Kathy Atwater is a Chapel Hill native. Born and raised in the Northside Community, she grew up with her neighbors and has witnessed the changes her community has faced over the years.
Her stories of home, community and Northside are some of many told through From the Rock Wall, an oral history project and interactive website built for Black Chapel Hill-Carrboro to tell their living histories.
To see the project, visit https://fromtherockwall.org/.
It was developed by the Marian Cheek Jackson Center for Saving and Making History and its Community Review Board, with funding support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mellon Foundation.
The project is named after a low rock wall built in the 1930s that sits at the corner of Cotton and McDade streets, at the front edge of the Bradshaw/Patterson family home. The wall quickly became a gathering spot for kids, their parents and, in the early 1960s, for those fighting for Black freedom in Chapel Hill.
It has become a symbol of community sustenance and struggle, according to the project’s website.
“A lot of history has been made at that rock wall,” Atwater, co-chairperson of the Community Review Board, said.
From the Rock Wall provides a platform for residents to tell their stories orally through recorded interviews, and also hosts photos, documents and maps.
Chaitra Powell, co-chairperson of the Community Review Board, said the project’s main driving principle is to uplift the voices of past and present Black residents.
“The area around UNC is a complicated place and there is this legacy of exclusion and erasure,” Powell said. “Telling this history part is just one more way that these residents are saying we’re here, we’ve been here and we have stories.”
The project hosts stories on a variety of topics, from food and celebrations to civil rights and the Freedom Movement. The project is also built to be an open platform, meaning residents are encouraged to respond to what they see on the website and continually share their stories about the community.
Della Pollock, Mellon project director with the Marian Cheek Jackson Center, said history projects like these help sustain communities and allow residents to tell their stories as they want to be heard.
“The site is about listening,” Pollock said. “And what it has been like for me is to really learn what listening means and how listening is not a passive activity, but it’s a vigorously active one where you really make yourself available to what someone else has to say.”
According to the project website, oral histories were chosen to drive the project because they are a way to uplift histories that often don’t make it into books or classrooms and help bring histories into the present moment.
Powell said having a repository of stories in this format is pretty rare.
“Not everybody puts everything that is important on paper,” Powell said. “But historically traditional repositories haven't always been as accepting of historical content in this form.”
Atwater said she thinks the project is important because it allows stories to be told that may otherwise not be and helps neighbors reminisce over both fond and not-so-fond memories. She said getting to tell her stories as part of the project was inspiring.
“It was an opportunity to share what I had learned from my parents and from other elders in the community, and just to share what growing up in this area was all about,” Atwater said. “I feel very blessed to be a part of this community.”
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