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Southern Oral History Program celebrates 50th anniversary

William Ferris, former UNC professor and renowned folklorist, speaks at the 30th anniversary celebration for The Center for the American South and the 50th anniversary of UNC's Southern Oral History Program on Saturday, April 6, 2024 in Wilson Library.

In 1973, the founder of the Southern Oral History Program Jacquelyn Dowd Hall came to UNC to teach history and create the first oral history program in the South.

Fifty years later, the program has now conducted and archived more than 6,500 interviews to preserve Southern voices and stories across the region.

Over the weekend, UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South celebrated the SOHP’s 50th anniversary and the center’s 30th anniversary, at Wilson Library.

“Oral history is usually a democratic mode of doing history,” Hall said. “And it has enabled historians to really take their interest, their skills, their knowledge of history to the public in ways that are not easy to do.” 

The archive of oral histories — interviews with individuals focused on events that occurred in the past — is housed in the Southern Historical Collection at Wilson Library and is becoming increasingly accessible to the community through the digitization of projects.

The "3050 event" celebrating the two anniversaries included meetings, panels and workshops for educators, students and the public.

SOHP field scholar and doctoral student in the Gillings School of Global Public Health, Sophie Toco-led an oral history workshop for educators on Friday. She taught the principles of oral history and led small-group interactive activities to inspire open conversations and a better understanding of the program.

“It just reminded me that there are so many people out there who are like-minded and doing great social justice work and reminding me of the tangible movements and things that can come out of oral history,” To said

On Saturday, there were multiple panel discussions on the SOHP’s history, the various projects accomplished at the program and ways to give back and represent the community through oral history. 

To said resources from the program have contributed to her research on how storytelling in media can be part of health advocacy and equity in Asian American communities.

UNC sophomore Christina Huang, who has worked with To and taken classes with the SOHP, said the program has helped guide her interests in Asian American history in the South. She said the program provides a safe space for academia that is collaborative rather than individualistic.

“As a woman of color, honestly, I feel like there’s not a lot of spaces that I can take up," Huang said. "I feel like the Center for the Study of the American South is one of the spaces I can take up."

SOHP field scholar Susie Penman, a graduate student in the Department of American Studies, said her experience with the program has been invaluable and she hopes more undergraduates, like Huang, can take advantage of the program.

“It's such a great resource,” Penman said. “It's right there with us, and the more people know about it, the better.”

Hall said the program aims to be widely available, but there is still a lot of material to be uncovered. To maintain and draw attention to the program, she said it needs to have increased support from the University, especially because of the strong reliance currently placed on grant money to fund projects. 

Ultimately, Hall said she’s amazed at what the program has accomplished in the past 50 years. 

In the 1970s, Hall said oral history was a contested and speculated mode of research that didn’t have the widespread acceptance and impact that it does today.

“It’s hard to capture the way you felt decades ago, but I’m pretty sure I can say that I never expected the program to survive for this long; to thrive,”  Hall said. “And I never expected oral history to permeate the culture in the way that it has."


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