Oral History Resources

Oral History Resources ­­

Oral histories are an essential part of most Community-Drive Archives work. Through oral histories, we are able to hear directly from people who have important stories or memories to share. Oral histories enable different ways of thinking about and learning from the past, and often present perspectives that are not well represented in traditional museums and archives.

One of our key partners at UNC-Chapel Hill is the Southern Oral History Program (SOHP). Since its founding in 1973, the SOHP has done groundbreaking work, creating a vital record of Southern history. The SOHP is often recognized as one of the leading oral history programs in the country. They are also a terrific resource for learning more about doing oral history, whether you are a seasoned professional or if you’re getting ready for your very first interview.

Here are several resources that we have found helpful when planning or preparing for oral histories:

  1. Bernetiae Reed, one of the Community-Driven Archives project staff members, is an experienced oral historian and offers an essential bit of advice for anyone considering oral histories: just get started.

“Don’t wait! Ask your questions now. If you procrastinate that opportunity can pass by and that story, that connection, or that moment could be gone forever! Pull out your recorder during special moments. Seek that person with things you want to know or that person with memories you want to capture. Your actions allow these words to be heard by future audiences! Start with those family stories that you have grown up hearing, connect with community members who have recollections that need to be preserved, and then go on from there. The most important factor in successful oral history capture are a communicative interviewee and an engaged interviewer.”

Ronney Stevens from SAAACAM in San Antonio TX shares a memory of going to the Carver Library as a child.

As you continue on your work with oral histories, no matter where you are in the process, get in touch with us if you have any questions or just have stories to share.

The Community-Drive Archives Project at UNC-Chapel Hill is supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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What’s with all the Backpacks?

If you’ve seen any publicity about the Community-Driven Archives grant, you’ve probably seen references to “the Backpacks.” One of the central initiatives for the CDA Team is transportable archiving kit that demystifies the technical jargon and supplies resources for communities. This has manifest as the “Archivist in a Backpack” and the slightly less catchy but equally important “Archivist in a Roller bag.” These are a simplified archive in an easily portable kit that we bring and mail to communities doing archival and cultural heritage projects. In April of this year, the online forum HyperAllergic published an article about our “Archivist in a Backpack” project. Since then, we have had an enormously positive response from people all over the world and I think the speed and reach of the backpacks has surprised us all. We’ve received numerous inquiries about the backpacks and our grant project in general. This might seem like a basic administrative detail, but when you consider that each inquiry has the potential to become a new resource and an introduction to dozens of new colleagues, it is no small feat in networking. While most of my conversations have been with people in the US, we’ve had interest all over the globe. From a member of a Canadian first Nation, to a library in New South Wales, an Archivist in the UK doing her own community work with immigrant Somalian communities and a theatre professional in Germany, something about the Backpack project has struck a chord. A version of the backpack has been used in Mexico with Yucatán Mayan students with materials being translated into Spanish and Yucatec Mayan. For more information about this project check out this National Geographic article!

 Sounds great, but why all the hoopla? Backpacks aren’t exactly cutting edge. I think it is the mix of the un-apologetically bright colors of the kits (though we do offer some more muted tones) and the awe that digging into a family or community’s past almost always elicits. But there are other components to the backpacks, not always mentioned in the emails. Social justice, commemoration, and community healing often feel like implicit threads of the conversations and the projects new colleagues talk about.

The backpacks look unimposing, but I think they represent something quite profound. The backpacks invite people to tell their histories so that the information can be put towards a larger purpose. The backpacks aren’t just about a walk down memory lane (as important as that is) but many of the people with whom I’m in contact have a mission that the archival resources are to be used in forwarding. Whether it’s about connecting generations in learning about the many iterations of civil rights, housing and preventing gentrification and displacement, or combating rampant minority stereotyping and erasure practices, the backpacks are an accessible way for communities to take control.  The initial emails show that many projects are just getting off the ground or are still in the early planning stages. It will be interesting to see what the results are for everyone, especially since we at CDA are right there with them. It’s a “figure-out-as-you-go”, one foot in front of the other kind of process, collaborating between institutions, communities, and newly-found colleagues. At least we can all have coordinating backpacks.

We post every week on different topics but if there is something you’d like to see, let us know either in the comments or email Claire our Community Outreach Coordinator: clairela@live.unc.edu.

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What is a Charrette?

A charrette is a focus group that brings together a wide variety of stakeholders in order to map solutions. Originally used in the Public Health field, our CDA Team and others have borrowed the term for community and cultural heritage work. Our charrettes bring individuals together to collaborate and workshop ideas for a common community vision. We focus on topics such as promoting and protecting cultural heritage, telling underrepresented histories, and discovering archival assets in communities. For our CDA team, we collaborate with a diverse group of stakeholders and individuals such as funders, librarians, community members, professors and academics, town officials, activists, artists, and archivists. These diverse participants ensure that the charrette isn’t an echo-chamber. Rather, members share a desire to invest in and protect a community but from different angles and perspectives.

A good charrette invites community expertise and specific knowledge of the historical and cultural dynamic; members within the community know the needs far better than we ever could. A common and often deadly shortcoming of any institutional project is to assume the institution knows what’s best for the community. Equally devastating is when an institution has a real desire to participate but struggles to have meaningful, sustained engagement. Both examples lead to institutions flailing in a sea of uncertainty and ineffectiveness. Charrettes are one way to counter these outcomes. It can be eye opening and humbling to have community members speak to historic problems and instances of broken trust face to face. For the charrette hosted by CDA in April at Black Communities: A Conference for Collaboration we asked individuals to share their knowledge of an African American community, its needs, and some hidden history highlights.

Our charrette was an informal lunchtime meeting. We provided a worksheet (with consent form to use the data collected included!) with a few questions, each probing a little more deeply into the needs and histories of communities. These questions asked participants to identify a place and describe how history is either being preserved or ignored. Our focus was (and remains) geared towards archival and cultural heritage so our questions related to storytelling and preservation of histories and materials. Our first question asked participants to identify a place and a little-known history from that area. Some of the towns and communities identified were Starkville, MS, Riceville, TX, Shreveport, LA, Halifax County, NC, Chicago, IL, and Winston-Salem, NC. Some participants told their family’s history while others focused on broader groups such as the Indigenous peoples and industries.

The second question was “What does this community need to better tell its story?” One participant from Halifax County, NC wrote: “support with National Park Service applications, (land owner contacts and research) oral history interview compilation and other related supports.” Another participant interested in Riceville, TX noted that their community need “oral history work” and a project to address that was underway.

The third question asked specifically “How is African American history preserved and shared in this community?” A participant from Shreveport, LA wrote “Southern U archives, (opening soon) North Louisiana Civil Rights Museum and NORLA Preservation Project (restoring shotgun houses).” Another participant from Chicago IL stated “History is preserved through oral conversations, research and personal narratives. We celebrate the lives of our ancestors through continual community building and grass roots organizing.” The emphasis on in-person communication is something that a charrette works hard to emulate and build upon.

Our final question asked to identify next steps. Preservation is important, but it must lead to something. We wanted to know how the ideas from this charrette could inform not only our work but work within the community. Charrettes can be all day affairs or an hour, like ours at Black Communities. Charrettes are connective, collaborative, exploratory and possibly explosive. All these attributes indicate that these types of in-person focus groups are necessary to identify need and ultimately movement.  As one participant perfectly summed up, “information has to drive advocacy.”   

 We post every week on different topics but if there is something you’d like to see, let us know either in the comments or email Claire our Community Outreach Coordinator: clairela@live.unc.edu. 

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What is a Community?

Here at CDA, our team speaks about communities a lot, working to imagine and redefine what that word implies. But what exactly do we mean when we say a Community? That question seems straightforward but there is a great deal of ambiguity in this term. When we at CDA talk about communities, we aren’t just talking about towns that exist right here, right now with a neatly registered zip code. Communities can be towns, cities, parishes, neighborhoods or enclaves, rural and urban, but they can also be identities, small groups, diasporas, and informally established. Some are “post-place” but still united by a common identity. In other words, there was a historic place, but now it’s a group of dispersed people.

This complex relationship between physical space and abstract meaning produces important discussions about identity, motivating community partners and community champions to combat what scholars like Michelle Caswell have called “symbolic annihilation.”[1] Communities that had been historically, and continually, marginalized, erased, and ignored are finding ways to increase their visibility through community-archival and cultural heritage work. This increased visibility showcases the three parts of what Caswell et al calls “representational belonging.” These three parts, we were here, I am here, we belong here, affirms the importance of a community’s existence.[2] Gaps in the narrative of underrepresented communities affect histories and have consequences for contemporary identities. By refocusing the narrative, communities control their own modes of representation as opposed to tokenism by traditional power structures.

Here are a few examples of why representational belonging is so important.  Shankleville is an un-incorporated community in Newton County, Texas. This was a “freedom colony” founded by Jim and Winnie Shankle in the postbellum period. What does it mean for the contemporary community that lives in and studies Shankleville that there are so many gaps in the narrative about the lives of Jim and Winnie? Another community example is found in Portland, Oregon. One community member talked about the invisibility of the Black community there, especially when paired with notions of gentrification and infrastructure expansions, like a light-rail that displaced large swaths of the African American community. Local organizations, like the Vanport Mosaic, use art and other media to amplify forgotten histories, but what do the historic erasure practices mean for those living in the Pacific Northwest? A final example is the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project which examines the now diasporic community previously located in Lynch, KY. As jobs in the coal mining industry dried up in the mid-20th century, families relocated physically, but they remain deeply connected to Harlan County and each other. What does it mean for miners, children and grandchildren of miners to be so far apart across the country, but to return yearly for reunions? All these communities are striving for representational belonging, internal and external confirmation that their stories matter.

This is one of our grant project data visualization maps, showing the locations of just some historic black towns and communities. There are plenty of places and communities that remain hidden and part of our work is to present as full and as rich a representation as we can based on the materials presented by communities.

We post every week on different topics but if there is something you’d like to see, let us know either in the comments or email Claire our Community Outreach Coordinator: clairela@live.unc.edu. 

Follow us on Twitter    #AiaB #yourstory #ourhistory #communityarchives #EKAAMP #HBTSA #SHC #SAAACAM #memory #community #CDAT @vanportmosaic @shankleville

[1] Michelle Caswell, Alda Allina Migoni, Noah Ceraci, and Marika Cifor, “‘To Be Able to Imagine Otherwise’: community archives and the importance of representation,” Archives and Records, 38., no. 1, (2017), 5-26.

[2] Caswell, et., al.

PROJECT SPOTLIGHT: PRINCEVILLE

On September 21st a group of CDA team members and students from the Public History graduate program led by Dr. Charles Johnson at North Carolina Central University drove to Princeville NC to conduct oral histories. We partnered with lifelong citizens, town officials, and longtime residents of the Princeville community to collect stories and workshop the oral history backpacks. This collaboration between the CDA, NCCU, and Dr. Glenda Knight, our contact in Princeville and mayor pro tem, came about from a charrette, a type of focus group, held in Durham over the summer. Dr. Glenda Knight helped organize the event and found space for us in the temporary Princeville town hall, located in nearby Tarboro. Though it was spared the brunt of Hurricane Florence, Princeville is still recovering from Hurricane Matthew 2016 and Hurricane Floyd from 1999, hence our Tarboro location.

Princeville is the oldest African American incorporated town and is one of our grant partners from the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance (HBTSA). Princeville was founded by a group of formerly enslaved people and incorporated in 1885. Originally called Freedom Hill the name was changed to reflect the work of Turner Prince within the town. Princeville remains a predominantly African American town, containing significant historical narratives. However, like many other African American towns, it suffers from racial, economic, and governmental prejudice and neglect.

Adreonna Simmons, a student interviewer, reflects on her conversations with Dr. Porter a lifelong resident.

During our time in Princeville, I had the pleasure of interviewing a woman who had been a lifelong resident of the town. She shared stories about growing up in a close-knit community and how it shaped her into the woman she is today. She reminisced on her time in college and proudly told why she returned to her hometown when most college graduates would have moved on to bigger cities. Despite these pleasantries, it was how Hurricane Floyd and Hurricane Matthew impacted her and the community of Princeville that stuck out to me. Dr. Porter’s home was destroyed twice due to these hurricanes and Princeville’s proneness to flooding. At our roundtable discussion about the project, with tears in her eyes, she explained how having to build from the ground up once only to be in the same situation 15 years later was difficult and enough to make anyone lose hope. Some of the residents interviewed hoped that their stories would serve as a narrative for Princeville and the devastation that they have been dealing with for decades due to a lacking dam and drainage system would be addressed by the State legislature. These oral histories show the side of history that is often forgotten and gives voices to those that for too long have been silenced.

Interviewees were honest about the struggles in Princeville. But equally evident is the pride and love community members have for their town.  For Dr. Porter,

“Princeville has a lot of hidden things. And I guess one other thing. I often tell my husband, because he wasn’t born and raised here in Princeville and so he’s not too excited at going back after being flooded two times. But I tell him that’s because you weren’t born and raised here. It makes a lot of difference to me.  When you’re born and raised in a place it makes a lot of difference. To me it makes the whole world of a difference.”

Our work in Princeville was part oral history collection and part training. We left three backpacks in Princeville for the community to use and we will return in a few months to gather the histories saved on recorders. Those recordings will be sent to the town and eventually there will be a plan about what to do with the new and growing collection. We discussed having a history harvest and look forward to getting community feedback and returning to Princeville.

Here is just one clip of the many poignant moments from our time at Princeville. Dr. Porter discusses the importance of documents for safeguarding memories and the devastating grief that follows when you lose everything.

We post every week on different topics but if there is something you’d like to see, let us know either in the comments or email Claire our Community Outreach Coordinator: clairela@live.unc.edu. 

Follow us on Twitter    #AiaB #yourstory #ourhistory #communityarchives #EKAAMP #HBTSA #SHC #SAAACAM #memory #Princeville #CDAT #oralhistory

PROJECT SPOTLIGHT: EKAAMP

Bernetiae Reed, CDAT Project Documentarian and Oral Historian, reflects on her participation in the Eastern Kentucky Social Club (EKSC) Reunion and exhibit by Dr. Karida Brown of EKAAMP in St. Louis, Missouri.

Time was a blur as I traveled to St. Louis and back! Plans had been made. I would be taking selected archival items from the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project (EKAAMP) deposit collections on a road trip! I ask you, how best to see and experience America? How best to envision a different time? Nothing like it! So, off I went . . . I will spare you the intricacies of my journey, but highly recommend travelling behind trucks at night to safeguard against hitting a deer!

My goals on this journey, as Project Documentarian and Oral Historian for the Community-Driven Archives grant at the SHC, were to record events and assist with the installation of the exhibit. Two related events were taking place stemming from African American mining communities in Eastern Kentucky. The 49th Annual Eastern Kentucky Social Club gathering and the release/book signing for Dr. Karida Brown’s book, Gone Home: Race and Roots through Appalachia which included the launch of a travelling exhibit.

Figure 1: (l-r) Dr. Karida Brown, Hilton Hotel Staff, Richard Brown holding posters (Karida’s father) and Dwayne Baskin pulling program items from hotel storage

As soon as we settled into the downtown St. Louis hotel, Friday (August 31st), morning and into the Saturday afternoon, we were fanatically installing the exhibit. Tracy Murrell, an Atlanta-based artist and curator, was shepherding her vision of this exhibit to life. Tracy had been hired by Karida for the project. Use of wonderful shear wall hangings printed with photographic images transported us to the coal mining town of Lynch, Kentucky. Additionally, a throw-back-in-time couch took you to a typical home from the era.

Figure 2: Tracy Murrell and others work to install the exhibit

Many moments stand out for me. Karida opening the doors to the exhibit, Jacqueline Ratchford reacting to seeing her prom dress on display, Derek Akal talking about his current plans to become a miner, people interacting with artifacts in the collection, and so much more. People reminisced, touched, told stories, laughed, cried, and so much more . . . this was their family and a part of them! Needless to say, I videotaped only a small portion of everything that was happening. From hotel lobby . . . to each event venue . . . to brief walks in downtown St. Louis . . . to church service in the hotel . . . time flew by! Karida beamed as she signed her book. Everywhere people were greeting and hugging old friends. And a beautiful welling of emotions came in watching the young praise dancers who performed during the church service. I was captivated by their pantomime . . . brought to laughter and tears. And had a special sense of wonder for the youngest mime, not understanding how one so young could draw on life’s joys and pains so well. Finally, satisfied that the power to be moved again by this performance and the journey to St. Louis was possible with what had been recorded.

Figure 3: A high school letterman’s sweater and a pink prom dress from the EKAAMP archive set in front of images from Lynch Kentucky.

We included a clip of the praise dancers so you too could experience a piece of performance!

We post every week on different topics but if there is something you’d like to see, let us know either in the comments or email Claire our Community Outreach Coordinator: clairela@live.unc.edu. 

Follow us on Twitter    #AiaB #yourstory #ourhistory #communityarchives #EKAAMP #HBTSA #SHC #SAAACAM #memory #StLouis #CDAT #EKSC #GoneHome

New Collections: Activists, Educators, Families, and War

We have over a dozen new collections that are preserved, processed, and now available for research. Some highlights:

  • New materials span from 1764 to 2010
  • Subjects geographically range from Mexico to China (with plenty of Alabama and North Carolina in between)
  • Grassroots organizing, coal mining, and educational activism are common themes
  • There are 3 Civil War photographs and 2 books containing personal sketches from much of the UNC Chapel Hill classes of 1859-1865

Click on any of the collection titles to learn more about the materials, view any digital items, and request them for use in our reading room.

Continue reading “New Collections: Activists, Educators, Families, and War”

Poetry in the Stacks

The Academy of American Poets marks each April as National Poetry Month, and it did not take much digging to find poetry among our many collections.

North Carolina Poet Laureate, Dr. Shelby Stephenson, came to mind very quickly. We are honored to be the repository for his personal and professional papers, with over 120,000 individual items in the Shelby Stephenson Papers (#04653). Materials in this collection range from personal letters, to literary rejection notices, and even conversations on bluegrass and jazz (Stephenson had an early love for the guitar).

His papers also contain many working versions of poems. Below are two drafts – one handwritten and one typed – of “Gathering Scattered Corn,” both dated November 7, 1975. The handwritten copy even includes a time (10:15 am). Click to view a larger image of each.

Handwritten draft of Stephenson's poem, "Gathering Scattered Corn"
“Gathering Scattered Corn” (longhand), in the Shelby Stephenson Papers #4653, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
A later, typed draft of Stephenson's poem, "Gathering Scattered Corn"
“Gathering Scattered Corn” (typed), in the Shelby Stephenson Papers #4653, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Keeping it cool, dry, and constant

Contributed by Biff Hollingsworth, Collecting and Outreach Archivist

A few weeks ago, SHC Director Bryan Giemza and I traveled to the Mississippi Delta to discuss the preservation of several archival collections found in the area. During the visit I couldn’t turn my archivist brain off – I couldn’t help but ruminate on the physical environment around us, especially as it relates to the preservation of archival materials there. I realized that the Mississippi Delta is a very hostile place for paper!

Fresh from this experience, and since we often get questions from the public about the proper storage of personal and family collections at home, I thought I’d offer a few basic guidelines that I’ve learned from working in the field. And perhaps this is the best time of year to consider this, since it is a time when many of you are pulling out Christmas decorations from storage, clearing space in your closets for winter coats, or bringing out old photographs from your personal archives to scan for that awesome (or awkward?) DIY holiday calendar that you plan to give to all your loved ones this year.

IMG_3703
The sun beats down on the Delta – even in November.

Paper preservation experts, such as the Northeast Document Conservation Center and the preservation section of the National Archives, agree on three basic environmental factors for safe storage of documents, photographs, films and other treasures. The storage environment should be:

  • Cool,
  • Dry, and
  • Constant

Three things the Mississippi Delta is not! For example, look what the Delta’s hot and humid climate has done to the paint on the ceiling of one of the buildings that we visited during our trip.

IMG_3687

But how cool is cool? And how dry, and how constant? Well, documents and photographs are a lot like human beings. Both are “comfortable” in an environment that:

  • is about 60-70 degrees Fahrenheit
  • is kept at 40-50% relative humidity (RH)
  • has clean air and good circulation.

Temperature extremes and fluctuations speed up the chemical breakdown of paper that causes them to become brittle or discolored.  Also, excess moisture can result in mold growth and other archival nightmares.

So, where’s the best place in your home to store family collections? It certainly depends on specific environmental factors in your home, but often the best place to store family collections is in the interior part of the living space within your home, like inside a hall closet, where you know things will stay nice and cool, dry, and constant. Also, an added bonus of a hall closet is that collections stay in the dark, out of harmful sunlight.

Just remember: would you want to live in a leaky barn in the Delta? Or in a musty crawlspace under the house? Or in a hot garage?