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"With An Ear Toward History" (By Anne Blythe)

Reprinted with permission from The Chapel Hill News.

Jacquelyn Dowd Hall was in Alabama for a human welfare conference last fall when a woman in her 90s, decked out in fashionable garb, stepped toward her.

Right off the bat, Hall recognized Eula McGill, an organizer in the Southern textile factory worker movement of the 1930s, whom she had interviewed in the late 1970s.

"There she was dressed to the nines, with this big hat on, and high heels, still a woman of just this immense presence, and she came up to me and spoke," the director of the Southern Oral History Program recalled recently. "And I hadn't seen her in all those years. It was just thrilling to see her still going."

If you ask Hall, who has been at the helm of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's oral history program for the last quarter century, which are her favorites of the hundreds of interviews she's done, the petite woman hesitates much like a mother being called on to rank her children.

Yet, when she thinks back on all the interesting people whose life stories she has heard, Hall ventures that she would list McGill among the most intriguing. However, her answer, she cautions, is probably influenced somewhat by the flattering reunion in the fall.

"I was interested in her as a woman who'd had an unusual career," Hall said on a recent Monday, while sitting in the living room of her Tenney Circle home. "Because of her work, she had lived in motels most of her life. I just couldn't imagine a life without one place to call home."

During the several hours the women talked in the 1970s, Hall found out that, as she suspected, life on the road had not always been easy for McGill; thus her interview revealed a softer side of the organizer that news accounts rarely touched.

Those kinds of details are at the heart of the Southern Oral History Program, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary of preserving history through the words of the people who lived it. A bash is planned for Thursday to make note of the longevity of the program and its many special projects.

"What has kept me going is that there has been this wave of students, and just when I start to think I can't do this any longer, this wave of students will come in and take claim to this space, and use it in their work and give it new meaning," says Hall, who has been the program's one and only director.

The oldest of five children, Hall grew up in Pauls Valley, a small town in southern Oklahoma. Both sets of grandparents lived nearby, and each provided lore and memories their granddaughter would more fully appreciate later in life.

One grandfather had come to Pauls Valley in search of a life better than sharecropping, settling in as a barber for a while. Her other grandfather started a men's clothing store that her father inherited.

One grandmother, she recalls today, caught live chickens in the back yard, wrung their necks and dished up a freshly cooked platter of meat the same day.

Her great-grandmother had been married to the Pauls Valley sheriff, a man who was killed in a knife fight.

Her mom, she now realizes, handled divorce with Southern aplomb, moving into a smaller house with her five children and going out into a work force in which women had limited opportunities.

"I come from a family of strong women, and women who I've identified with very much," she said.

Around the time of her parents' divorce, Hall was reading books like Betty Friedan's "Feminine Mystique" on the porch of her mother's house, fast approaching college age in a family where she would be the first to blaze the trail to a higher education.

"I somehow had the idea that I wanted to go to a small liberal arts college," she said.

In a Newsweek or Time magazine article about up and coming colleges, she read about Rhodes College and immediately set her sights on the school in Memphis.

"It tended to attract students like me, idealistic students from small towns," she said. "Then these students, once they got there, we were immediately plunged into existentialism, history of the Bible. It was a very liberating and enlightening place."

Initially, literature and philosophy captured her fancy. John Hempel, a history professor, took her under his wing and decided she should go to graduate school. In addition to being a recruiter for his field, Hempel was also tuned in to the events of the Civil Rights movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

"The kind of history he taught us made me realize how crucial understanding history is to understanding political events of your time," Hall said. "Once I started studying history, I was very taken with it."

So after receiving a bachelor's degree with honors in 1965 from Rhodes College, the young scholar headed off to Columbia University in New York City to further her academic study.

"New York in the late 1960s was a great place to be," Hall recalled. "What was fabulous about it was this was a period when grad students were creating whole new fields of history."

Civil rights marches were changing institutions, and the feminist movement was coming into its own. In those tumultuous and exciting times, the present quickly became the past, chipping off new eras for historians to study.

"We were in the forefront," she said. "By and large, everything I've ended up doing, and being interested in, I've ended up teaching myself."

By the 1970s, Hall said, the student movement in urban areas was rapidly changing, turning away from the ideological politics that compelled her and focusing more on violence.

While in New York, she received a master's degree in 1967, and married Bob Hall, her first husband. (She's now married to Bob Korstad, a labor historian at Duke University.)

The Halls were interested in continuing their involvement with the progressive movements after graduate school at Columbia, but thought they'd be more productive if they moved back to the South.

They went to Atlanta, and with the Southern Regional Council, "took up the next phase of what was going to happen after the Civil Rights movement."

While working in Atlanta for the civil rights and labor movements, the couple met many fascinating Southern activists whose stories were not captured in the mainstream media.

"We had become aware of how little we knew about earlier generations of people in the South who had tried to confront social issues," Jacquelyn Hall said.

They feared the activists and their deeds would be lost to history, so with tape recorders in hand, they set out to collect stories for others who would come in their wake. "We were doing this on our own, as a labor of love," she said.

Those early interviews whetted Hall's appetite for gathering oral histories, but at that time she had no idea that her life's work through the next quarter century would be to amass and oversee the collection of more than 2,000 tapes and transcripts for the Southern Oral History Program.

"I was just going merrily along, working on my dissertation," she said.

The details are a little fuzzy now, but what she thinks happened next was that Dan Single, a student she knew from Columbia, contacted her about a program one of his professors at Chapel Hill wanted to start.

Other top-flight universities had begun oral history programs, and George Tindall, a noted history professor at UNC-CH, was interested in developing something similar on the state's flagship campus.

"I believe probably what happened was that Dan contacted me and asked me if I wanted to apply for the job," Hall said recently. "That was the only job I applied for. I wasn't really ready to go on the job market.

"I certainly had no idea how to create or run an oral history program. Luckily, I didn't know what I was getting into."

Her new employers gave her a small office in Chapel Hill, one of those large, clunky reel-to-reel tape recorders, and a mandate that she was to document the history of the South.

"It was very, very open," Hall said.

She hired Joe Jaros, a graduate student in the history department, to transcribe tapes, and the program was up and running.

"It was a lot of fun, but it was a lot of work," Jaros said last week from his home in College Station, Texas, where he runs a medical library at Texas A&M University. "Jackie was doing this project on Southern politics, and I had to listen to a lot of different interviews of politicians done in a lot of places. Some of them were in these bars in Miami, with Cuban music in the background. It was fascinating work, all the people she interviewed - all the mill workers, the politicians. And I wasn't even in Southern history; I was in European history."

Through the years, the Southern Oral History Program has drawn many students, historians and authors in search of the flavor of a region that's often missing from textbooks and staid government documents.

People rarely keep diaries any more, and telephone calls and e-mails that can quickly be deleted have replaced much of the personal letter writing that once was commonplace.

With the oral histories, Hall and others in the program hope to capture some of the everyday nuances in the lives of the powerful and not so powerful who make up the South.

In the late '70s, not long after Hall arrived in Chapel Hill, interviewers from the program sought out folks in mill villages who had seen better times. Many of the mills had been sold, but the elderly people in the company towns told of an era when the South began to abandon its agrarian roots for the industrialism that changed their lives.

That project resulted in "Like A Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World," a University of North Carolina Press book that Hall, her students and colleagues saw published in 1987.

Jim Leloudis, an associate professor in the history department and director of the Center for the Study of the American South, was one of the graduate students who worked on the project.

"I think what sets her apart is there are a lot of people who get described as a mentor, but Jacquelyn is someone who actually was doing that," he said last week. "What's real unusual is a real sense of people working together who had broadly invested in each other's work and lives."

In addition to the mill worker interviews, the Southern Oral History Program has amassed a number of tapes and transcripts from entrepreneurs, community agitators, politicians, prisoners and unsung heroes. Books have been inspired by these interviews, as have films, exhibits, and performance art.

Since her hire in 1973, Hall has been directing a respected program that has survived while many others have failed to attract the funds needed to continue.

"It's her remarkable determination and her commitment to this work and her awareness of how valuable it is," says Spencie Love, Hall's assistant director and author of "One Blood: The Death and Resurrection of Charles Drew," a UNC Press book.

"I feel like getting to work here with Jacquelyn is like being at the center of the universe in terms of this work. There is a real esprit de corps about coming through the program, and being one of her students."

In addition to making the big decisions, Hall also must do a good bit of fund-raising, grant writing and teaching.

"She's not your droll professor," says Russ Rymer, a student in her first class at Carolina who went on to author "American Beach: A Saga of Race, Wealth and Memory," a book that details three stories from black communities in Florida to provide insight into race relations in this country. "Her exercises dealt with a modern day concern."

On some days, Hall would read from the work of Joan Didion or Adrienne Rich to prompt a discussion.

Today, she likes students in her women's history classes to go out and do oral histories of their grandmothers and mothers, and then use their own experiences to describe what they've discovered.

By gathering these stories, Hall says, her students are able to piece together different eras of history, find out more about their own families, and see how their lives have been affected by events that happened before they came along.

"The students I have are not aware of feminist issues," she says. "It's kind of the conventional wisdom that they've absorbed without women's rights. But they hardly know anything about the 100 years of struggle that women went through to get where they are now.

"I think in every realm of life to forget both the struggle that people have gone through to create the world we inhabit, and to forget the degree to which your privileges are because of that - to forget all those things is very dangerous."

That's the philosophy that drives her to want to know more about people. That's why, when she was working on her dissertation about Jesse Daniel Ames, a Southern woman who led anti-lynching campaigns in the 1920s and '30s, she sought out friends and relatives of her protagonist to learn more about her motivation and day-to-day life, the material that was missing from the written records.

That love of fishing for the real story, and of leaving something behind for others, has been driving Hall for 25 years, and there's no indication she plans to ease up any time soon.

She's excited about "Listening For A Change: North Carolina Communities in Transition," a project through which interviewers are going out across the state to capture its 20th Century history since World War II.

She still knows of many movers and shakers who have not yet been interviewed, and she has many books she would like to craft from the tapes that have been gathered.

"It does have this feeling of something that is never finished," Hall said. "And while it does have its glory, it also can drive you crazy. Every history you do, every project that you do begets more."

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
(919) 962-0455