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Posts from the ‘oral history’ Category

Oral History and New Media Methods of Presentation

The quality and quantity of oral histories in the SOHP’s collections is among the best in the world, however it is not only the collection that distinguishes the SOHP, but the ways in which those histories are shared. During his presentation at the SOHP’s 40th Anniversary, Dr. Seth Kotch said a major challenge facing oral historians is that nobody listens to interviews, a statement that resonated with many interviewers in the audience.  Last week, at the 40th Anniversary Celebration of the SOHP, students and faculty displayed the diverse ways the SOHP shares oral history.  The afternoon’s agenda appeared to be a reaction to the harsh truth that many oral histories are not played after being archived.  The celebration featured a performance from previous undergraduate interns about the North Carolina Speaker Ban, a sound booth to listen to SOHP clips, a presentation of the Media and the Movement blog by Joshua Davis and Seth Kotch, a panel with former interviewees and interviewers, and a walking tour of campus featuring UNC’s History of Student Activism. As the festivities came to an end, I left Wilson Library with a feeling of defiant optimism, as if the SOHP and scholars like me and my fellow interns could change the reality that oral histories are often overlooked and underused.

map of audio tour

There has never been a better time for oral history to be shared and accessed throughout the world than now, with technology opening new doors for interviewers and librarians to archive interviews. The challenge now facing scholars is to adapt their work to share in new ways, which means welcoming multi-media formats like blogs and mobile applications. Scholars in the Digital Humanities have boldly faced this challenge by using new formats in connection with or in lieu of a traditional printed book. Seth Kotch said that when using a public blog there is always a danger in sharing work before it is in a full, publishable form, but the reward of sharing the scholarship with a larger community counters the risk. A research blog creates the chance to share work with people who would not normally be exposed to a larger academic work. In addition to blogs, other multi-media devices are being used to present oral history in contemporary ways. For instance, the listening booth at the 40th Anniversary Celebration featured thematically arranged SoundCloud playlists and posters for SOHP events feature QR codes, which link guests with mobile phones to websites or applications.

As the undergraduate Support Intern at the SOHP this semester, I had the pleasure of inheriting the concept of an audio walking tour. The idea behind the tour was to use clips from our collection that connect to the history of UNC’s campus. After many hours exploring oral histories online I found several clips that stood out and a natural theme emerged, which was “UNC’s History of Student Activism.” Link to the SoundCloud playlist for the tour. The walking tour was a perfect opportunity to share oral history in a new way, so the clips had to be exemplary of the quality of interviews at the SOHP while also touching on compelling histories that are often underappreciated. The tour features interviews dating back to the SOHP’s founding in the 1970s with a clip from interviewer Genna Rae McNeil and up until the present with a clip from recent undergraduate interviewer Charlotte Fryar. Playing these clips in places intimately related to the interviewee conveys the reality of the interviewee’s life and situates the audience in a space to reflect on how the interviewee’s past differs from the present. Normally the deck of Spencer Dormitory is a peaceful spot to sit in a rocking chair and enjoy a nice day, but the space is transformed when you hear Sharon Rose Powell’s story about living in Spencer during the time of in loco parentis rules, when a woman could be expelled for having a guest or violating a dress code. Suddenly, the audience is reminded of how the University is not always a safe space and hearing Powell’s story is an intimation of what it was like to be a female UNC student during the ‘60s.

Undergraduate Interns Aaron Hayworth and Coco Wilder lead guests on the Audio Tour

Undergraduate Interns Aaron Hayworth and Coco Wilder lead guests on the Audio Tour

It is my hope that projects like the walking tour will shape the way scholars and friends of the SOHP relate to and use oral history. The SOHP has printed maps of the walking tour available to guests of the Center for the Study of the American South, which feature QR codes linking to the SoundCloud clips for guests to take a self-guided audio tour of campus. In the coming months the SOHP is also working to turn this tour into a podcast for people around the world to experience, making oral history more accessible than ever before!

Thoughts on “Sweet Tea”

I am not a tea person. I’ve tried it, loved it, stocked my pantry with delicate varieties of it, and then (it usually happens like this) exams come along, life gets busy, and coffee enters stage left, bitter and powerful, calling me with the exact same force with which I rejected it as a child.

I’m sipping from the coffee tumbler that follows me around everywhere, indestructible and even tip-proof. The coffee tastes good, strong, a perfect complement to writing.


For the past three weeks I’ve been working with E. Patrick Johnson’s oral history interviews that he used in the writing of Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South. That category, “black gay men of the South,” is a label that will produce a reaction. In fact, UNC’s Library Catalog (which follows the national model), lists Sweet Tea like this:


African American gay men – Southern States – Social conditions.

African American gay men – North Carolina.

African American gay men – Southern States – Identity.

Southern States – Social conditions.

It does not seem to be a topic that fits in neatly into our established categories (which are often the subject of debate) in the library community. But more on the category of black gay men of the South later.

As I transfer the old audio from minidiscs (remember these?) to digital mp3 files, I tune in and out as I work on other projects for the Southern Oral History Program, but lately I’ve been tuning in more and more. Maybe it just feels that way because, not having read Sweet Tea, these experiences and memories of these men interviewed by Johnson are starting to collect in my mind.

The way I see it, there are two routes to take with these interviews: either focus on the similar events, coming-out experiences, struggles with being accepted for oneself in the community one grew up in, the respect or lack thereof with which these men are treated, and the common bumps they experienced along the course of their lives that shaped their experiences as black gay men of the South.

The second option is to take the sum of these lush oral histories and use them to show just the opposite—the ways in which we differ, the ways in which black gay men of the South differ—not only from people who do not fall into the same category as they do (more on that later), but rather the many ways in which their experiences as individuals are unique to the point that somehow creating a conglomerate out of their experiences would be a sort of reductio ad absurdum (read: useless).

Now the thought just struck me—What if Johnson took either of these two routes? Is the point I’m about to make completely off the mark?

(But it’s not.)

Here goes: if my history major (and cherry-picked humanities courses across many departments at UNC during undergrad) gave me any one understanding of scholarship, it is what follows:

Progress comes from learning to reconcile two opposing viewpoints.

The history major lobe in my brain immediately blurts out—“HEY! It’s like Hegel’s notion of thesis–>antithesis–>synthesis!”—The more relatable (that is, normal) part of my brain reminds me that this is a fancier definition of compromise.

And who doesn’t want compromise?

Think Congress, think state politics, think of marriage, or think of trying to get your child to put up their laundry. (Woe to me if my mother sees this.)

If it seems as though I have a personal take on these interviews, you’re not incorrect—and here’s why. I started out working on this project from the perspective of an information technologist (I am in library science school, after all, so learning to work with new file formats is kind of my soup du jour, today at least.) It started out as impersonal, but something changed. Because the process of transferring the audio often results in a heavy reverberation in the headphones, I still do not listen to the entire interview. Even so, the moments I’ve heard have accumulated, and now they bounce off of each other in my mind. Something I had not anticipated.

I relate most to the recognizable descriptions of life in the South, but that is not wholly accurate, because being black in the South is often such a different experience than being white, no matter what people who think we live in a post-racial society say. (I could say the same about life north of the Mason-Dixon Line.) There are some figurative rugs that I do not want to look under in my own family’s past that I know are not going away–though that is its own blog post, if not something much more substantial—and it’s knowledge of these unspoken sub-narratives hidden away in my ancestors’ pasts that make me say, “How could I relate to these black gay men from the South? That is beyond presumptuous.”

There is something so strong in me that identifies with these men and the stories they tell. They seem familiar. They seem like me. But they’re not.

And they totally are.

If I’m right about Johnson’s book—and let’s hope I am—then when I pick up that copy of Sweet Tea that they’re getting in soon at the Bulls Head Bookshop, I’ll see a narrative that strikes a balance. I do not know what conclusions Johnson will make from all the oral histories, but I have to think that he’s placed emphasis not just on the commonalities black gay Southern men experience, but that he’s also given voice to the rich differences. These differences do just as much to illustrate what it means to be a human as our similarities. If I could only learn from my own experience and not anyone else’s, I’d be lost.

When I laid it out like fact that the category of black gay men of the South is one that is bound to produce a reaction, the reaction as I imagine it is usually unsatisfactory. I imagined talking to a friend about this book, and them saying, “Whoa. That’s heady stuff,” or, “I bet that’s fascinating.” Among my acquaintances (a group with its own biases, to be sure), most everyone would find the topic exciting, but few would know much beyond that. Maybe my acquaintances and I know what the “DL” is, or that “sissy” does not always have the connotations we may know it for.

Ultimately, it comes down to the question, “What do I know about black gay men of the South?” The answer is unsatisfying, and I think it’s not just that I don’t know much, I think society does not know that much. Certainly not enough.

I’m still trying to understand why these interviews speak to me so strongly. As I continue with this project (I need to pop in a new minidisc in about 10 minutes), the answer I get is probably what you would expect. And that’s okay.

The interviews are so powerful because they not only teach me about people I do not know enough about, but because they teach me how easy it can be (and should be) to relate to each other, regardless of the category we fall into.


At the end of each interview, Johnson asks each interviewee, “Do you like sweet tea?” There are laughs and a telling variety and overlap in responses—some reply, “Do I ever!” Some say, “I guess, but my version is more of a punch,” “I steep it in the sun,” or “Not so much.” Or the response nearest and dearest to my heart, “But not TOO sweet.” It brings things to such a nice close after these intensely personal interviews, which ask so much bravery on the part of the interviewee.

It may not be tomorrow, or the next day, but when that book arrives at the Bulls Head and there’s enough sun outside for me to sit on the porch, I’m going to be out there reading. And I won’t be drinking coffee.

SOHP 40th Anniversary

On Friday, April 4th, 2014, SOHP celebrated its 40th Anniversary, and now you can tour our exhibit materials online! Check out the digital exhibit to view old documents, listen to interview clips, and watch a video clip of our interview with Howard Lee.

Moxie Project – Summer 2013 Interviews Now Online!

These interviews are now online in the Long Women’s Movement series in our database. They were conducted during summer 2013 as part of an undergraduate course combining internships throughout the community with oral history and other coursework, under the direction of Dr. Rachell Seidman and Joey Fink. For quick access, you can also search the database for interview numbers U-1002 through U-1010. For more about the Moxie Project, click here.

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.

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.

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Mapping the Long Women’s Movement Launches

The new site, which allows users to navigate oral histories in new ways, aims to encourage discovery and listening.

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Lux et libertas! Thoughts on oral history, the university, and the state from SOHP Intern Charlotte Fryar

Charlotte Fryar served as an SOHP undergraduate intern in Spring 2013 and authored the following post. Charlotte is unsure of where she is native of, but has decided that North Carolina is a good enough answer. She will graduate in May 2013 with a degree in American Studies, and plans to pursue her love of state and oral history in graduate school.

charlotte interviewing John Greenbacker

SOHP Intern Charlotte Fryar, SOHP intern, interviewing John Greenbacker for the Speaker Ban Project.

For the month of March, I was deep in the oral histories I conducted with two men, John Greenbacker of South Boston, Virginia, and the other with Bland Simpson of Chapel Hill. Both attended the University in the late sixties, witnessing pivotal moments for the University that changed them.

Both men, however similar in college, are decidedly quite different now, evident in their retrospective look at their time at Carolina and their opinions on the University’s tie to the state. Both men did agree that the history and legacy that is the life of the University is dictated by her students, past and present. These were moments in both interviews when they seemed to be speaking as if they were playing instruments, their words struck such a chord with me.

Falling into an oral history interview is more than the conducting and transcribing, but listening to the audio again and again, their silences and pauses, the nuances of speech becoming clearer in repetition. For a month, I have been trying to understand, together and separately, what the University means for these two men, and consequently, as I near graduation, what the University means to me. It is one of those things that, I believe, is different for everyone, but only slightly. Carolina is a research institution, giving infinite resources in health care and the sciences back to the state. It is a liberal arts school, providing a space for long and thorough thought within the academy. It is the resources, the libraries, the varied and sophisticated faculty, and the place within the Triangle. It is the best public education in North Carolina.

speaker ban photo

Speaker Ban protests at the McCorkle Place wall; Photograph Copyright Jock Lauterer

But increasingly, as I find myself with more overdue library notices from the North Carolina Collection Library than ever before, the University is, to me, the old brick of the buildings and walkways, the Corinthian columns of Wilson (rolled down planks through Polk Place to their new home at the base of the quad), the stone wall on Franklin Street that separates the University from the rest of the state, the monuments to this and that, our brave Confederate soldiers and our brave Speaker Ban radicals, the Chapel Hill gravel winding through the hidden parts of campus, the afternoon drizzle on the tall and once small trees of the arboretum, and those students and faculty who are North Carolinians, who come back to this flagship university for a myriad of reasons. But one reason, sometimes lurking and subtle, sometimes loud and declarative, is that the wide and deep history of the University affects what the University means to everyone on the campus and everyone who has left her greenery and brick, whether they admire her facilities, her resources, or her teachers.

Working at the Southern Oral History Program, the doors have been opened wide to the incredible history of the University and the state, but the real excitement has come for me in where those two spheres intersect. I think it does everyone a wealth of good to read the University’s mission statement, and for many, I imagine it will be the first time:

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the nation’s first public university, serves North Carolina, the United States and the world through teaching, research and public service. We embrace an unwavering commitment to excellence as one of the world’s great research universities.

Our mission is to serve as a center for research, scholarship and creativity and to teach a diverse community of undergraduate, graduate and professional students to become the next generation of leaders. Through the efforts of our exceptional faculty and staff, and with generous support from North Carolina’s citizens, we invest our knowledge and resources to enhance access to learning and to foster the success and prosperity of each rising generation. We also extend knowledge-based services and other resources of the University to the citizens of North Carolina and their institutions to enhance the quality of life for all people in the State.

With lux, libertas — light and liberty — as its founding principles, the University has charted a bold course of leading change to improve society and to help solve the world’s greatest problems.

charlotte fryar and alexa lytle

Charlotte with fellow intern Alexa Lytle, en route to conduct an interview for the SOHP.

Lux et libertas to the people of the state. Former UNC President Frank Porter Graham put it well: “…the cause of North Carolina is the cause of the University and the cause of the University is the cause of North Carolina.” And my cause is both the cause of the University and the cause of North Carolina. Working at the SOHP, talking with people who know intimately and individually what the University and what the state means to them, has taught me this. Certainly it was a combination of things that brought these questions to the front of my mind–impending graduation foremost among them–but the SOHP has tapped into a dedication I was unsure I even had. Oral history has the power to accomplish many things, but the power it holds in explaining a love and sense of place is what I take away from my time at the SOHP.



“These Were Real People”

Drawn from interviews conducted during the Civil Rights History Project (a joint undertaking of the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress) with Gwendolyn Duncan, Robert Hayling, Guy and Candie Carawan, William Anderson, Purcell Conway, Dorie and Joyce Ladner, Ann Avery, Kathleen Cleaver, Barbara Vickers, Marilyn Hildreth, and Alfred Moldovan, this twenty-five minute video essay tells the story of the civil rights movement in the voices of those who experienced it.




Mapping the Long Women’s Movement

This pathbreaking project is introducing a new, audio-visually rich way of exploring oral histories.

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