Archive for the 'Research' Category


Southbound Stops

I left town on May 14 and spent a little over a week with my family in Virginia. On the way home, I made two stops—one in Chapel Hill and the other in Atlanta. I spent a day each at the UNC’s famed Southern Historical Collection and Emory University’s Manuscripts and Rare Books Library.

Both were relatively productive. Of course, there were the usual ups and downs—unorganized collections, mislabeled material, and dusty papers that makes me sneeze a lot. But overall, I think it was well worth the effort.

At the SHC, I was looking primarily at the records of the Southern Justice Institute, a North Carolina-based legal aid firm that assisted with voting rights litigation throughout the South. The collection was mostly legal procedural filings: motions, orders and the like. Not exactly the most exciting sources, but worthwhile. Unfortunately, I had not done my homework thoroughly enough before making the trip, and I didn’t really understand a lot of the context for the stuff I was looking at. Eventually, though, as I read the newspapers and start to put the pieces together, I think it will prove to have been a useful stop.

I also looked at several nineteenth century sources. I noticed that they had a fair amount of material on the county I’m researching. I just looked at a few of these, and didn’t really find what I was hoping for (I was hoping to get some sources that spanned the Civil War and Reconstruction into the late-nineteenth century), but there are several others that I didn’t have time to look through. I’ll need to go back at some point, I suppose, but mainly, I just wanted to be able to say I’d done research at the Southern Historical Collection. And now I can.

Emory was much more productive. The staff there was extremely helpful, and already had my materials pulled when I arrived. I spent most of the day Thursday looking through the Newsweek Atlanta Bureau collection, which holds a ton of material relating to the South from the 1950s through the 1980s, I suppose. I only looked at a very small portion of it, but I found some great stuff. There were a lot of filed reports and such, but also materials that reporters collected for their stories. I was pleasantly surprised.

I had originally planned to spend two days at Emory, but the other collection I was looking at proved to be virtually useless. It was the personal papers of one of the Newsweek reporters who spent considerable time in the community, and I was hoping I would find his notes from interviews and such, but alas. No such luck. The boxes did have a slip of paper with his address and phone number on them, however, so I think he might be getting a phone call this summer.

(As a side note, both archives also allow the use of digital cameras in lieu of photocopying, and this allowed me to bring home readable digital copies of hundreds of documents that would have probably otherwise cost me a not inconsiderable sum. I just used my very basic Sony camera and transferred the images to my computer when I got home, but another researcher I saw had a very elaborate looking tripod and had the camera plugged directly into the computer, so she transferred the files immediately and could edit them as needed. I will have to look into this technology.)


Help Wanted

In my (limited) experience, sitting down with perfect strangers and asking them questions about their past is one of the most intimidating things in all of researchdom—and given my line of historical inquiry, I’ve also anxiously awaited the day when someone not-so-subtly hinted that I should give it up. Thankfully that has not happened yet. But despite the downsides, oral history has also proven to be one of the most interesting and rewarding elements of my research. It sounds cliché, but hearing people tell their stories about the past, flawed as they may be, makes what I study seem relevant, and it reminds me that history is not merely an abstraction. Even those long dead were once living, making history in their own place and time.

I’ve conducted several interviews over the past few months. All have been informative, and while I can feel myself getting better with practice, none have been altogether satisfying. Maybe they never will be; there will probably always be that one question I think of after the fact and wish that I had asked. But I just bought myself a new recorder that can transfer the audio files to the computer for long-term preservation, and I plan to conduct several more interviews over the summer, so I’m hoping to learn more about the intricacies of the process. How to make the interviewee feel comfortable, how to ask questions and guide the conversation in a way that yields the desired information, how to handle sensitive subjects like race, politics, and religion, and, of course, how to make sure that you can actually use the material in a publication. Also, I’m hoping to find out how to know when your subject is lying to your face. I’m pretty sure I’ve been lied to, even if I can’t say for certain whodunit.

This is where you come in.

I’m going to be shameless in my quest for knowledge. If you have any experience at all with oral history, or even if you know where I can find some good information, I would be much obliged if you would pass it along. You can either leave a comment on this post, or you can use the contact form. Anything at all—books, articles, links, personal observations, whatever. It’s all useful. Many thanks in advance.


Summer Plans

“School’s out for summer! School’s out for…” Well, only a couple of months. Still, I couldn’t be more relieved. I am seriously in need of a break.

I have several things planned for this summer, many of which are still academic in nature, but I’m glad to finally be able to do them at my own pace. Plus, I’m hoping to have time to post here bit more often, and I’m really looking forward to reading some books of my own choosing (including fiction!). Here’s some of my reading list for the summer, in no particular order:

The Dante Club (Matthew Pearl)
The Dixiecrat Revolt (Kari Frederickson)
All God’s Dangers (Theodore Rosengarten)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (J.K. Rowling)
Clemente (David Maraniss)
Radio Free Dixie (Timothy Tyson)
The Last Days (Charles Marsh)
The Confederate Battle Flag (John Coski)
Dear Senator (Essie Mae Washington-Williams)
Plus as much John Grisham and Patricia Cornwell as I can squeeze in

Some of you might be wondering: “Harry Potter?” I admit it, and I’m unashamed. (OK, I’m a little ashamed.) But the previous four have been thoroughly enjoyable, and since the fifth movie will be in theaters July 13, I’ve got to read the book before they butcher it.

I also have several small research trips planned: Chapel Hill, Atlanta, Montgomery, and Auburn. Possibly Sewanee, Tennessee, as well, although I think that was probably shot down this morning when the archivist got back to me with news that the collection I was interested in had nothing of what I was looking for. Because I’m broke, I think I’ll probably be camping out or sleeping on various friends’ sofas and floors. Ask me about it in a couple of months, but for now, I have a very romantic vision of how this will go. Something akin to Kerouac perhaps.

I’ll also be writing an article for the Encyclopedia of Alabama. Although I fear I don’t know enough about my topic to write something substantial, I do have several books piled up on the floor, and some of my archival research this summer will overlap. I do think that my entry will be a worthwhile inclusion, and I was a little surprised (and thrilled at the same time) that it wasn’t on the list the editors sent me to choose from.

I’m also looking forward to visiting family and friends in Virginia and Mississippi. It will be good to revisit all the old stomping grounds and get out of town for a couple of weeks. I could certainly use a brief change of scenery.


Southern Stories

Today in the New York Times, a great article about race and southern history that is right up my research interest alley. It begins, “The gripping black-and-white photographs of civil rights protesters in the South reflect the black-and-white morality tale that generally accompanies them.” Several historians are quoted: Jason Sokol, Matthew Lassiter, Kevin Kruse, and Joseph Crespino. With the exception of Crespino, I’ve read–or at least skimmed–all of their books, and they’re all excellent.

In other news, I’m also reading a recently published collection, The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory (eds. Renee C. Romano and Leigh Raiford, University of Georgia Press), which speaks to a lot of these same issues. I’m only through a couple of chapters, but so far, it’s terrific.

Getting back to the article, it asserts that “A new generation of historians is exploring some of the untold stories of the civil rights movement and its legacies: the experiences not of heroes or murderous villains, but of ordinary Southern whites.” My own research is very similar in some ways, and as the earliest draft of that endeavor will be handed in later this week, I thought this very appropriate.

I also find it interesting that both Lassiter and Crespino find their inspiration in their own “southern roots.” It seems that many (though certainly not all) southern historians have roots in the South. I wonder if this is the same for other fields of history.

Until I found this article, I had originally planned to write a little bit about Orlando Patterson’s recent piece in Time, which discusses the roots of slavery at Jamestown. It brought to mind an interesting and thought-provoking question once posed by own of my college professors. Stay tuned.


Private Proms

A couple of days ago, CNN reported on Turner County, Georgia’s first integrated prom. It’s a great article, and there are several very interesting things to point out here.

First, it’s important to note that the “white prom” continued as usual. I would have appreciated some numbers about attendance at the “white prom” versus the “integrated prom,” particularly to see if there were white students who attended both. But one student was quoted as saying that although blacks could have attended the “white prom,” none did: “I guess they feel like they’re not welcome.” Probably not. I wonder why. This reminds me of my research, in which a former headmaster of the school I’m studying said that although the admissions process was “equal opportunity,” no blacks ever applied. My take? It might have had something to do with the fact that the school was formed in order to avoid integration, but I can’t be sure.

Getting back to Turner County, there also seems to be a severe gender gap, and this is what gives me hope for the future. Apparently, the push for an integrated prom was entirely student-led. Not all parents approved, however.

Nichols said while her parents were in support of the integrated prom, some of her friends weren’t allowed to go.

“If they’re not coming tonight it’s because either they had to work and they couldn’t get out of it or because their parents are still having an issue because they grew up in south Georgia,” she said.

“I’ve asked, ‘Why can’t you come?’ and they’re like, ‘My mommy and daddy — they don’t agree with being with the colored people,’ which I think is crazy,” she said.

The use of the phrase “colored people” is bizarre–the quote almost reads like the ones I’m finding in forty year-old newspapers, but the saddest thing I read might be the quote from one mother who was watching black and white students pose together for photographs: “That is so fake. There is nothing real about that.” As if black and white students couldn’t possibly be interested in genuine social interactions with each other.

The principal said that he had no plans to stop the private proms–which makes sense. As principal of a public school, he probably has no legal standing to stop them. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be stopped. Regrettably, he had to throw in this cop-out line appealing to the more “conservative” parents in the community: “That’s going to be up to the parents. That’s part of being in America. If they want to do that for the kids, then that’s fine.”

Sure, having a choice is part of being in America. And unfortunately, segregating your kids in school is too. But we shouldn’t condone it so glibly.


Looking Past Little Rock

As reported on CNN, a federal judge recently ruled that Little Rock’s school district has integrated and no longer requires federal supervision. Given that city’s well-documented past, this is a certainly a symbolic achievement and one that deserves praise. It gives hope that the process begun more than a half century ago was not in vain. It can, however, be overstated.

Although court rulings and legislation have done much to abolish segregation in schools over the past fifty years, it would be unwise to assume that segregation in schools has been eradicated. My own research in one rural Alabama county shows that, as recently as 2004, the public school system educates 1199 black students and exactly two whites, while a private school is home to 72 whites and 17 blacks.

The sample size is admittedly small, but it nevertheless shows that in some places, integration has been slow in coming—or has yet to arrive at all.


Beating Around the Bush

On Thursday, I interviewed a former headmaster of the all-white private school I’m researching. Although friendly, he seemed somewhat reluctant and told me early in the interview that because of his current position, he wouldn’t discuss anything controversial. He also said several times that he no longer had any connection with the school and knew very little about its history since he left. Needless to say, this made me question how valuable he would be as a source.

Thankfully, however, he did give me some good information, particularly about the organization of the school. For example, I had not realized that—in addition to tuition—parents paid to be voting members of the school’s governing foundation. In one of the poorest counties in the nation, this would seem to a strong commitment to segregated education on the part of the parents.

He, of course, made no mention of segregation. Instead he emphasized that the decision to enroll in a private school was a “choice” made by parents because they wanted control over their children’s educations. When I tried to determine what made the school uniquely attractive to such parents, however, he stated that on a day-to-day basis, the school operated much like any public school. This of course begs the question, “So why did parents feel it necessary to leave the public school system?” When I pressed him on that, he replied that parents “obviously” had concerns about the quality of education in the public school system. “And that’s where I have to be careful what I say to you.”

Given that the school is now integrated, I asked if there had been any black students enrolled during his tenure, and he said there hadn’t. But, he was quick to mention, it wasn’t because the school was in any way discriminatory. In fact, he had on numerous occasions spoken personally with members of other races who were interested in the school, and although everyone went through the same application process, no blacks had ever applied.

Oral history is obviously limited by the interviewee’s personal memory of the past—at several points during this interview, my subject said, “Gosh, I just can’t remember that far back”—but it is also limited by what the subject chooses to remember (or “disremember”). Perhaps there is no way to know for sure which—if any—of my subject’s answers were based on “selective memory,” but obviously some things don’t add up. This, I think, speaks volumes.

Currently Reading

Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain