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"A Quarter-Century of Listening to the Stories of Our Lives; Oral History Program Celebrates Its Own History" (By Alan Scher Zagier)

Reprinted with permission from the Raleigh News & Observer.

CHAPEL HILL - From Internet banking to 24-hour cable news, the technological revolution can seem inescapable, if not downright overwhelming. Get on board or get left behind, the pundits warn.

Yet as the 20th century draws to a close, a group of UNC-CH historians is making its mark relying on some more basic tools - tape recorders and human memory - to preserve the sanctity of the spoken word.

The university's Southern Oral History Program tonight celebrates 25 years of documenting the lives of mill workers, tobacco farmers, rural activists and other regular folks across North Carolina and the region.

While the program has grown into one of the country's foremost centers for oral history, its motto remains the same: "You don't have to be famous for your life to be history."

"Graduate students and scholars of my generation were turning away from history from the top down and trying to do history from the bottom up - the history of ordinary people," said Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, who remains the first and only director of the oral history center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Rather than limit their historical inquiries to document-driven accounts of major events and interviews with "famous" political and business leaders, Hall and her contemporaries emerged from the civil rights, women's rights and anti-war movements with a desire to bring a "democratic impulse" to history and foster social change through scholarship, she said.

Hall, other professors and legions of graduate students have since contributed more than 2,000 recorded tapes and transcripts to the university's Southern Historical Collection in Wilson Library. The collection includes interviews with Southern politicians, UNC-CH student and faculty leaders, small business owners, textile bosses, country pastors and factory workers who lost their jobs.

The program was the brainchild of George Tindall, a UNC-CH history professor, and Dan Single, a Tindall disciple and Hall's graduate-school classmate at Columbia University. The two men wanted Hall to head the nascent program and recruited her from Atlanta, where she was finishing her dissertation while working for the Southern Regional Council. She never left.

Along the way, Hall and her colleagues trained a generation of Southern oral historians who have fanned out across the country. Many of those alumni will return to Chapel Hill today for a 25th anniversary celebration dubbed "The Voices of the Past."

The anniversary events include a pair of panel discussions open to the public in the Wilson Library Assembly Room from 1 to 4:15 p.m. An invitation-only reception will follow featuring William Ferris, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, as guest speaker.

The oral history center recently launched its most ambitious effort to date, "Listening for a Change: North Carolina Communities in Transition," a collection of seven projects examining the dramatic changes in the state's post-World War II history. (Interview excerpts from the project are published monthly in The News & Observer's Sunday Journal).

In Charlotte, an oral historian collects remembrances of the city's landmark school desegregation efforts. Another historian is interviewing tobacco farmers in eastern North Carolina.

Kelly Navies, a UNC-CH graduate student, goes to Asheville to interview former students and teachers at Stephens-Lee High School, an all-black school that was shut down - and later demolished - after segregation ended. The inquiry began seven years ago when Navies, a California native, interviewed her grandmother, a Stephens-Lee alumna.

"Just like the black church, the school was important as a community institution. It was more than just a place where students went to learn," she said. "It was an extended family…. Inside, they were valued and supported in a way which they weren't on the outside."

Alicia Rouverol is taping the stories of Spanish-speaking immigrants and their new neighbors in Northeast Central Durham. Many of the narrators are surprised anyone would want to know about their lives," she said.

"People don't always value their own stories," she said. "Sometimes the attention you bring causes them to reflect on their lives in new ways."

That reflection is being made all the more difficult by e-mail, voice mail and other hurried forms of modern communication that pass for thoughtful discourse, Hall said.

"If you were writing the history of the Founding Fathers, you would have diaries, you would have long letters," she said. "If you are studying politics today, most decisions take place offstage, and the negotiations that lead to those decisions, and the compromises and values of those decisions, are expressed through the telephone or by e-mail or face-to-face, because people can fly to see each other.

"Although there is a proliferation of sources, they are not nearly as rich," she said. "Oral history can restore that intimacy."

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