Opinion: Take advantage of the Southern Oral History Program

Traditionally, the adage “history is written by the winners” holds true.

The voices and perspectives of people with power have been privileged in the historical record, and finding the perspectives of anyone else from most eras of history is a challenge.

In modern history, that doesn’t have to be true. The era of mass information makes recording diverse perspectives much easier — and yet still, as in other fields, the voices of the elite are privileged in modern history.

This board gives the Southern Oral History Program credit for starting to change that.

Since its founding in 1973, the program has made great strides to include people from all backgrounds within the historical record and to make history accessible to everyone.

The program’s interviewees narrate Southern labor history, civil rights history and LGBTQ history, among other topics. They range from people with tremendous prominence to people who appear literally nowhere else in historical records.

Without SOHP, the stories of those in the latter group would have been entirely forgotten — outside, perhaps, their families — and how we remember regional history would look much different.

All of the SOHP interviews (all with audio and some with written transcripts) are freely available online to anyone.

Quoting SOHP interviews in academic work brings in primary sources with tremendous humanity, but visiting the project’s database is worthwhile outside of class.

At a time when UNC’s physical history —the naming of its buildings, the symbolism of its monuments — has attracted so much attention, the many SOHP interviews focusing on the University itself provide a broader perspective.

Looking up the biography of Cornelia Phillips Spencer, the namesake of UNC’s first women’s dormitory, teaches you one story. Listening to interviews with the women who challenged dress codes and curfews so that future students would be treated the same, regardless of gender, teaches you many stories, and a bigger story.

We’re grateful to SOHP for democratizing history. More historians should follow in the program’s footsteps.

Thanks for reading.

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