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"History on tape turns 25" (By Chris Burritt)Reprinted with permission from The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution. Further reproduction, retransmission or distribution of these materials without the prior written consent of The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution, and any copyright holder identified in the material's copyright notice, is prohibited.
Chapel Hill, N.C. - In a visit with an elderly glove maker, oral historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall was struggling to explain why she wanted to capture her recollections with a tape recorder.
The artisan interrupted Hall with her own memorable assessment: "You don't have to be famous for your life to be history," Nell Sigmon told her interviewer.
Those simple, eloquent words have survived as the credo of the South's first major oral history program, today celebrating its 25th anniversary.
Historians, authors and others who trained under Hall, director of the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina, return to Chapel Hill for a scholarly yet emotional reminiscence among people who gathered, word by word, strands of the South's tumultuous past.
Some of the hundreds of cotton mill workers, civil rights activists, prominent politicians and common folks interviewed years ago are now dead, creating a sense of urgency among oral historians. They worry that ever-quickening social and economic changes will wipe away memories worth preserving.
"I had no use for a cotton mill but I had to do it. I had to make bread and butter," textile worker John Wesley Snipes of Bynum, N.C., said in 1979. His recollections were among many that shaped "Like a Family-The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World," an early, influential project of the Southern Oral History Program.
More recently, the program's graduate students and research associates interviewed former employees of the now-closed White Furniture Co. of Mebane, N.C. In a collection of poignant photographs and words published as "Closing-The Life and Death of An American Factory," photographer Bill Bamberger and writer Cathy Davidson captured part of the essence of workers such as Don McCall.
Watching people punch the time clock for the last time, McCall said, "It's just, you know, their feet dropped on the floor and their hearts [dropped too]."
Hall, 55, said the Southern Oral History Program has distinguished itself by focusing on more than collecting interviews and preserving them in library archives. It has trained students to carry on the work at other institutions, and it has taught local history clubs, church groups and other community institutions how to delve into their past.
The UNC program's latest major project is "Listening for a Change," in which historians are recording stories of North Carolinians primarily since World War II. Topics include school desegregation in Charlotte, Hispanic migration to Durham, the transition of eastern North Carolina tobacco farmers and memories of a black school in Asheville.
"It is not an advocacy project in and of itself, but we believe, as historians do, that understanding the past is critical to living well and responsibly in the present," Hall said.
Often the words gathered by the Southern Oral History Program were spoken by people who otherwise might never have been heard beyond quiet talk on front porches.
"We are recording the stories of people's lives that they themselves do not even think of as history," said Will Jones, 29, a UNC doctoral student. He is interviewing African-Americans who in the 1930s and '40s worked in sawmills in North Carolina, Alabama and Louisiana.
Bits of Atlanta's history are among the more than 2,000 interviews - on tapes and transcripts - in the Southern Historical Collection on the Chapel Hill campus.
Two cassette tapes and 67 typed pages contain the calm, reflective voice of John Lewis, the civil rights activist who was raised poor in Pike County, Ala., but is now a U.S. congressman from Atlanta.
"We crossed the bridge and we met a sea of state troopers," Lewis said in a 1973 interview, recalling the 1965 "Bloody Sunday" confrontation in Selma, Ala., that led ultimately to the triumphant Selma-to-Montgomery march. Lewis suffered a fractured skull during the attack by deputies and state troopers wielding clubs and bullwhips. "I felt frightened. I felt that we had to stay there."
The interview with Lewis came a year before the creation of the Southern Oral History Program, reflecting the fledgling efforts in a field that is now soaring in popularity.
Tom Brokaw's best-selling book "The Greatest Generation," based on recollections by World War II veterans, illustrates the poignancy and the broad appeal of oral history, one of the oldest methods of historical research.
"It is no longer simply for library archives," said Cliff Kuhn, 46, assistant professor of history at Georgia State University.
A doctoral student who studied at UNC under Hall in the late 1970s, Kuhn ranked the Southern Oral History Program as one of the nation's three most influential, along with the University of California at Los Angeles and Columbia University in New York City.
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