Why Oral History

WOH_0001.jpgFrom the Rock Wall is a gathering of oral histories:  histories told in more or less formal settings to dedicated listeners.  In Northside, Pine Knolls, Tin Top, and Rogers Road, oral histories echo traditions of teaching by telling from one generation to the next.  They are a way to make sure that younger generations know who they are and that they stand in long lines of value and vision.  Oral histories are a gift given to be shared. Told rather than written they are meant to passed on, to be retold to friends and family, new and old, time and again, because history is the glue of community:  the more it is repeated, the stronger the hold. 

WOH_0002.jpgOral histories are also a way to lift up histories that don’t usually make it into books or classrooms.  Histories that may be dismissed, discounted, or outright disappeared because they don’t fit with the stories dominant populations want to tell about themselves and their towns, states, and regions.  Histories that are also about the small and large ways in which ordinary people make history every day.

Oral histories happen now, in the time of telling and listening and in the passage between the teller and the listener.  When you listen, you can see, hear, and feel more than what you read in a report or transcription—and what you are seeing, hearing, and feeling happens in the present moment.  Oral histories remind us that “history” is not the same as the “past”.  While the past may be what happened once, history is the sense we make of it, right here, right now—and what we choose to do with it.


Left image: Youth cypher, “Knocking on the Mayor’s Door,” St. Joseph C.M.E., 2010; Right image: Ms. Gladys Pendergraph Brandon and Ms. Michelle Laws, “Don’t sell your homes!”, Sustaining OurSelves (SOS) community meeting, 2011

WOH_0003.jpgOral histories invite us to listen in to the voices and perspectives of people we may never meet.  From your place on this rock wall, you can hear Reverend Troy Harrison’s vision of St. Joseph C.M.E. as a “church without walls,” Minister Robert Campbell’s accounts of fighting for environmental justice for over forty years, Ms. Pat Jackson’s memories of being fire-hosed out of a segregated luncheonette, Mr. James Foushee’s struggle against Chapel Hill’s failure to desegregate places of public accommodation until required to do so by federal law, Ms. Keith Edwards eight-year battle against gender discrimination by the UNC police force, Mr. Nate Davis’ recollection of how everyone came together to build the Roberson Community Center, Mama Kat’s recipe for the best pound cake you’ll ever taste, and hundreds of other testimonies to incomparable strength, ingenuity, and community.

Oral histories also ask us to listen out:  to tell others about what you’ve found here, to reflect on these examples, and to take up their charge to revive the best of the past in the present TO CREATE just and equitable communities now.


Left image: Rev. Troy Harrison, dedication of the Marian Cheek Jackson Center, 2009; Center image: Ms. Pat Jackson leading Northside workshop for Smith Middle School, 2013; Right image: Mr. James Foushee, one of the Chapel Hill Nine, with Mr. Prince Taylor, formerly of Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts, Northside Festival, 2017