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Southern Oral History Program celebrates 40 years

On Friday, the Southern Oral History Program celebrated its collection of 5,300 interviews made over the course of 40 years with an exhibit, performances and birthday cake in Wilson Library.

Hall’s successor, current program director Malinda Lowery , said the program’s regional focus was intended to complement the already existing Southern Historical Collection.

Lowery praised the depth and diversity of SOHP’s collections, which cover southern culture and politics as well as issues surrounding race, gender, labor and social movements.

“Basically, if you want to know anything about the South, particularly in the 20th century and often before the 20th century, you can find out about it in the SOHP’s collections,” she said.

SOHP participants make a point of interviewing subjects whose stories might not otherwise be heard, Lowery said.

“History is very difficult, because the folks who are writing things down are often not the ones who are the most deeply affected or the ones who are marginalized in society, but the ones who have the most power in society,” she said.

“What oral history helps us do is gather the voices of those who are not otherwise heard as part of the historical record.”

Hall said she loves that the program has remained loyal to its core mission while still adopting exciting new ideas.

“This exhibit and the talks and the walking tour all are things done and created, a lot of them, by students who have just stepped in and made this program their own and put their own stamp on it,” she said. “They’re doing things, and doing things in ways that I didn’t do, didn’t know to do, didn’t know how to do — it’s great.”

One project undertaken by the SOHP is the Long Civil Rights Movement , an archive that includes hundreds of interviews about the movement.

“Because of the interests of scholars not just at UNC but elsewhere in the U.S. about understanding the true timeline of the Civil Rights Movement, SOHP launched an effort in the early ‘90s to capture as many different voices as possible from as many different places in the South and in the United States that have experienced the Civil Rights Movement in one way or another,” Lowery said.

The broad scope of the program today contrasts sharply with Hall’s recollection of the early days of the program, when she faced unconvinced colleagues and had to work without staff until she found grant money to hire graduate research assistants.

“We had to overcome that little by little,” she said. “And I think we did it by force of just doing good work.”

Howard Lee, who became Chapel Hill’s first black mayor in 1969, has been interviewed by SOHP several times, including about the 1968 strike by UNC dining hall employees .

Lee said he thinks oral histories are a great way to understand history through the perspective of those who lived it.

“The person years from now, listening to what was said, would be able to have some sense of being at that place, based on how the person is telling the story and describing the experience,” he said.

“(Oral history) captures people, it captures their feelings, it captures their expressions, and it makes them come alive in the minds of the listener in years to come.”

Lowery said interviews conducted by undergraduate and graduate students, who can advance their own research interests as they take classes in oral history, are central to SOHP’s collections.

“Actually doing interviews, just sitting down and talking to someone about their life for an hour, an hour and a half, is pretty awesome,” said senior Turner Henderson, an SOHP intern this semester.

Junior Katie Crook, another SOHP intern, said she enjoys the personal connections she creates while conducting interviews.

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“There are a lot of things that people have told me that are really sensitive and really emotional, and it’s humbling that they trust you enough to tell you those things and open up to a complete stranger.”