This spring, the SOHP staff is selecting interviews from the archive that celebrate or challenge the practice of oral history, and serve as teachable moments. SOHP field scholar Isabell Moore is a PhD student in UNC’s Department of History. She found her interview, and the lessons it brought forth, by sheer accident.
I recently stumbled on an interview with Dr. Claude Barnes, a black leader from Greensboro, North Carolina, my hometown and the place I now live. What I heard brought up illuminating and uncomfortable questions about the practices of oral history in our current moment.
It started when I was asked to search for stories in SOHP’s archive about University of North Carolina’s Morehead Planetarium. I expected to find stories of stargazing and celestial events. Instead, I came across an interview with Dr. Claude Barnes, a well-known civil rights and black power activist and professor in Greensboro. Reading about his cohort of activists in the 1960s and 1970s as an undergraduate in New York in the late-1990s was part of what inspired me to move home to North Carolina. For almost fifteen years, I have been in and out of social justice meetings and events with Dr. Barnes. The story he told about the planetarium (click to hear the audio) had nothing to do with shooting stars.
Morehead Planetarium at UNC. Image courtesy of http://moreheadplanetarium.org/visit/parking
Claude Barnes: And I’ll tell you this incident, too. I’m going to write this up one of these days. I was in third grade, and I’ll never forget it. We went to Chapel Hill, to the Planetarium, to see an Easter show. All right? I’m in third grade—Ms. Gregg’s third grade class. And I’m a little third grader. But anyway, in the middle of the program, I had to use the boy’s room. So I ran out, straight into what I considered to be the bathroom. I didn’t take time to look and understand there was a colored bathroom and a white bathroom. So I went in the white bathroom by mistake—I didn’t mean it, though. They stopped the show, put us back on the bus. I got a beating by my third grade teacher with a rick-rack. I got a beating when I got home. And I still feel bad about that, [laughter]
Angela Hornsby: So someone found that you were in the wrong bathroom?
Claude Barnes: Mmm-hmm, yeah. I was drug out of there.
Angela Hornsby: Oh, Lord. Who drug you out?
Claude Barnes: One of the officials. Some other person was in the bathroom, said “There’s a black kid in there,” or something. And they stopped the show. They literally pulled the plug on the show. The lights came on; everybody was mad at me. [laughter] But that’s the absurdity of that. Anyway, that incident stuck in my mind from the third grade. I guess that might have something to do with why I was so rebellious as time went on.
Dr. Claude Barnes. Photo courtesy of Carolina Peacemaker.
Hearing Dr. Barnes’ story brought together many threads from what I am learning as a field scholar at the SOHP, in UNC’s oral history course (History 670) with Joey Fink (a former SOHP field scholar), and in a digital history course at UNC Greensboro with Anne Whisnant.
The interview with Dr. Barnes was conducted by Angela Hornsby in 2002. It’s part of the SOHP project, Remembering Black Main Streets. Hornsby’s questions focus on Dr. Barnes’ life growing up in Greensboro, and his memories of East Market Street, the road that runs through the historically African American area of Greensboro. Dr. Barnes’ story about a field trip to the planetarium in Chapel Hill surfaced when Hornsby asked about his childhood.
Oral history practice often stimulates the recall of memories that may not be on topic, and add to our understanding of the past in unexpected ways. Interviews often reveal meanings that we cannot glean from visiting the place itself. Dr. Barnes began with, “I’m going to write this up one of these days.” Most of us have those urges about significant moments in our lives, but few of us actually find the time to write down those stories. Oral history makes sure these recollections are not lost to history.
Dr. Barnes’ words teach us about the quotidienne system of racial segregation: Dr. Barnes’ use of the “whites only” bathroom was treated as an emergency. A presumably white official dragged him out. Black school children could be in the planetarium’s seats but not in the bathroom. Dr. Barnes’ teachers and parents punished him and in the process participated in enforcing segregation, surely out of a desire to keep him safe in the future. Dr. Barnes understood this incident as a root of his own willingness to stand up to power. Through the interview and archival practices of oral history, we can access and learn from Dr. Barnes’ memories.
Aside from what we can learn from the story itself, Dr. Barnes’ interview and the way I came across it raise issues that oral historians grapple with in the digital age.
As Michael Frisch discusses in his essay “From A Shared Authority to the Digital Kitchen, and Back,” in Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, the increasing digital searchability of oral history audio and transcripts creates opportunities but also potential problems.
Had I pulled out this one story from the much longer interview, I would be left only with information about the oppression and abuse that young black people suffered under segregation. In the rest of the interview, Dr. Barnes discusses his efforts as a high school then college and post-college activist, his involvement with the Greensboro Association of Poor People (GAPP) (click to hear the audio), and the ways their activism won better housing, wages and influence in city government.
Claude Barnes: But GAPP is the key. And GAPP not only organized around redevelopment. It was the cafeteria workers, the blind workers. Skilled-craft blind workers, they called a boycott at Christmas one year. Because the blind workers—I think they were making something like two dollars an hour or less than that, I can’t remember. It was just some horrible wage. And their working conditions were terrible—we’re talking about blind people. So we organized a strike in behalf of the blind workers and boycotted Christmas one year. And won them a lot of concessions. And so successes like that fueled other successes. There were rent strikes, I remember. GAPP organized one of the longest rent strikes in the history of Greensboro against a big slumlord. Kay Agapion, Triple A Realty. Big slum lord in Greensboro—houses all over the place. I think we took people out on strike for about six months or something like that. And were successful in improving their living conditions, improving the housing conditions, and enforcing some regulations, and that kind of thing.
And we had built this coalition between the A&T students, Dudley students, and Greensboro residents especially. It was a broad coalition, and it was a multi-class coalition. Because there were blacks from the middle upper, and blacks from the lower lower. Now they didn’t agree on everything, but there were lots of issues that people did agree on. Now redevelopment was one of the issues that they did not agree on. But some of these other things I just mentioned to you—like the Cafeteria Workers’ Strike– [Tape ends].
Dr. Barnes understands his own life experience as shaped by both empowerment and collective action, on the one hand, and oppression on the other. A search for key terms in the transcript could encourage us to examine a few minutes of tape or a few stansas of transcript outside of the context of the rest of the interview. Examining only these moments of the interview would give us quite a different view.
The interview with Dr. Barnes raises additional questions oral historians often grapple with: Dr. Barnes laughs numerous times while telling the story about the Planetarium. What can we make of this? What is the role of affect in oral history? How should we ethically interpret and assign meaning to displays of emotion? Yes, Dr. Barnes freely shared his personal and painful story in an oral history interview he knew would be archived. However, is there a voyeuristic element to listening to stories like these, especially if they are used for the learning of white scholars like myself? Are Dr. Barnes’ current collaborators in Greensboro aware of this interview? How might his interview — from the planetarium incident to his retelling of decades of activism — be useful to campus and community activists engaged with racial and economic justice today? Are we doing enough to make the stories in our archives available beyond the academy? How can those of us engaged in oral history ethically think about how to use interviews in ways that are helpful in our present moment?
Whenever I pass Morehead Planetarium as I walk through campus, I will now think about Dr. Barnes’ story. And after listening to and reflecting on his interview, I will approach the practice of oral history interviewing and archiving with new questions and concerns.
Dr. Barnes was interviewed by Angela Hornsby in 2002 for the SOHP Project, Remember Black Main Streets. His 2014 oral history recorded by B. Bernetiae Reed is part of the project, Moral Mondays and Community Activism, 2014-2015. He asked us to include his contact information: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com and http://www.linkedin.com/in/cbarnesphd.