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"A Gift to N.C.: UNC's Southern Oral History Program Turns 25"An April 7, 1999, editorial from the The Charlotte Observer. Republished with permission from The Charlotte Observer. Copyright owned by The Charlotte Observer.
Much of what we know as history comes from official sources - the letters, papers and speeches of people who ran things. Yet, as Ken Burns' documentaries have shown, some of the most insightful observations about a period come from the letters and journals of its ordinary people.
Those sources are valuable but haphazard; they leave a lot of historical territory unexplored. That's why the work of the Southern Oral History Program at UNC-Chapel Hill is so important. Its scholars systematically record the thoughts of a wide range of people about their lives and times, giving voice to those who otherwise might die unheard.
Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, the program's founding director, realized the potential value of such recollections 30 years ago when, completing courses for a doctorate in history at Columbia University, she moved to Atlanta to work on her first book. It was a biography of Jessie Daniel Ames, a Southern woman who led anti-lynching campaigns in the 1920s and '30s. Her papers were available, but revealed little about her personal life and motivations. Ms. Hall began interviewing Ms. Ames' friends and relatives and struck gold.
In 1973, UNC brought Dr. Hall to Chapel Hill to create the South's first major oral history program. Over the years it has preserved in more than 2,000 tapes and transcripts the stories of mill workers and blacks who fought segregation, entrepreneurs and school teachers, politicians and laid-off factory workers. A current project, "Listening for a Change: North Carolina Communities in Transition," records the stories of people from corporate CEOs to prison inmates as they live through rapid change on the eve of the new millennium. One focus, directed by Pamela Grundy of Charlotte, will be on race and public schools as seen through experiences at West Charlotte High School.
Tapes of ordinary people, speaking with grace and eloquence about their lives, immeasurably enrich our understanding of our past and of ourselves. As it celebrates its 25th birthday, that's the extraordinary gift the Southern Oral History Program has given North Carolina.
The Southern Oral History Program
Center for the Study of the American South
Love House and Hutchins Forum
410 East Franklin St., CB# 9127, UNC-CH
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-9127