Straight out of Bakersfield, California is Daniel Anderson, SOHP’s new research assistant from UNC’s School of Information and Library Sciences (SILS). Daniel started the SILS program in Fall 2017, arriving at SOHP to assist with its many archival adventures, including the processing and depositing of oral history interviews into the Wilson Library. Daniel earned his MA at California State University, Bakersfield in 2013, where he also volunteered in the university archives, along with the archives of Bakersfield College, and Kern County Museum. He’s passionate about finding ways to make archives inclusive, and loves working with the public. Daniel’s focus here in the SILS program is digital archives and community engagement. He says he’s drawn to oral history because it allows people to “hear someone’s voice, hear their cadence and how they talk, bringing so much more context to a historical event or collection.” We look forward to watching Daniel’s growth here at SOHP.
Staff picks feature different oral histories and books that the staff at the Center for the Study of the American South recommends. For November, graduate student Danielle Dulken picked her favorite oral history and shared some readings she thinks are useful for oral historians.
Happy November! Here at SOHP we are thankful for all of our amazing narrators, supporters, interns, and of course staff! This month, Danielle Dulken is sharing her staff picks. Danielle is a second year PhD student in American Studies. Her research interests are reproductive justice and race in southern Appalachia.
For her oral history pick, she chose just one interview. The interview is with narrator Loretta Ross, a leader of the reproductive justice movement, and interviewer Cynthia Greenlee-Donnell, an independent scholar who researches and advocates for reproductive justice.* This interview stuck out to Danielle for a few reasons. First, she has a shared interest in the topic. She found hearing the movement leader talk about her reproductive justice experiences more illuminating than many of the books or articles she had read on the topic. For Danielle, this oral history felt like a testament to the reproductive justice movement.
Another reason Danielle was drawn to this interview is the relationship created the between narrator and interviewer. As an interviewer herself, Danielle was struck by how Cynthia facilitated a dynamic that encouraged and supported Loretta’s experience with difficult topics, like sexual assault and rape. In fact, the rapport they share makes the listener feel as though they’re witnessing a conversation between great friends. For others, this interview could help oral historians think about how to frame questions on sexual assault, abortion, rape, and similarly difficult subjects as well as how to respond to comments about sexual assault and rape. That is, how can we create a safe environment in which the narrator feels comfortable sharing a difficult past? And how can we support our narrators through thoughtful responses but also through archival skills to ensure their story gets the attention and care it deserves?
This interview is lengthy at almost three hours long, but it demonstrates the way oral history not only informs but also creates personal connections between the oral history and audience. During the interview, Danielle laughed, cried, and even revisited some of her own work. We at SOHP hope the interview can help you learn about reproductive justice as well as help you grow in your practice as an oral historian.
*We would like to let those that are interested in this interview know that this interview includes detailed conversations about rape and sexual assault.
Along with an oral history pick, Danielle has included some recommendations for oral history related readings.
This Fall, our interns have been working on an oral history project on Native American Activism at UNC in the last 50 years. On December 11th they will be giving a performance at Wilson Library. The performance will not be using embodiment or costumes to ensure that the performers are not being disrespectful to Native American cultures. The performance style will use ethno-poetry, narration, and images to portray some of the Native American history at UNC as well as the experiences of the narrators.
The narrators for this project are:
- Cheyenne McNeil, a senior at UNC-CH and the current president of the Carolina Indian Circle
- Danny Bell, a retired UNC-CH staff member and a founder of the American Indian and Indigenous Studies program
- Lana Dial, a UNC-CH graduate who organized the first meeting of Native students on campus and helped start the Carolina Indian Circle
- Kevin Maynor, the Assistant Dean for Administration and Finance at NCCU and a UNC-CH graduate who founded the Carolina Indian Circle
- Amy Locklear Hertel, a founder of Alpha Pi Omega Sorority, Inc. and the current director of the American Indian Center
- Makayla Richardson, a first year student at UNC-CH and the current recipient of the Pogue Scholarship
- Christina Theodorou, a founder of Alpha Pi Omega Sorority, Inc. and the NC Native Asset Coalition Project Director at the American Indian Center
- James Street, a senior at UNC-CH, a former president of the Carolina Indian Circle, and a prominent student leader
- Theda Perdue, a retired UNC-CH professor and one of the founders of the American Indian and Indigenous Studies program
“…[W]e have not acquired full freedom. The movement continues…even though at this point it appears that we have access to a few more opportunities, we are not yet full citizens in terms of our definition of what a full citizen is or should be. Sometimes it is not only upsetting but it angers some of us that we should have to strive and work in a manner that we do. As soon as we think maybe we are maybe making a little progress then it seems that racism and prejudice become very much apparent again. I guess for some of us who are older and have something to compare us to, and have a long time in the struggle, it can anger us. It can cause us to become so disgusted that we feel like we want to become sometimes, should I say, rebellious.”
– Annie Brown Kennedy (1995 SOHP interview, around 29 mins)
In many locations around the US, municipalities held local primary elections at the beginning of October and general elections will take place in early November. This year there is an increased interest in local politics. A wave of younger candidates, including many Black people, women and LGBTQ people, are running for office. This wave of underrepresented candidates builds on the contentious history of Black voting rights, and Black elected officials from the Reconstruction era, from after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and up to to the present. Historically, the issue of Black voting rights has been tied up with Black political power, Black landownership, and the possibilities for Black communities. Black elected officials have played key roles in shaping Black communities both in all-Black towns and cities and in multi-racial and white-dominated locations. The upcoming Black Communities Conference, sponsored by the Southern Oral History Program (SOHP) and several other entities at UNC, will examine these and other issues.
Many interviews related to Black voting rights and Black elected officials are available in the SOHP archive . Here, we highlight an interview with Annie Brown Kennedy, the first Black woman to serve in the North Carolina General Assembly.
Annie Brown Kennedy was a pioneer in North Carolina law and politics. Kennedy was born in Atlanta, GA, on Oct. 13,1924, and attended the public (segregated) schools there. She earned an AB in economics from Spelman College in 1945, and later her JD from Howard University School of Law in 1951. She moved with her husband to his hometown, Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 1953, and thereafter was active both professionally as lawyer and in local Democratic Party politics. She was only the second African American woman ever licensed to practice law in the state (1954) and the first ever to serve in the NC General Assembly.
Kennedy was a founding member of the interracial Democratic Women of Forsyth Co. and later the group’s president in 1970-71. Having been heavily involved in local political affairs through the 1970s, she was selected by the local Executive Committee of the Democratic Party of Forsyth Co. in Oct. 1979 to fill the vacated term of a local member of the NC House, and subsequently appointed to that position by Gov. Jim Hunt. Kennedy unsuccessfully sought election to the seat in the Nov. 1980 general election. In 1982, however, she won the first of six consecutive terms in the House, where her focus was the status and welfare of families, women, and African Americans, among other issues. Kennedy chose not to seek reelection in 1994 and returned to the practice of law in a family-run practice with her husband and two sons.
The SOHP interview with Annie Brown Kennedy was conducted as part of a series of interviews in 1995-1996 called “The North Carolina Politics Project” with the generous support of the Walter Royal Davis Oral History Fund. In the course of the interview, Kennedy discusses her personal biography; the evolution of North Carolina black political activity post-1965; and her service in the NC House. She also touches on the evolution of women’s political activity in NC, her support for Shirley Chisolm’s presidential bid and the conflict that caused with white NC Democrats), the effect of racism on mental health), how she came to run and win a General Assembly seat after a loss , a parental leave bill, a midwifery bill, the successful fight to save the nursing program at Winston-Salem State University, and fighting for funding for HBCU’s.
- Listen to the interview with Annie Brown Kennedy in the SOHP archive
- Browse the SOHP collection for other relevant interviews including the projects on Southern Politics; the Long Civil Rights Movement; Notable North Carolinians: Women in Politics; Southern Women: Black and White Women in Atlanta Public Life; Listening for A Change: African Americans in Georgia; Black High School Principals, and more.
- For those in North Carolina – check out Common Cause and Democracy NC non-partisan voter guides and election date information for North Carolina’s general election on November 7th, 2017.
Have you ever wanted to get started with looking through the archives, but been intimidated by the sheer amount of options through SOHP? Lucky for you, this semester we are starting a staff picks blog! Staff picks will feature different oral histories and books that the staff at the Center for the Study of the American South recommends.
Our first staff member is Melissa Dollman. Melissa Dollman is a 2nd year PhD student in American Studies with interests in audiovisual materials, digital humanities, and women’s histories. For her picks, she went with a theme – librarians and archivists. Why librarians and archivists? Librarians and archivists are an integral part of research, yet their significance tends to be undermined. Dollman hopes that promoting these interviews will help people recognize the work of archivists and librarians as well as their lives and existence outside these roles.
The Oral Histories:
Ms. Simmons-Henry is an archivist at St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, NC, though she grew up on her family farm land outside New Bern, NC. She discusses her love of documents, her family history in New Bern, and her genealogy.
Ms. Brown is the senior librarian and Coordinator of the Digital Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in North Carolina. She discusses her upbringing in New Orleans, growing up in a more integrated environment; college at UT and culture shock; race, gender/sexuality, and reproductive rights during that time; and the death penalty, amongst other topics. She also discusses women’s voices in the archives and how studying archives has changed history for her.
*note: this was Melissa’s favorite interview!
Ms. Hugley is a librarian in Georgia and has a library science degree from NCCU. She was active in the peace movement; a delegate to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and was in the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen (FSC), an early interracial clerical civil rights organization.
In preparation for Durham’s sesquicentennial in 2019, a group of historians and community members formed the Bull City 150 project to document and interrogate the city’s past. An exhibit based on their research, titled “Uneven Ground: The Foundations of Housing Inequality in Durham, NC,” recently opened to broad acclaim. It documents Black Durham and the history of shifting manifestations of race and class inequalities and features several interviews from UNC’s Southern Oral History Project (SOHP) archive. The Southern Oral History Program (SOHP) is a co-sponsor of Black Communities: A Conference for Collaboration, which will take place at the Carolina Theater in Durham, NC, also known as the “Bull City,” in April 2018. From its early days just after the Civil War to the present, Durham’s Black communities have had a rich history of organizing and resilience in the face of inequality, oppression and white supremacy.
The main purpose of the Bull City 150 project is “to show Durhamites how the current landscape of inequality cannot be reckoned with without a deeper understanding of the roots of inequality in the place we call home.” The project’s collaborators believe that “the stories we tell each other impact the policies we create and how we collectively seek to address the inequality in our community.” In addition to the exhibit creators have been in dialogue with multiple community organizations, grassroots activists, and policy-makers. Bull City 150 will continue to find meaningful ways to engage the community in reflecting on the past “to ensure a more equitable Durham in the future.” (All quotes from Bull City 150’s website.)
The exhibit will be on display during Durham’s Third Friday downtown events on October 20 and November 17. On November 14, Bull City 150 will host a housing policy discussion. More info here.
Durham was founded just after the Civil War as a depot town connected to the railroads. A century and a half later, Durham is undergoing rapid, change, growth and gentrification that is leading to the displacement of working-class communities from the city’s downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. Twenty-percent of Durhamites live in poverty, many cannot find living wage jobs, and public school students experience achievement gaps based on class and race. The project and exhibit interrogate and present this history using methods from geography, public policy, history, sociology, documentary approaches and arts. The recently opened exhibit examines how both broad political and economic systems and the particularities of local conditions and decision-making have shaped Durham and led to the present moment. Ultimately, the exhibit reveals how structural white advantage and policies that benefited primary white people have shaped the positions of various social groups within Durham. While the pattern of Black disadvantage is part of the story, the Bull City 150 team aims to uncover the related patterns of white privilege, usually not named or understood.
In addition to examining national, state and local policies, the exhibit is anchored by the stories of people who lived through economic, cultural and political changes. Most of these stories are drawn from interviews held in the SOHP archive. Exhibit curator Kimber Heinz explains, “We simply could not have included the particular stories of Black and white working class people, many of them textile and tobacco workers, without the SOHP’s interviews. About two-thirds of the stories of particular families and people that we included were drawn from the SOHP archives.”
If you are interested in learning more about Durham history, several SOHP interview projects document more stories about the issues raised in the exhibit and Durhamites’ experiences. The interviews used in the exhibit and referenced above are from the Piedmont Industrialization project. The project Hayti Spectrum: Documenting Negro Life of the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s focuses on the historically Black Hayti neighborhood in Durham. Interviews that tell the life stories of two Durham African-American people are here, a project about the relationships between Black people and newly arrived Latino immigrants in North East central Durham is here. The Long Civil Rights Movement interview project documents African American and other related activism around the South, including Durham. Learn more about the SOHP and our collections here. Learn more about the Black communities conference here.
Will Schwartz is a junior at Durham Academy. He joined us here at the Southern Oral History Program as a volunteer this summer. We were delighted to have him. He helped us tackle a thorny problem—figuring out if there were interviews in our collection that had been closed to researchers long ago, but could now be opened up. His hard work and dedication made a real difference and we are so glad that he helped make more of our treasure trove of voices available to those who want to listen. The following is Will’s thoughtful reflection on his summer here.
I am a sixteen year old rising Junior at Durham Academy. I wanted to volunteer with the Southern Oral History Program (SOHP) at UNC because I am interested in history, and because I found the idea of oral history to be an intriguing format for learning about the subject. A lot of my work here was centered around sorting through the archives of the SOHP to find out what interviews could be opened. Through this experience, I learned a lot about the history of town, my state, and political parties.
Opening an interview means making it available to everyone. Interviewees often request that their interviews remain closed until a certain date or until after their death. My research involved finding if interview subjects were still alive. Though it did involve looking at lots of semi-depressing obituaries, this was a very enjoyable experience. By looking through obituaries I read many touching messages, read what hobbies and interests people had in the past, and saw what people are remembered for after their death. Along the way I learned a lot about American history in general, but especially about North Carolina and my town, Chapel Hill. This experience has given me a new appreciation for my town, and taught me about both the positive and negative aspects of its past. I heard about the social splits in the town and even about segregation of the schools. For example, when looking for identifying traits to look up to see if someone was still alive, I looked at the transcript of an interview about the relationship between the students at Lincoln High School and Chapel Hill High School when the schools were segregated.
After finding which interviews could be opened, I got the opportunity to listen to one of the interviews to see the fruits of my labor. The interview was of Hamilton Horton, a state senator in the North Carolina General Assembly. This interview took place on December 18, 1973. It covers such issues as the role of religion in politics, political realignment, conservative philosophy, and the North Carolina Republican Party.
This interview was a very interesting opportunity to hear differences in the meaning of words between now and the 1970s.One example of how a word’s meaning has changed is progressive. Progressive has now taken on a meaning of liberal. However, in the 1970s when this interview was done, it clearly did not have this connotation as Senator Horton, a conservative, used the word to describe North Carolina in the context of being called the most organized and economically developed state in the South. For example, Senator Horton says that “South Carolina, which I think in many ways is more progressive than we, has far surpassed us in such things as energy acquisition . . . I don’t think our leadership has been especially imaginative or strong in trying to address our problems. We just keep saying, ‘oh, we’re the most progressive Southern state,’ and then don’t do anything progressive.” Clearly progressive meant addressing problems effectively and creatively in this context, and did not have the liberal connotations that it has today.
Senator Horton describes a time when those who had extreme political views were considered, as he calls them, “kooks.” Horton explains that often a conservative and a liberal can reach the same conclusion on any given issue, just that they would arrive at this conclusion by taking different routes. He describes conservatism as a philosophy that values the continuation of civilization, gives preference to existing institutions, and puts the burden of proof on people proposing new ideas. At this time the two political parties had already realigned, but were not yet as disparate in their views as they are today. Senator Horton makes a very good case for having a system in which there is such diversity of political opinions within the parties. Hamilton Horton cites the example of South American countries as what happens when political parties are too opposed. He says that the parties there are “180 degrees opposed to each other” and this makes cooperation very difficult. He wants to keep a system in which both parties have some liberals and some conservatives, even if overall the party may lean more in one direction.
It was also interesting to hear in what political issues religious groups were involved in the 1970s. Horton says in the interview that religious groups were not very involved in issues such as abortion and capital punishment. He says that they were more involved in issues concerning alcohol. He says that this surprised him, as he believes the former issues are more pertinent to churches. I found this interesting as now it seems like a given that abortion would be one of the issues in which churches are most politically involved. This shows that there has been a change concerning in which issues religious institutions are involved in the not-too-distant past. I found listening to an interview to be a very enjoyable way to learn about this aspect of religious involvement in politics. It was much preferable to simply reading or listening to a summary of the historical events.
During my time at the SOHP I also attended the final day of the workshop that SOHP lead for secondary school teachers about the use of oral history in their lessons. I think incorporating oral history into any teacher’s lessons would be a great idea. After learning about North Carolina politics through the interview of Senator Horton I see the full potential of oral history as a great way to get a first hand take on historical events.
This experience has been a very interesting way to learn about oral history and the history of the American South. I am very gratified that I was able to help to make more of the SOHP’s interviews available. This was a great opportunity to learn about my home state and town, and it was a pleasure to be exposed to this technique of studying history.
By Will Schwartz
A post by Rob Shapard, PhD
- An oral history with Matthew Starr, a Raleigh native, Army veteran, and self-described “North Carolina environmental nerd” who monitors the health of the Upper Neuse River
- “Water quality should not just be a Democratic issue, or a Republican issue. It should be an issue that every legislator cares about. Without clean water, we’ve got nothing.” — Matthew Starr, Upper Neuse Riverkeeper
While we often forget it, the fact is that we citizens of North Carolina are tied inextricably to our rivers. We draw essential water from the state’s rivers, and we rely on them to support a diversity of life, along their courses and in the estuaries at the coast. The health of our rivers turns fundamentally on how we treat them, as reflected in the wastewater that we pipe directly into rivers, and the materials and chemicals that we allow to drain into rivers from the lands around them.
Wilmington area residents—and by extension, all of us—are being reminded of the importance of healthy rivers by ongoing news of the presence of an industrial chemical in the Cape Fear River, including the waters used in the Wilmington area’s primary drinking-water plant. This story continues to unfold, but North Carolina State University researchers and others have reported finding several chemicals, including a chemical called “GenX,” in samples from the river, and a Chemours manufacturing plant north of Wilmington is the source of the chemical, used by the company in making Teflon.
The Chemours Co. has federal approval for releasing a small amount of GenX into the Cape Fear River at the Fayetteville Works industrial site, about a hundred miles upriver from Wilmington. But regulators plan to look more closely at whether the company has stuck to this federal limit, and at questions such as whether Chemours is correct in claiming the GenX came from another of the company’s manufacturing processes at the site—a process not subject to the same federal limit on GenX. Chemours and other companies at the Fayetteville Works rely heavily on the Cape Fear River both as a source of raw water, and a conduit for their treated wastewater. Prof. Larry Cahoon of UNC Wilmington stated in a recent interview that the plants there release some 30 million gallons of wastewater per day into the river on average. About seventy miles downstream, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority draws water from the river, and pipes the water to its main treatment plant in Wilmington, and on to customers from there.
The GenX story is the latest spark for renewed attention on river health. In reality, the story of the health of North Carolina rivers is one of perpetual, degrading impacts on their water quality, rather than periodic impacts. Put another way, there is no meaningful period of time when our rivers are not receiving pollutants. In addition, scientists, local officials, and environmentalists are raising concerns about the water levels in many of the state’s streams. The people working as riverkeepers for non-profit organizations in North Carolina recognize the ongoing nature of these issues, and they monitor and shine a spotlight on our rivers’ health. For example, Raleigh native Matthew Starr spends his days, and many evenings, as the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper for Sound Rivers.
This is Starr’s job, but the work is also quite personal. In an oral history interview for the Southern Oral History Program, Starr describes a deep love for the Neuse River and North Carolina ecosystems more broadly, rooted partly in his personal history of growing up in Raleigh and spending many hours outdoors as a kid. North Carolina natural landscapes are part of his identity. Starr followed an interesting path away from his native state and then back, including a tour of duty maintaining Apache helicopters with the U.S. Army in Iraq. In his current job, he regularly sees the effects of sediments, nutrients, animal wastes, and other pollutants washed into the Upper Neuse and other rivers, and also the real potential for greater coal-ash pollution. The following excerpts from the 2014 interview with Starr were edited for length, clarity, and narrative flow:
One great thing about being a riverkeeper is that my work day-to-day changes greatly. When you’re trying to meet a mission of fishable, swimmable, drinkable water for a river that’s 248 miles long and a basin that’s over 6,000 square miles, there’s never a lack of work. And with the current political climate that we have in terms of the environment, I have a lot of job security as well. We’re working on everything from protecting Falls Lake, which supplies over half-a-million people with drinking water, trying to keep the rules in place for that body of water, trying to keep SolarBees off it, unlike what has happened with Jordan Lake, and working on sedimentation—too much dirt in the water—and trying to [limit] excess nutrients—too much nitrogen and phosphorus—which cause algae blooms and lead to fish kills.
And there’s coal ash that I work on almost every day. There’s a large coal-ash pond and other inactive coal-ash ponds that sit literally on the banks of the Neuse River. And then we get into large agricultural practices. We work to stop pollution from factory animal-feeding operations. It’s not Aunty Mae going out throwing feed to the chickens on the ground. You’ve got tens of thousands of chickens in a single barn, or turkeys, so the whole poultry industry—and industry is the key word there. If I mention “farm,” there’s this sense that there’s a dude in Wranglers on a horseback, mending a fence. That’s not what this is. These are poultry and [hog] operations that are in these huge barns. [The animals] get trucked in, they get fat, and they get trucked out.
A big byproduct of that operation is the fecal waste these animals create. That creates a big problem for tributaries of the Neuse, the Neuse itself, and the estuary downstream. It’s one of the most productive estuaries in the nation. It’s really important to North Carolina in terms other than just environmentally. The estuary is very important in terms of economic [benefits], which include tourism and everything else. So when you start looking at all these factors that play into our water quality—and those are just some of the big ones—when you start looking at it as a whole, there’s obviously a big issue.
Coal ash didn’t [first] become a problem when the Dan River spill happened. We’ve had groups working on coal ash for many, many years. It’s not just a Dan River problem. It’s a problem that affects almost everyone in the entire state. There’s a lot of misunderstanding by the legislators, the fact that the legislators think this Dan River thing is what really got the nation looking at it. I think the people in Kingston [Tenn.] would highly disagree with that. The Kingston coal-ash spill was huge. It blows my mind that we couldn’t have been progressive enough, on the heels of Kingston, to work on an issue that affects North Carolina. We had to wait for our own disaster to happen to fix the issue, which is quite disheartening. But as they say, follow the money. It’s disheartening, but it shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone.
A seep can be a stream of illegal coal-ash pollution that looks like a creek. So while “seep” may convey something minor, it is something actually quite major. And it’s been going on for years and years and years. It’s just so frustrating, because you can see it and you can show [officials]. They say, “Oh, that’s not a problem; it’s naturally occurring.” Well, how come when I sample that seep or that stream that’s literally flowing into the Neuse River, why does it have arsenic over the standard? Why does it have manganese over the standard? Why does it have selenium over the standard? Why does it have all these other heavy metals over the standard? There’s sites all across the state, and a hundred percent of these sites are contaminating ground- and surface-water. Democratic administrations didn’t handle it, either.
I think an important thing that I can do is remind [officials], “You remember playing in this creek when you were growing up? You remember enjoying being outside? Well, guess what? We’re going to have a generation that can’t do that.” Just reminding them where they came from and what they enjoyed, and if they are truly worried about protecting our natural resources, well, they’ve really got to change [their approach]… It would be amazing to be able to take some of these legislators out and show them the pollution taking place. But it’s quite difficult to actually achieve. Some of them have taken the Duke Energy tour, so they drive around the coal-ash pond. Well, you can’t see a seep from standing on the dam and looking down. Not possible. It’s crazy. And they’ll tell you, “I went to this site. I didn’t see any of this.” Well, who gave you the tour?
Being a riverkeeper and part of a nonprofit organization, I represent our members, so a lot of it comes to educating our members on the issues, and having them lobby their legislators. I think that’s very important, to have legislators remember that they’re here because their constituents voted for them, not because they’re privileged, that it’s something that their dad did, so they get to do it. It’s not an inherent right. It’s a privilege to represent your constituents, and it’s important to remind them the actions or inactions they’re taking in Raleigh are having a direct impact on citizens.
Another example [of pollution] was on a subdivision in Johnston County for over a year. When subdivisions are built, they clear the land for the subdivision, they come out and lay the roads, and start building houses. They’re supposed to have a sedimentation/erosion-control plan, approved by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which means they will keep the sediment [on-site], as they disturb the land and build these homes and communities, that it will not run down the road into a stream. Sedimentation is the number-one pollution in North Carolina waterways. It leads to many bad things. It can cause thermo-pollution. It can suffocate fish. It can cover the aquatic plants on the bottom of the river, which causes them to decompose. All those things lead to very poor oxygen levels in the body of water, which lead to fish dying, and just a really unhealthy body of water.
At this site [in Johnston County], we got a call from someone who lived nearby who alerted me to what was going on. When I got there, there was a mud river running off this site and into Marks Creek, a pretty large tributary of the Upper Neuse River. This continued day after day, for over a year, and the state never did anything about it. I got complaint after complaint. I would go out there and see this happening time after time again, a huge mud river flowing into this tributary. I mean a nice, wide stream that this created, that was just causing Marks Creek to turn orange. That site finally came into compliance. How did they come into compliance? Because they stopped. All the houses were built. They were not required to do anything. They did not get in trouble. They came into compliance because they stopped building on that stretch of road.
I am passionate about protecting my community. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I met my wife at [East Carolina University]. We have three awesome kids—five, two, and one. And they’re all about to have birthdays in October. I want them to have their own experiences, but I really hope they continue my [path] of being passionate to protect North Carolina. I think any time we look into what we’re doing with our lives, a large part is for the next generation, for our kids, our kids’ kids. I want them to be able to play in the creeks, and be able to eat the fish. I want there to be fish to actually catch. I want them to have a viable drinking water source.
I love North Carolina. I love my N.C. State Wolfpack. Elementary school, I can remember the teachers wheeling in the TV on the cart and we’d watch the ACC basketball tournament. We’d have kids (for) N.C. State and UNC and Duke and Wake Forest. And being able to go to the beach and the mountains, I just really love North Carolina. I was born in Rex Hospital. I grew up in Raleigh, moved around a little bit through college and through the Army, and came back to Raleigh. My entire family, except for one aunt on both sides of my family, lives in the greater Raleigh area. Being able to protect a river I grew up on, and the river that three of my kids are growing up on, it’s super important.
I grew up in a subdivision called Lake Ann, and Umstead Park is not too far from there. And you’ve got Crabtree Creek. You’ve got all kinds of cool natural resources to enjoy growing up. I remember my mom taking me outside and playing in the rain, playing in the storm water and just having fun. I really think that’s where I got my environmental activism, enjoying and appreciating our water resources. My mom was a teacher at Leesville High School, [and] Garner High School before then. My dad worked on the Reedy Creek Research Farm. Then they moved over to Lake Wheeler. My stepfather was a professor at N.C. State. My mom, my dad, my aunts, everyone except for one uncle, went to N.C. State. So I am North Carolina. I truly believe that.
I could literally walk down my driveway, down a hill, and be in a creek. I would be in there all the time. And fishing in Lake Ann. My grandparents had a house at Morehead, so I’d go down and get out on the boat and enjoy the coastal waterway there, and vacationing at my family’s vacation at Ocean Isle. So it’s going to the beach, and then vacationing with my dad and grandparents in the mountains, and enjoying those awesome little mountain streams. Going to high school, we’d have a “ditch day” or two, and we’d go out to Falls Lake and hang out and swim and enjoy being out there. I was lucky. I had parents that wanted to take me outside, and I had a nice neighborhood, so they didn’t have to worry about me playing for hours in the creek. I think that’s all kind of what led to where I am today.
I started (college) at Lees-McRae, in Banner Elk. I was on a track scholarship there for a year, and then my coach got a job at East Tennessee State University. I followed the coach there for a year, and then came back to North Carolina and attended ECU, floundered around a little more, and then spent [six] years in the Army. I worked on Apache helicopters [in Iraq]. I did the avionics, electrical, and armament. Apache support ground forces, your infantry, your Special Forces, because they’re flying tanks. They don’t fly troops around. They don’t bring supplies. They fly and then they blow stuff up. We got punched out to a whole bunch of smaller places because the Apaches were fighting support for the ground troops. It sounds like a really cool job, but it’s just another job to support the troops on the ground that were doing the real work. I’m not an aviation geek. I don’t care about flying things. When I joined the Army, I said, “I want to leave in the next two weeks. Whatever job you have open, that’s what I want.” So that’s how I got into the Apache. They said, “Well, this one’s leaving in four days.” All right. Sign me up. In hindsight maybe I should’ve thought about a little more about what I wanted to do. But I was young, dumb, and ready to go.
Then [I] came back, finished my degree. I knew that I always had this passion for the environment and for particularly water resources. I really wanted to create change. I had no idea what nonprofits were all about. My family was fortunate enough to donate some money to nonprofits here and there, so I kind of understood a little bit about them, but had really no idea how they operated, so I did an internship with the Neuse River Foundation, and I loved it. For about two years, I did different jobs here and there. And then I just bugged them enough until a job opened up and I applied and thankfully got it [in 2012]. And there’s no place I’d rather be. I hope that I can do this job until I’m seventy.
If you connect [with], understand, and respect the environment, we’ll do much, much better in keeping it healthy. That’s really damned hard. You look at the disconnect people have with the environment. We’re a screen-first society now. One thing I try to do is really educate the youth, because they’re not going to be passionate about protecting something that they have no idea about. Why would they give a damn about the Neuse River if they’ve never experienced it? Having that sense of respect, the understanding, changing how we act as a society. We’re so far removed from where our food comes from, and where our water comes from. I mean, the Neuse River is just outside of downtown Raleigh, but if I ask fifty people on the street, “You know where the Neuse River is?” ten of them would probably [say], “What’s the Neuse River?” And our schools talk about the water cycle and everything else, but maybe they get to spend a day on talking about how to protect the environment, or what our everyday actions do to either have a negative or positive impact on the environment. That basic education is just something we have to do a better job of. And we have to connect people with where their food and water comes from.
The mission of the Neuse River Foundation is to educate, advocate and protect. Lots of times, when I talk about protecting water quality, it seems like that’s just an abstract, big-picture thing, like, “I’m not the president. I’m not the governor. What can I do?” But there’s stuff in our everyday life that we can do. I think having people understand that their daily actions have a real impact on our water quality or water quantity is so important. Everything from turning off the water when you brush your teeth, to low-flow toilets. Why do we flush our waste with drinkable water? It makes no sense! You know, picking up your trash. If you walk by another piece of trash that’s not too disgusting, pick that up and throw it away. It’s not so difficult that it has to come from a highly important person. It’s something that we can do every day. What are we going to accomplish if the next generation is just like, “Ah, screw it”? I have completely failed if that’s the case. No matter if I stop coal ash, if I stop sedimentation, if I stop [pollution from] these large farming operations, but then we don’t educate the generation coming up behind us, then we’ve had a temporary reprieve. We’re going to be right back in the situation that we’re currently in.
I represent diehard Republicans. I represent diehard Democrats. So, in my professional riverkeeper role, I try to stay really open minded. Water quality should not just be a Democratic or a Republican issue. It should be an issue that every legislator cares about. Without clean water we’ve got nothing. North Carolina is one of the fastest-growing areas of the nation every year. It’s always voted one of the best places to live. But if our water quality goes [bad], who’s going to move here? Who’s going to relocate their business here? Who’s going to start their business here? Well, no one is. No matter how many tax incentives you give them. Clean water should be something that both sides of the aisle can agree is important to protect. We don’t see that happening. And like I said, coal ash was here during Democratic control as well, which a lot of the Republican legislators like to point out, which I counter with, “Well, they didn’t do anything, but now it’s your turn to have the opportunity.” My job is to hold people who have the power to affect change, no matter what side of the aisle they’re on, to hold them accountable. I will remind people that, when they vote, to think about the environment and who’s voted for what. If you’re someone who believes that protecting the environment is important, look at what your current legislator has voted for, or not voted for. Unfortunately, right now, the environment is a partisan issue. Why? I don’t know. I hear it’s all in the name of business. But I do not understand why the environment has to be degraded in order for business to thrive. For the life of me, I hear what they’re saying and I can listen to their explanation, but I will never understand. I do not understand why you must slash environmental regulations in order for you to believe that you can achieve a growing economy. I just do not understand that logic.
[But] I’m very hopeful that it’s going to get better. If you look at the water quality of the early ‘90s, we’ve come a long way. We’ve had many—had being the key word—good, strong regulations to help us along the way, and we currently have some that I will fight very hard to keep in place. But I’m very hopeful the Neuse River will continue to become healthier. I know my dedication. I will not quit, and I will not stop. The Neuse River will continue to be fought for, and water quality in general. And so I am hopeful—I have to be—that the Neuse River’s water quality will continue to improve. It’s going to be a very, very tough job. And there’s lots and lots of people working to protect water quality throughout the state. I could not be effective or do my job to the fullest of my ability, if I did not think it was going to improve. We’ll get there through education, through fighting [pollution] or polluters and through legal action, outreach, creating that sense of connection that we were talking about earlier. I’m hopeful people will remember the environment when they vote. I’m hopeful people will speak to the legislators. I’m hopeful people will speak out against things that are unjust.
If we could go out and paddle right now, right outside of Raleigh proper, there’s a stretch of river, and there’s an old dam on the river. It’s the only dam between Falls Lake Dam and the coast, or Pamlico Sound. Old Milburnie Road is right there, and you can put in, and it’s a ten-minute drive from here. If you put in there, you’re still kind of in the heart of an urban setting, and you can float down the Neuse and not hear a car. It’s a beautiful stretch of river. It’s easy-going. It’s a nice flow. There’s lots of really cool [features] and wildlife. It’s just a really awesome place to escape to. And it’s right there. You maybe see one or two other people, floating down the river, and it’s just you and the river and it’s awesome.
The Neuse, it’s so cool. It changes so much, from coming out of Falls Lake and some of the drier months when you can walk across it, to [becoming] the widest river in the United States at its widest point, when it enters the Pamlico Sound. There’s so much to see, and being able to get out on that stretch right there at Milburnie Dam, man, it’s awesome. Right outside of the city, you can get away and not see a car, not hear a car, not see a person, and it’s instant relaxation. Putting in at Milburnie Dam and doing however long you want to do there—if we left right now, that’s where I’d go.
It’s important for people to remember where we’ve come from, what we did, and where we are—learning about the environmental justice movement that started in North Carolina, learning about [how] the Haw River used to change colors with whatever the [textile] industry was dying at that time. Remembering the things we’ve lost along the way—the chestnut tree, the longleaf pine, all these things. What are we going to lose now through inaction? What are we going to lose that people fifty, sixty, seventy, one hundred years from now, are going to look back and say we screwed it up for them? We have to understand what we’ve done and what we’re doing, and how that is going to affect future generations. Maybe if people can say, “You know what, I do understand where we’ve come from,” maybe that’ll create change. Maybe it won’t. But I think it’s a tool worth having. Being able to connect people not only to the present but to our past, for them to have an understanding of why protecting the environment is important, as something that is a just cause.
— Robert P. Shapard (firstname.lastname@example.org) completed his Ph.D. in U.S. History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in May 2017, with specialization in environmental history. He is a lecturer at UNC and a former SOHP field scholar. The full oral history interview with Matthew Starr will be available at sohp.org and the Wilson Library archives in fall 2017.