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Southern Oral History Program aims to give a voice to untold stories

The next time students are hit with a project on the 20th and 21st century American South, researchers from the Southern Oral History Program offer an alternative to traditional academic resources. 

Using the SOHP's online database, students can hear the personal stories of 6,000 people in the American South, collected since the program's foundation in 1973. 

Currently, the SOHP is focusing on the project Stories to Save Lives: Health, Illness and Medical Care in the South, which documents various perspectives on healthcare, and how they have been shaped by personal, family and community experiences. This project aims to collect interviews from 250 people from across the state, SOHP Director Rachel Seidman said.

Although many are not aware of the database or its ongoing projects, the SOHP hopes to preserve the voices of those frequently left out of mainstream history.

“Oral history allows us to include the voices and the perspectives of many people across the political, economic and social spectra,” Seidman said. “Voices might not otherwise get included in the historical record.”

Students can work in work-study positions and semester-long internships for the SOHP. Junior Sophia Hutchens got a work-study position with SOHP after joining the Carolina Women's Center's Moxie Project over the summer. There, she met Seidman, who also serves as the Moxie Project's co-founder.

Hutchens’s job allows her to pursue her interests in gender expression and the history of feminism. Recently, she was able to engage in others’ stories for the upcoming National Coming Out Day.

“(I'm) going through the collections to find an interesting coming out story, and there are so many,” Hutchens said. “People, their connections to coming out, it's very engaging and everyone's life stories are so interesting.”

Since the program was founded in 1973, SOHP project manager Sara Wood has noted a change in the way oral history is being conducted. Wood said more emphasis is placed on the diversity of the students who work in the program, which also works on the projects Southern Mix: Honoring Asians and Asian Americans in the South and New Roots: Voices from Carolina del Norte!, which focuses on Latinx migration in North Carolina.

“I think there are many more students of color who come through this program, and I think that's really important,” Wood said. “When we sit down to teach everybody approaching the methods, one of the things we say is whoever you are as the interviewer does really have an effect on the interview. You could be the best interviewer, but sometimes what you see comes before what you say.”

Another change Seidman has observed in oral history is the increased accessibility, which presents itself in podcasts, in digital exhibits and in music recently developed by Carolina Performing Arts artists-in-residence Flutronix utilizing database recordings.

“It used to be that you had to go to Wilson Library and put the audio tape into the player and listen to it in the library, and so people have much more direct access now to the voices, which means that they can hear the emotion in people's voices,” Seidman said. “They can hear the different accents. They can hear the pacing of how people talk about these things, all of which gets flattened out and erased in transcripts when you just read people's words.”

Hutchens also said it is important to find the stories that are not being told.

“(Oral history) gives a unique insight,” Hutchens said. “And I do think that's lost when you're just reading a historical textbook because they pick and choose what to tell you, so you're not getting every story. You're only getting the stories that they think matter.”

The SOHP began as a form of social activism in giving voices to those often pushed to the margins of society, Wood said. She said the program still does that today.

“There's this human element that even though there may be two people with completely different backgrounds and understandings of the world, somebody who is documented in oral history and somebody is engaging in it, what you find when you're exploring these stories is there's a lot more connections between people than you originally imagine,” Wood said.

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