Hall engages students with oral histories

In 1966, a girl from Pauls Valley, Okla., stepped off a bus into the culture shock of New York City.

She had arrived a Phi Beta Kappa, cum laude, graduate from Southwestern at Memphis, now Rhodes College, after a professor encouraged her to apply to Columbia University graduate school.

Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Ph.D., went on to write and co-write two landmark books and numerous prize-winning essays, serve as president of the Organization of American Historians and the Southern Historical Association and land a teaching award and the Julia Cherry Spruill Professorship of History at UNC. The University hired her in 1973 to direct its new Southern Oral History Program.

On October 1, 2011, Hall was inducted into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, a prestigious honorary society founded in 1780 whose elected members have included Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1999, Hall received a National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton in a group that included Jim Lehrer, Garrison Keillor, August Wilson and UNC graduate Taylor Branch. The medal honors those whose work has deepened understanding of and access to the humanities.

But what makes Hall proudest isn’t the awards and accolades, of which there are many. Rather, it’s the students who have conducted interviews and helped create the program.

“The Southern Oral History Program has a strong focus on teaching – using oral history to allow students to engage with history in a compelling way,” she said. The result: what she calls a diaspora of graduates who are leaders in universities, museums and historical organizations nationwide.

Under Hall’s leadership, the program, part of the Center for the Study of the American South, has gathered more than 4,600 interviews with the South’s notable and anonymous history-makers – business and political leaders, civil rights workers, activists, farmers, textile workers and more.

Daily, scholars, students and folks assembling family histories ask for the interviews in the Southern Historical Collection in Wilson Library, where they are held. Transcripts also are online, accessible via the collection’s website. About 550 of those transcripts also are part of the online collection Oral Histories of the American South and are accompanied by audio of the interviews. A grant is funding digitization of the remaining audiotapes.

With graduate students, Hall wrote “Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World,” (UNC Press, 1987, 2000), capturing stories of the first Southerners to go from farm to factory. Her first book, “Revolt Against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and the Women’s Campaign Against Lynching” (Columbia University Press, 1979, 1993), pioneered the inclusion of Southern women in the field of women’s history.

Now Hall is writing a book on Southern women writers and intellectuals that grew from one of her earliest interviews, with Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin, author of “The Making of a Southerner” (1946). She recently stepped down as director of her storied program, now guided by interim director Della Pollock, Ph.D., a UNC communication studies professor.

“Jacquelyn’s leadership has in many ways defined oral history across the country,” Pollock said. “To my mind, this is in part due to the deep integration of her visionary administration and groundbreaking research. She has consistently attracted and led scholars who exemplify the kind of democratic historical practice on which the program has been built.”

Published October 3, 2011.