save Lives. I will always appreciate his contribution to the archive—a contribution that, I hope, will help deepen a humanist understanding of health and medical care in the South.

Meaning-Making and the Process of Dying

“As I think back about my taste of death, it is clear that my preparatory thinking enhanced the possibility of a peaceful letting go. Can we ever be sure when our lease is up? Waiting until coda-time may be too late.”

  1. David Martin, Facing Death page 68

My last post ended with a consideration of death’s long-term trajectory that we observe as we age. Although it has been regarded as a decidedly morose thought, the idea that we’re all slowly dying has some real merit. Perhaps it deserves a chance to re-enter conversations about death without the “I’m-13-and-this-is-deep” associations. One mistake we make in our conception of death is to project binaries onto it. Although we can usually delineate experientially between what is alive and what is dead, pinpointing the exact moment of death has become increasingly problematic as medicine understands physiology with increasing nuance. Degrees of brain death, the mere existence of the Harvard Ad Hoc Committee on Brain Death, and the ensuing legal and philosophical debates demonstrate that death is no black and white matter. Thomas W. Laqueur elaborates in the afterword of Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Mortality and its Timings about how the physiological state of death is negotiated in the modern hospital for comatose patients:

This is what happens: First, doctors use clinical criteria to rule out other reasons for someone being in a deep and persistent coma rather than whole brain death: abnormally low body temperature; evidence of barbiturate poisoning, for example. Then, they administer a battery of neurological tests, dating back to the nineteenth and early twentieth century, that cumulatively show whether the lower brain, the part that controls breathing, is functional. There are many more. All bear testimony to the glorious history of nineteenth-century neurology and, cumulatively, to the destruction of the place in the brain that controls breathing as well as so much else. Only when all of these examinations indicate that the brain stem, and hence the whole brain, is indeed dead is a person eligible for the determinative test for death. The candidate is given a big hit of pure oxygen so that her blood is fully saturated: (10 minutes pre-oxygenation). Then the ventilator is shut off. If she does not breathe within three minutes—in some jurisdictions, five or even eight minutes—she will never never never never breathe again. We know this because the part of the brain that controls breathing is, as the earlier tests had suggested, truly gone. The time of death, to repeat, is recorded not when the patient, already suspected for some time of being brain dead, on the basis of various neurological tests, but when she failed the apnea test and was dead in the old-fashioned way.” (148-149)

Does this medical evidence feel conclusive? Maybe not. According to Laqueur, patients are sometimes hooked back into the ventilator to protect the viability of their organs for transplant after the death is recorded. Our stomachs may still churn at the thought of removing ventilator support in the first place, but somehow replacing it feels like another transgression. The issue is fraught medically, but also from a more pedestrian perspective: we don’t like to have to take control of the threshold between a breathing moment and a subsequent non-breathing moment, and something visceral tells us so when we read the above description. Additionally, a profound reframing of this death moment and the life at stake occurs: comatose patients become “candidates” for death, which becomes “real” only once a series of tests have been passed.

Robert Morison charges us to avoid the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” when it comes to death.[i] He identifies the danger of squishy, process words like “living” and “dying” being replaced by apparently bounded, static words like “life” and “death.” Similarly, in Cuttin’ the Body Loose, William Gavin argued that “the word death does not have meaning invariance; it has meant different things to different cultures at different times. More strongly put, there is no such thing as death ‘in itself,’ or, if there is, we don’t know anything about it.”[ii] All of these subtleties around our constructions of death lead us away from the so-called objective, biological “facts” and towards the subjective expressions of life, particularly through story. Eric J. Cassell argues that “there are two distinct things happening in the terminally ill, the death of the body and the passing of the person.”[iii] Quantitative measures, however suspect, can measure the death of the body, but the passing of the person relies on narrative for meaning-making. Importantly, meaning-making in death narratives relies on the audience as much as the storyteller. Gavin posits, “the absurd thing is, that one has to do this [address their own mortality], and, that one can never accomplish the task of making death and dying meaningful.”[iv] Importantly, in the work of making meaning for our deaths, the meaning is made for the ones we leave behind. Although this is true for any audience-storyteller relationship, it seems more piquant when the storyteller is gone. What the dying do in crafting an end of life narrative is more for the people who will tell their story than it is for themselves. To shift the perspective (and perhaps state the obvious), in the way we live and die, we take part in the dictation of our legacy and afterlives.

In this week’s sole clip, Carl Henley, a retired professor emeritus from the School of Social Work, describes an unusual experience from the final weeks of his wife’s dementia-related death. Whatever the cause of this final conversation they got to share, it created space for a significant moment of meaning-making. This moment is a story worth repeating and probably a precious thing for Carl to reflect on in the absence of his wife. We can’t count on experiences like this to happen to us or our loved ones, so perhaps embracing dying as an ongoing process rather than a moment in time would provoke more conversations like this in our own lives. Perhaps we would have a greater sense of urgency when it comes to embracing those sweet moments of human warmth and vulnerability when they happen across our path.

[i] See Morison’s piece “Death: Process or Event?” in Death Inside Out: The Hastings Center Report edited by Peter Steinfels and Robert M. Veatch (1975). Quote from page 64.

[ii] Page 32

[iii] See Cassell’s piece “Dying in a Technological Society” in Death Inside Out. Quote from page 45.

[iv] Page 191

Summer Fieldwork in Mound Bayou

This blog post was written by SOHP Intern Monique Laborde

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Field Scholar Kimber Thomas

SOHP’s newest field scholar, Kimber Thomas, has been busy researching historic African American communities and cultures. As an American Studies graduate student and field scholar at SOHP, Kimber spent the summer researching with the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance (HBTSA). This organization currently focuses on preserving the history of and connecting communities in five historic towns: Hobson City, Ala.; Eatonville, Fla.; Grambling, La., Tuskeegee, Ala and Mound Bayou, Miss.

HBTSA partnered with UNC last year, making way for graduate and undergraduate students at UNC to be directly involved with the research and preservation efforts. Kimber spent her summer in her home state, researching Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Mound Bayou’s history as an independent black town remains largely unspecified.

Kimber’s research focused on the lives of Mound Bayou’s founders and pioneering settlers. She mined informal and formal archives such as town hall documents, cemetery records, and obituaries to begin piecing together comprehensive social history of Mound Bayou. “It was tough work, because it isn’t all in one place”, she said about beginning research in Mound Bayou.

Campers at St. Gabriels Mercy Center dressed up as founders & early settlers of Mound Bayou

Campers at St. Gabriels Mercy Center dressed up as founders & early settlers of Mound Bayou

Kimber generated an online forum for entering information on Mound Bayou pioneering residents when information is found. With the help of three undergraduate Robertson scholars, who processed archival information and worked part-time in the Mound Bayou community center, Kimber was able to assess existing archival information as well as engage with the community. At the community center, the undergraduate assistants brought the story of the founding of Mound Bayou to life by writing and directing a play for the St. Gabriel community center youth summer program.

HBTSA and UNC are committed to a long-term involvement with the historic towns. Thus, Kimber’s summer research is the beginning of long-term plan to build a digital humanities online database accessible to both university students and the community. Kimber speaks about her research with passion, reminding us that “these towns are here, so we need to start preserving and appreciating the history.

On Making History

This guest blog post was written by Karida Brown, Founder and Principle Investigator of The Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project

History is made.

Being party to, or even sharing, the story of “what happened” is not enough. History requires access to the venues and institutions through which stories can enter the public sphere. What I am suggesting is that there is a certain legitimacy that comes along with being “out there”, on the record. Think about that one sensational story that circulates in your own family about a relative who did something grand back in the day—a grandfather who was an alleged spy for the CIA, an uncle who was secretly Martin Luther King’s best friend and confidant, a great-grandmother who passed for black or white but was actually full-blood Cherokee. Although they are often quite captivating, these stories only have currency in the private sphere, for they belong to the families, friends and communities that share a connection with them. And the traces of “what happened” are often embodied in repertoire: casual storytelling, song, dance, gestures, jokes, silences, and repetition. But they do not necessarily become a part of history.

In my own work I have come to think a lot about how some people’s experiences comes to earn the status of history—a public artifact—while other folk’s lives and memories remain private goods—invisible, tenuously believable, and slippery in hands of history.

Here’s an example. My research is based on the African American experience in and through Appalachia. When I turned to the archive, the media, and to the historical record to get started on my scholarly journey, I was disappointed to find a bounty of imbalanced representations of the white, toothless, backwards mountaineer, a trope that has continued to titillate the American imagination when it comes to the people of Appalachia. But where were the black folks? In fact, I personally knew Appalachia to be a diverse place that embodied a long history of Native American, European, Jewish, and recently Asian, Latino and Indian migrations. I knew about this diversity because my own mother and father were born in “bloody Harlan County,” an infamous coal mining community in the Appalachian region of southeastern Kentucky. And, like the thousands of other families in their community at the time, they were the children of black coal miners. Yet the disparaging image of the hillbilly persists. It was through these early encounters with the archive that I learned that history is largely a matter of who has the pen: Who gets to make history? Who gets to write about whom? And on what terms?

This is why I became an oral historian.

I took up the challenge of reconstructing the rich history of the African Americans who lived and worked in the company-owned coal towns of eastern Kentucky during the first half of the 20th century. As a descendant of coalminers’ sons and daughters, I was already familiar with many of the African American families, stories, and traditions that were associated with the region. But if there was to be a history of this experience, we had to make it.

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EKAAMP interview #88 with Richard “Bo” Chapman in Lynch, KY | June 24th, 2014

Oral history was the only way to go about accomplishing this goal. I got an old-school Marantz plug-in audio recorder and hit the road. I of course went back to Harlan County to interview the few folks who still lived there, but due to the precipitous decline of the coal mining industry in the mid 20th century, few black families remain in the region. So I spent the last two years traveling across the country, from Newington, CT to San Jose, CA and everywhere in-between, conducting oral history interviews with the descendants of black coal miners from eastern Kentucky. I found that my participants were living archives.

Now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, they not only lived through the experience of growing up as black children in Appalachia, they also witnessed, lived, and were party to some of the greatest transformations of the 20th century—events such as the African American Great Migration, school desegregation, the urbanization of the American city, the pre- and post-Civil Rights era, and the election of the first black President. I learned early on that if I really wanted to get their story right, I had to learn to listen.

Listening is not a passive act. It requires sincerity, energy, care and humility (a practice that is easier said than done for us academics who are in the business of being know-it-alls). Listening is an act of giving. This was a game-changing epiphany for me, because it made me question my role as a researcher. Who was really in charge here? Oral history opened up the space for my participants and I to co-create historical records through relationship. As opposed to sharing a document to convey “what happened,” the participant becomes the author of his or her own history through storytelling—sharing moments of success and triumph, disappointment and shame, turning points, drama, and regrets. In my opinion, oral history is the most capacious instrument for capturing the complexity, and the sheer messiness, of life.

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EKAAMP Dinner at Love House, April 2015

Over 200 interviews later, I finished my cross-country oral history spree, and have since turned my attention to working on my first book manuscript about Kentucky’s coal camp blacks. But the oral histories I collected are way too good to keep to myself. History is a public artifact, right? So in 2013, I founded the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project (EKAAMP) in partnership with the Southern Historical Collection here at UNC Chapel Hill. Through this partnership we embarked on the journey of forming one of the institution’s first participatory archives—a practice through which communities take an active role in transmitting their history through archival preservation. In two short years, EKAAMP has blossomed in into a thing of its own. In addition to the collection of oral history interviews that I recorded for the project, individual participants have donated thousands of documents, photographs, and objects to the collection to ensure that their contributions to Appalachian and American history would not die with them. To that end, the EKAAMP collection will be made available to the public through the Southern Historical Collection at Wilson Library here in Chapel Hill.

Together, we made history.

“Let’s put on a show!” – Oral History Performance & Journalism

This guest blog post was written by SOHP’s faculty affiliate Dr. Barbara Friedman, Associate Professor in the UNC School of Media and Journalism

“Let’s put on a show!” No kidding—that was the response of my students when I (timidly) proposed adding a performance component to NewStories, an oral history course I teach in the School of Media and Journalism.

I knew students who had participated in oral history performances and the benefits were clear. Students were connecting with history in a deeply personal way, noticing thematic overlaps in their narrators’ experiences, and bringing their stories to life for an audience outside the archives.

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Students in the Spring 2015 “NewStories” class

We turned our attention to performance only after the students immersed themselves in the principles and practices of oral history and its uses by journalists and media historians. I relied heavily on Della Pollock’s account of performing “Like a Family,” and her edited collection, Remembering: Oral History Performance. It certainly helped that one of my nine students was a reporter for Carolina Week, a student-produced news broadcast, and a dramatic arts minor with acting experience, and that two others were broadcast communication majors with training in scriptwriting and public speaking.

Evan Faulkenbury, a doctoral candidate in history and SOHP field scholar, helped the students tease out the themes of their interviews, complicated by the fact that their narrators ranged widely in age (43 to 87) and hailed from all facets of the media industry (think CNN and a country weekly). They settled on two themes and divided into groups to begin writing a script, using excerpts from their interviews to convey the ways that their narrators had met personal and professional challenges.

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“NewStories” Event Program

Each student was expected to contribute equally to the conceptualization of the performance, its content and organization. They worked in and out of class in their groups, then collaborated on a Google document to compose a script. I had access to the Google doc as well, so that I could provide feedback along the way and gauge individual contributions. The final version included gems like this, from an octogenarian community newspaper reporter (still working): “Plain old folks. Normal people. If they do something interesting, I try to find out and I write about it in simple language. … Folksy, not fancy.” And this bit of advice from a former copy editor: “Develop a life list–like bird watchers do of all the birds they have seen—of all the words you have trouble with.”

After many rehearsals and reserving space for the performance (fittingly, the Halls of Fame room in Carroll Hall), the students sent personalized invitations to their narrators. In addition, they invited faculty, staff, parents and friends to attend. They designed a program with a brief description of the course and the names of the performers and interviewees. We dedicated 90 minutes to the entire event, allowing 30 minutes for the performance and time before and after for informal conversation. We had a few glitches, but nothing major.

Victoria Karagiorgis, UNC junior, and interviewee Valarie Lauder, first “copygirl" at the Chicago Daily News

Victoria Karagiorgis, UNC junior, and interviewee Valarie Lauder, first “copygirl” at the Chicago Daily News

One of the narrators in attendance, a former editor of the Greensboro News & Record who presided over mass layoffs there, said that the interview encouraged him to revisit that difficult period and consider its long-term impact on himself and others. Another narrator remarked that regardless of the period in which they worked, all of the interviewees had described challenges posed by the introduction of new technology.

The students had reached a similar conclusion in the process of preparing their performance: that the kinds of challenges faced by modern-day practitioners–labor issues, social changes, competition, automation–are not so different from what earlier generations confronted. They articulated that connection to the audience: “Our stories now join with yours. Your experiences inform our work and the kind of legacy we want to create.”  

Next spring, I’ll be the first to say, “Let’s put on a show!”

Work on Desegregation

This blog post was written by intern Samantha Gregg

“I didn’t care about wanting it for the mix, but I wanted it for equal rights. I wanted my children to have equal rights. If they would give me equal rights over here, I wouldn’t think about going over there.” – Vennie Moore on the integration of schools in Davidson, North Carolina.

As a “mining the archives” intern for the SOHP, I’ve spent hours this semester listening to first-hand accounts of the desegregation of North Carolina schools. I have heard the voices of students, teachers, athletic coaches, administrators, parents, community members, and church leaders as they relive their past, describing their views, involvement, and experiences with integration. I’ve come to especially appreciate the quote above by Vennie Moore because I feel it has captured much of what I have learned through these interviews: though the previous policy had been separate but equal, African American educational opportunities and facilities were nothing close to equal; not everyone was in support of integration for the same reasons, if they were in support at all; there was hesitation and fear by all involved; there was a fear by African Americans that their heritage and traditions would be covered, not combined, by the history of previously white schools.

Why? The reasons for integration were many: Brown v. Board of Education’s overturning of the separate but equal policy, a desire to correct the unfair institution that had defined the North Carolina school systems, like the rest of the United States, for far too long, or, like Vennie Moore, the knowledge that this was the only way African Americans would be able to truly have an equal opportunity for education.

How? Turbulence; outstanding individuals; understanding; danger; compromise; a driving sense of morality: these are just a few words that describe the integration of North Carolina schools. Though morally correct, the process of integration was difficult to navigate for everyone involved, having little precedent to follow. It was only through the excellence of understanding students, teachers, administration, and community members, the unifying power of athletics, and inspiring people’s refusal to settle for anything other than equal conditions any longer that made integration possible.

These are the reasons that I have come to love oral history as an intern with SOHP. The larger historical story of desegregation brushes over the different reasons integration was desired, the different ways in which it was achieved, and all the problems that continued to arise during and after integration, continuing today. As the SOHP’s mantra states, “you don’t have to be famous for your life to be history.” Though the interviews I’ve spent this semester listening to are not with celebrities, I have learned more about different viewpoints, experiences, reasoning, a

nd minority experiences than any textbook or major publication could present me with. This is what I have come to understand the value of oral history as in my time here: a way to preserve the differing experiences of all types of people in order to gain a full understanding of historical event.

 

Samantha Gregg

SOHP Mining the Archives Intern

Class of 2015

Planting Seeds in Eli Whitney

By Evan Faulkenbury, SOHP Field Scholar

I had never been to Eli Whitney before. Named for the inventor of the cotton gin, Eli Whitney is a hamlet – a crossroads, really – in rural Alamance County, North Carolina. You get there from Chapel Hill by heading due west on Old Greensboro Road for about seventeen miles until it runs into Highway 87. But half a mile before you get there, on the right side of the road you’ll see Concord United Methodist Church. The church sits just before a bend in the road, right next to its cemetery. It’s a small, red brick building with a white steeple, finished in 1961. If you pull into the church’s gravel lot, you’ll see a garden. The garden was what brought me there on March 12, 2015.

I was there to interview Donna Poe. I arrived early, so I parked and walked through the cemetery, around the church, and up to the garden. There were two large sections filled with a variety of fruits and vegetables, and at the end was a cross. Donna pulled up in her pick-up truck after I had lingered only a minute. Poe was in charge of the community garden. She started it only a few years ago through the church, but its popularity had soared. She organizes three workdays per week, and anyone who joins takes home a share of the bounty. Earlier in the month, I had emailed dozens of pastors at churches across the region, asking if they had extraordinary women members who would like to be interviewed for my project on conservative grassroots activism. Donna Poe’s minister recommended her, not as a typical political or social activist, but someone whose faith makes a real difference in the community.

We went inside the church to have the interview. Donna was born on October 13, 1962 in Albany, New York, but home for her had been Spring Hill, Florida. She told me about her family, her work, and how she ended up in North Carolina, moving up here seven years ago with her husband to be closer to her sister.

But the heart of her story was her spiritual journey. She grew up in a Protestant home, but she did not have a personal relationship with God until recently. Once, she and her family visited a church for a special Christmas service:

“And so we went, and somewhere in the middle of the service…it was really weird…it was kind of like what we would equate [to] our time of passing the peace [a form of greeting in church services]. They said, ‘Do you know where you’re going? Do you know where you’re going?’ And they turned to the person to each side of them. And it seemed like people came to us and said, ‘Do you know where you’re going?’ I get chills when I think about it. It was really freaky. And my one son is like, ‘Mom, what’s going on? What are they saying?’ And they were really freaked out about it…I have to only hope and pray and know that God was there throughout all that and there was reason for that, maybe just for me to share the story.”

The implication was that Donna and her family was going to hell if they did not know Jesus. Angry and hurt, they did not return to church for a long time. Years later, a friend led Donna in a prayer to become born-again. Now, she and her husband are active members at Concord United Methodist Church.

Donna’s story was a personal testimony about how she came to know God, a different kind of oral history. She realized that all along, sometimes at odd moments, God was “planting seeds” in her life. The odd Christmas service was one time among many when, looking back, she could “see His presence” guiding her, planting seeds, leading her to where she is today.

Reflection on My First Interview

This blog post was written by SOHP Intern Holly Plouff.

HollyI recently conducted my first professional interview for the Southern Oral History Program, and unfortunately, I learned a lot about this daunting process the hard way. It’s okay though. We learn by trial and error and I have emerged from this process with some good tips that I would like to list for future interviewers:

  1. Don’t set your interview date around a time when there is ANY chance of snow- This was my main problem. Of course we can’t control the weather but it would have been super nice if the heavy snow that fell, just two days before my interview, actually melted. Instead, the snow decided to cling to the ground and because of this, I was not able to travel to my interviewee’s house in Raleigh. Luckily, we live in the 21st century so we resorted to conducting the interview via landline on speakerphone…which leads me to tip #2
  2. Don’t conduct your interview over the phone- Just like the weather, this often can’t be controlled. People live far away, you can’t always get to see them in person, but if you are able to meet in person, then do. The phone led to problems like lower sound quality, echoes from the speakerphone, and lack of visual cues. Is my interviewee thinking about a question or did we lose the connection? Does she have something else to say or is she waiting for me to ask my next question? Is she getting impatient and waiting for me to wrap this up? These were some of the many questions that I asked myself as I sat in an empty room on the phone. I felt awkward about not being able to speak face to face with someone who I had learned so much about, I wanted her to know that I was present and paying attention, which would have been easy to do if we were in the same room but we weren’t so I resorted to showing my presence by making noise…
  3. Talk/make noise as little as possible- The interview isn’t about you. It’s about this endlessly fascinating person and you’re just a lowly intern. I knew that I was supposed to be a quiet part of this process, only speaking when asking questions or prodding, but because I couldn’t see my interviewee, I did things like chuckle, say “mhmm,” and audibly agree with points. Hopefully this isn’t too noticeable to people in the future who may have to use my interview for research, but it meant that I got to hear my various noises and affirmations while editing and writing about the interview. There would be a nice anecdote, a good flow, and then my horrible chuckle. I don’t regret this sin as much because it actually did help to prove that I was present, it’s just not fun to hear yourself on a recording over and over again when you’re working on edits and writing the tape log.

Don’t let my negativity affect your outlook on the interview process. I had a great time and learned more than just what not to do. Unfortunately these circumstances couldn’t be controlled but I couldn’t have asked for a more understanding and eager interviewee. I look forward to my next interview because the chances of snow are now minuscule so I have hope for a more personal and pleasant experience.

Holly Plouff
SOHP Communications intern
Class of 2018

Making Connections Across North Carolina Landscapes

Dixon, Kate PHOTO TWO

Kate Dixon is executive director of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, based in Raleigh, N.C.

Interview and blog post by Rob Shapard

Kate Dixon moved to the Triangle about twenty-five years ago, and she has played a meaningful role ever since in shaping the natural landscape of this region and the state of North Carolina. Dixon started work for the Triangle Land Conservancy in Raleigh and later became that land trust’s executive director, helping the trust to conserve some 4,000 acres during her years there. She moved on from the Triangle Land Conservancy in 2003 to lead the Land for Tomorrow coalition, and then took her current job as executive director of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in 2008.

The hiking trail runs cross-state between Clingmans Dome in western North Carolina and Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks, covering some 1,100 miles through a diverse range of natural landscapes and local communities. The route currently includes approximately 620 miles of constructed trails, and hikers use designated low-traffic roads to cross the gaps between trail sections. Dixon and the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (FMST) continue to work on closing those gaps by completing new trail sections, while a large network of FMST volunteers scrupulously maintain the existing sections. Dixon’s organization also has developed a large amount of detailed information about the trail for people who are interesting in experiencing it.

“It’s just an extraordinary way to see the state and learn about places,” Dixon says about the MST trail. “People did [the trail] who grew up in North Carolina and think they know everything [about N.C.], but once you’re out there walking it, it’s really such an extraordinary experience, and you learn so much that you didn’t know before.”

Dixon recorded an oral history recently with the Southern Oral History Program, as one of the first interviews in a series at SOHP focusing on people actively engaged in environmental issues in the South. Dixon was born in 1959 near Princeton, N.J., in a community that remained quite rural during her childhood. She and her sister spent many hours playing in the woods around their home or riding horses, and long walks with her father through the neighborhoods, forests, and fields around Princeton also enabled Dixon to connect directly with nature from an early age.

During her childhood, the Dixon family moved to New Delhi, India, for two years, then to Washington, D.C. – two highly urbanized settings where Dixon and her siblings nonetheless sought out green spaces to explore. In D.C., the family lived a block from the old Chesapeake & Ohio Canal along the Potomac River, which is a national park today. Dixon recalled playing along the canal structures, and the steep cliffs and a waterfall at the river where she liked to sit and “think deep, teen-age thoughts,” she chuckled.

One of the “big picture” questions the SOHP asked Dixon during her interview was, “How do you envision the ideal relationship between people and our natural environment, i.e. the most healthy and sustainable relationship? Can you describe what that would look like?” That’s a very difficult question, Dixon replied. “And I don’t know that I have a good answer. I mean, honestly, there are lots of times when I just don’t know where we’re going. When I feel like that, I think, ‘I’m going to work on my small part, and do the best I can.’”

Still, Dixon also mentioned some specific issues and actions that she feels are critical, which could be seen as pieces of an overall vision, the “small part” of the larger issue on which she seeks to make an impact. For example, she pointed to all the driving that people do every day – including her own driving – and the related issue of auto emissions. She also talked about her love for working with the volunteers who maintain the Mountains-to-Sea trail sections and work on adding sections, and her love for engaging with residents in communities where new trail sections are envisioned. In those interactions, Dixon says, the FMST has an opportunity to help those local people put their own passion for the land into action. So working on her small part for Dixon means empowering volunteers and local residents, as well as protecting as much land as possible through the work of land trusts.

Check back with the SOHP in the coming weeks to hear the entire interview with Dixon (at the interview database on sohp.org), and listen to a short clip from the interview here, as she describes a meaningful meeting between two long-time Bladen County, N.C., residents, one a white man and the other a black woman, during local planning for a new section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail: