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UNC history professor earns honor (By Eric Ferreri)

Reprinted with permission from The Durham Herald-Sun, September 22, 1999.

CHAPEL HILL--About two weeks ago, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall got a phone call telling her she was one of eight people in the nation to be awarded the National Humanities Medal.

Her reaction?

"I started laughing, and I just kept laughing and laughing," the UNC history professor recounted this week. "Later, I wondered if the other people they were calling responded this way."

Hall's reaction was based on total surprise. She knew little about the award, given annually by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and had no idea how she was selected.

And until a newspaper interview Monday, she hadn't heard that she'd be rubbing shoulders later this month with such notables as filmmaker Steven Spielberg and radio broadcaster Garrison Keillor, two of the other seven honorees.

Hall and her fellow honorees will receive their awards from President Clinton on Sept. 29 at a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House.

Along with Spielberg and Keillor, Hall's other fellow honorees include: Patricia Battin, a librarian who has organized and led a national campaign to save millions of disintegrating books; Taylor Branch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and journalist; Jim Lehrer, a television journalist; John Rawls, a political philosopher; and August Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.

Hall's award is based on her work as director of UNC's Southern Oral History Program, an initiative she founded in 1973 and has seen blossom into one of the largest collections of written and spoken history in the nation.

Hall came to Carolina in 1973 at age 30, having studied history in graduate school at Columbia University and later working for a civil rights organization in Atlanta. The Oklahoma native was selected by a group of UNC historians to start an oral history project at a time when spoken word as a way to record history was somewhat unknown.

"It was pretty much just me, having no idea what I was doing," Hall said. "I moved here, they gave me an office and said to make them an oral history program."

In her first year as the founder, director and entire staff of the program, Hall began interview-based projects exploring the transformation of Southern politics since the civil rights movement and the state of Southern women since suffrage. She also did a project on notable North Carolinians. As her program grew, she employed history students to help with interviews.

Today, the Southern Oral History Program is a collection of about 2,200 interviews in more than 100 projects, a voluminous collection based in the UNC history department and housed in the Wilson Library's Southern Historical Collection. It is a collection that traces the roots of Southern history and offers more than just facts and figures. The first-person accounts from notable and mostly anonymous Southerners offer an emotional face to supplement the pages of textbooks from which most history is taught.

Hall's colleagues are effusive in their praise of her work.

"She's made monumental contributions to UNC and to the study of history," said Peter Coclanis, chairman of the history department.'

The people whom Hall and her students have interviewed during the last 26 years can be loosely broken into two categories: those who are famous and those who are not.

Until a couple of decades ago, most oral history was from the politicians, celebrities and statesmen whose visible presence in the South helped the region carve out an identity. Of those people, Hall cites former N.C. Gov. and U.S. Sen. Terry Sanford and longtime UNC President William Friday as two interviewees whose words gave her personal satisfaction.

"Interviewing those people gave me a sense of the human story behind the development of the place that I live in and the institution where I teach," she said.

But the likes of Sanford and Friday don't truly represent the bulk of stories Hall has found and brought into the public fore. Much of Hall's work has focused on the unknown residents of the South, the textile worker or the tobacco field worker who spent a lifetime toiling and watched the world go by.

Hall's favorite example comes from an early 1980s interview with Nell Sigmon, who worked in the glove industry in Conover. Hall was going to great lengths to explain why she wanted to interview the woman, when Sigmon interrupted her and said that she understood.

"You don't have to be famous for your life to be history," Sigmon told Hall, coining a phrase that would become the Southern Oral History Program's unofficial motto. Sigmon's story was turned into a character in a subsequent book Hall coauthored, "Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World."

Stories such as Sigmon's are the ones that have stuck with Hall the most.

"We have interviewed people ranging from famous people with voluminous records to ordinary people who have had extraordinary lives," she said. "People who have seen extraordinary change but would have been forgotten had we not recorded their stories."

Said Coclanis, the history department's chairman: "She went on the assumption that ordinary people were important as well."

As a tool to record people's experiences, Hall's use of oral history has been extensive. But she's also taken the interviewing technique into the classroom, where she's challenged students in her women's history courses to interview women in their own families and trace their family history through the conversations. By talking to their mothers and grandmothers, students were able to see how their family histories paralleled what was happening across the country during the same period of time.

"It wasn't easy, but those linkages made the textbook readings come alive for them like it hadn't before," Hall said.

It is not clear who nominated Hall for the medal. She doesn't know whether someone at UNC nominated her or whether someone with the National Endowment for the Humanities, which has funded several of her program's projects in the past, pushed her for the award.

No one at UNC has confessed to sending in a nomination, and officials at NEH have been tight-lipped about their selection process, saying only that nominations are solicited from the "humanities community."

Hall does have links to NEH that may help explain her selection. In addition to the NEH's funding of several of her projects, the NEH chairman, William Ferris, is the former head of a Southern studies institute at the University of Mississippi.

Perhaps, Coclanis speculated, Ferris nominated her. Or perhaps, one of scores of other historians suggested the nomination, he said. Ferris was unable to be reached.

"She's a high profile scholar," Coclanis said. "She's won a million awards. It wouldn't surprise me if other people nominated her as well."

Jim Turner, a NEH spokesman, declined to detail Hall's nomination process, but he made it clear that Hall's work speaks for itself.

"She's done a remarkable job getting oral histories, interviewing people and getting information," Turner said. "I think that her work is unique and very significant in advancing the field of Southern studies."

(c) Copyright, Durham Herald Company, Inc.

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