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Workshop aims to show how oral histories can preserve 'voices of the southern past'

Anna Hamilton, a current PhD student in the department of American studies and the host of the Southern Oral History Workshop, poses outside of Dey Hall. Prior to her time at UNC, Hamilton received her undergraduate degree from the New College of Florida and a masters from the University of Mississippi.

The Chapel Hill Historical Society held a workshop on Sunday afternoon centered on how to effectively plan for and use oral histories to improve historical records. 

Anna Hamilton, doctoral student and Southern Oral History Program field scholar, led the workshop that focused on making oral histories an accessible tool for anyone — not just historians.

The Southern Oral History Program collects oral histories through recorded interviews that are able to capture first person experiences. This creates new primary sources that can add depth and context to existing historical records.

“We work to preserve the voices of the southern past,” Hamilton said.

The program is housed at UNC's Center for the Study of the American South.

At the workshop, Hamilton described the process for collecting usable oral histories. An interviewer must think about everything — from budget and materials to questions and project objectives — before beginning their interviews. 

It is important for those collecting oral histories to listen and ask for elaboration, Hamilton said. This creates a richer interview with more details from the narrator’s memory.

“Through these interviews, we can capture the vivid personalities, the poignant personal stories and the behind-the-scenes decision making that helps bring history to life,” Hamilton said.

The Southern Oral History Program’s records are available for reading and listening through Wilson Library.

Seth Kotch, director of the Southern Oral History Program and an American studies professor at UNC, encouraged students and community members to make use of these tools.

“Oral history is a way to train yourself to be a listener, to train yourself to be part of a community, to train yourself to think about how you interact with your family, with your community, with your campus,” Kotch said.

Kotch said that many UNC students are using the oral histories that have already been documented for research, papers and analysis of what makes a successful interview.

Students in the Southern Oral History Program have been documenting new oral histories to learn about everything from tenured Black female faculty at UNC to spooky experiences on campus, he said.  

The program is currently working on a polio project that is looking to understand the experiences of people who were impacted by the polio epidemic in 20th century America. 

The isolation and anxiety experienced in that pandemic can be compared to similar experiences that people are having today with the COVID-19 pandemic, Hamilton said. 

“We wanted to use this project to understand how issues of race, class, age and ability shape our pandemic experience now, as well as ideas of wellness, methods of care, ways of mourning, as well as other things,” Hamilton said.

Lois Annab, Chapel Hill Historical Society board member, said at the workshop that community involvement is important when maintaining the historical record.

“We want to encourage all of you to not only keep your membership active, but to also join us with ideas for projects, or become a board member and help us re-envision better ways for the historical society to serve the community,” Annab said.

The society hosts education events each month. Upcoming events include a presentation on a film about racial disparity in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system on Oct. 17 and a discussion on the Historical Chapel Hill Mapping Project on Nov. 21. 

These meetings are open to the public and will be held virtually on Zoom.


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