A Rare Gateway to an Untouchable Past: Oral Histories of Carrboro Mill Families

Between 1974 and 1978, the Chapel Hill Historical Society conducted interviews with men and women who had lived and worked in and around Chapel Hill and Carrboro during the early twentieth century. One of their first projects, “Generations of Carrboro Mill Families” consisted of 117 interviews with Carrboro residents and textile mill workers. The interviews were in response to the Carrboro Board of Alderman’s decision to tear down the original Carr Mill building. For a rather complicated, and long-winded reason, the Southern Historical Collection holds 40 of the 117 interviews conducted, both the audio cassette tapes and their 30-50 page typed transcripts. Question topics run the gamut, and there was a clear effort on the part of the Chapel Hill Historical Society interviewers to gather information about “everyday life.”

“Textile Mill, Greensboro” in the Bayard Morgan Wootten Photographic Collection #P0011, North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library.
This image of a textile mill in Greensboro, NC shows a carding room ca. 1904-1954, probably similar to the one the interviewees describe from the mills in Carrboro.

Some of this work is captured in Valerie Quinney’s article, “Mill Village Memories” published in Southern Exposure in Fall 1980. Quinney was one of the interviewers from the Chapel Hill Historical Society in the 1970s. She offers a meaningful overview of the oral history collection and provides supportive context. Although she includes direct quotes, there’s value in the raw format of the interview collection that is worth pursuing.

This collection stood out for several reasons, one of which was the time period in which the interviews were conducted. Many of the interviewees were in their seventies or eighties when they were interviewed in the mid-1970s. In other words, most of these individuals were born in the early twentieth century, and some even in the late 1890s! The residents lived, worked, and played in a time that very few living souls today can accurately remember. Their voices are a rare gateway to what feels like an untouchable past. They share perspectives that keenly reflect the social, political, and regional environment of the time. For example, interviewer Lee Southerland sounded startled to hear Mrs. Lula Lacock doubt if women should be allowed to vote.[1] In several cases, interviewers asked the female interviewees how they felt about being women. The women seemed to struggle with the question, as if they had never formed an opinion on the matter.

Carrboro Mills Employee Picnic, 18 Sept 1954
“Carrboro Mills Employee Picnic” in the Roland Giduz Photographic Collection #P0033, North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library.

The second striking feature of this collection is the lack of African American voice among the interviews. On the heels of the Civil Rights movement, one would expect the interviewers to ask questions about racial segregation as it existed in the early twentieth century. Indeed, many interviews contained questions of that nature, but the African American individuals of the past are left with white people to speak for them. Mrs. Leslie Bland, born in 1896 and raised in Carrboro recalled Mrs. Cindy Atwater, “a colored woman”, who took care of her as a child. Mrs. Bland described memories of Mrs. Atwater’s care, remembered loving her “like a mother”, and concluded with, “She was really faithful. And she wore a white rag tied over her head all the time.”[2] Another individual, “Aunt” Hannah Graffenreid was mentioned by many of the interviewees, yet we only learn that she traveled throughout the area as a midwife, and that she made good pound cakes.[3] Other African Americans, such as the janitor who had to disassemble Mr. J. Ralph Harding’s bed from the ceiling rafters at UNC Chapel Hill, remain nameless.[4] In her interview Mrs. Mabel Hill described an encounter with another unidentified African American man. Apparently, her music had inspired him to move to New York and join an orchestra. He told her husband, “I used to stand out in the street back of the theatre…I’d stand out there and listen every night of my life…I’ve stood out there in the rain.”[5] Who were these individuals? Where did they live? Who were their families? How did they feel about being African American? While their stories are not revealed, perhaps their absence in the record reflects an accurate picture of their marginalized past.

The third, and possibly the most critical characteristic of this collection is that it serves as an authentic representation of the pros and cons of using oral history to preserve and interpret history. The listener travels with Mrs. Flossie Campbell back to 1920s downtown Carrboro but is jolted back into April 1974 as her husband walks into the room and interrupts the tape. She whispers to her interviewer, “That’s my husband”, and then shouts in his direction, “Don’t fall over that cord!”[6] The tape has captured Mrs. Campbell’s attempt to explain the interview to her husband, and their dialogue ends with Mrs. Campbell shouting at Mr. Campbell to wear his hearing aid. In addition to providing a hilarious source of comic relief, this interruption reminds listeners that they are not reading a story. Rather, they are listening to a real person describe the memories of her life in her living room on 300 Elm Street in Carrboro, North Carolina in 1974. Although personal narratives are valuable, they leave out many pieces of the story.

Flossie Mann Campbell, interview by Valerie Quinney, in the Chapel Hill Historical Society’s Generations of Carrboro Mill Families Oral Histories #4205, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

For all the cons that come with using historic memory, perhaps it is worth the connection listeners gain by hearing Mrs. Campbell’s voice, or her husband shouting questions at the interviewer, a connection only trumped by the power of hearing it in first person.

So in conclusion, how about a call to action? Celebrate the month of September by interviewing someone that remembers a time and place that is unknown to you. The Southern Oral History Program provides a very helpful resources page to get started. Or, be inspired by browsing their database of 5,000 interviews streamed online. The gateway to the past is open to us, if we only take a moment to stop and listen.


[1] Lula Johnson Lacock, interview by Brent Glass and Lee Southerland, February 6, 1975, p. 35.

[2] Leslie Bland, interview by Valerie Quinney, April 17, 1974, p. 28-29.

[3] Leslie Bland, interview by Valerie Quinney, April 17, 1974, p. 27-28.

[4] J. Ralph Harding, interview by H. P. Brinton, December 17, 1974, p. 5-6.

[5] Mabel Hill, interview by Hugh P. Brinton, April 7, 1975, p. 16.

[6] Flossie Mann Campbell, interview by Valerie Quinney, April 20, 1974, p. 11-12.

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