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North Carolina Women’s Oral History Collection with Dan Fountain

Professor of History Dan Fountain spoke to us about the North Carolina Women’s Oral History Collection, including the history of the project and how those working on it adapted capture methods during the pandemic.  

Dan Fountain headshot

Tell us about the project.

We’ve been doing oral histories at Meredith for over 15 years. It began with a partnership with the state archives working on their military veterans collection. While we did interview some women vets, for the most part, we weren’t getting women’s stories. So we shifted gears. 

We started talking about having Meredith stories captured, to hear stories of North Carolina women. From there the North Carolina Women’s Oral History Collection began.  That’s the macro project capturing women’s stories from across the state, from all backgrounds, new arrivals, longtime residents, and all age groups, trying to paint a picture of today so that we can have an understanding of the future. We have about 200 interviews to date. We’re trying to answer the question: What is life like for women here now? 

We’ve generated a few micro projects from that collection. We want to target smaller groups, like the Women’s Forum, who were a group in the late 1970s and early 1980s that were proponents of the Equal Rights Amendment. Those women who were involved in that movement are now mostly in their 70s and 80s, age wise, so we’re losing some. David McLennan was an important partner in helping connect us with that group. We built research teams of students to interview these women using undergraduate research grants. We interviewed 26 women who were members of the Women’s Forum at that time and captured their stories and their memories around organizing for the ERA, the frustrations of the legislative fight, as well as the legislative loss. 

Another project we’ve taken on is being part of the Legacies of American Slavery initiative through the Gilder Lehrman Center for Slavery, Abolition and Resistance at Yale University and the CIC, the Council of Independent Colleges. That grant has led us to pursue the Voices of Change oral history program within the larger North Carolina Women’s Oral History Project. This is a second, very focused collection. We’re looking for women who are agents of political and social change and looking at contested citizenship. Certainly if we could find something from the Civil Rights Movement, we’d like to have their stories. We’ve interviewed Senator Natalie Murdock from the State General Assembly. These are stories that we hope will create models of participatory citizenship for women of color. The women that we’re interviewing for that Voices of Change collection are primarily African-Americans but also from Latina, Asian and Native American backgrounds. We’re trying to document their experiences to help diversify our collections.

We’re trying to create models of leadership for others, for younger generations to come and learn what worked and what didn’t.  What obstacles are encountered with success? What unusual or unexpected allies did we find? Tell a historical story and make it something that’s meaningful and useful for other generations. The whole process involves students because students are key to that experience. Being a women’s institution, we want women to be exposed to strong women. That’s our motto.  We want them to engage with these individuals and learn from their stories. 

What the students are learning and what some of the skills they are developing?

It’s a professional skill, learning to conduct an interview. Being on time, being prepared etc….professional development is intentionally woven into the academic side, but it’s also creating a historical product that will be something that they can feel good about, that’s making a contribution to history and making it useful as a research tool for their colleagues who are coming behind them. 

The technical process for capturing these stories has evolved because of COVID. Typically, I want students to be face-to-face with an individual engaging the interviewee so that the students can learn how to connect. Traditionally, we’ve used digital audio recorders from Media Services and we go over that process of capturing them in class. We would practice with them and we learn the ropes so that when they get there they aren’t fumbling with the equipment during the interview. 

COVID pushed us online, due to social distancing guidelines. The Voices of Change grant was a three-year grant that began in 2020, right when COVID hit, so we went from being in-person interviews to using Zoom,  using only the audio portion because of the challenge of storing the large video files of all the interviews.  

Have other institutions participated in the project?

We are a hub site for the Voices of Change grant, so we build teams and relationships with other colleges who also send out their students to conduct interviews. The first year we partnered with Shaw University, Johnson C. Smith, Guilford College and Flagler College, and recently added Tuskegee University in Alabama and Benedict College in South Carolina. It’s intended to be a Southeastern focus. So with each of these groups we provide funds from the project and we receive completed interviews and build relationships. An example was Benedict College, which had a team of high-school students that were participating from a grant program for the University of South Carolina’s Oral History program. The goal is to create a model of trained oral historians who can then, in their own communities, begin to replicate this model and help capture stories. 

We are building this skill base of oral history so that we gain more lived experience. Most of our documentary record is of the high-ranking and the well-known or, to be honest, the infamous. This is a drive to really democratize the record, to bring in the lesser told stories. For example, during the Civil Rights Movement there were these fantastic teams made up of mostly women that were on the ground in places like Albany, Georgia. Whose voice and face is it that we most often see, though? It’s the male leaders of organizations that are national in scope, but it’s women on the ground in the grassroots efforts. We’re trying to capture those stories that typically escape recording

Women are traditionally less forthcoming about their contributions. It’s partly the culture that encourages women to be sort of the backseat component of this. You really have to work to get women to come forward and acknowledge their contributions. When we did some work on the human computers for NASA and the Defense Department, we identified 15 or 16 Meredith women who contributed to that. We reached out and only a handful got back to us.  They’d say “Well, I didn’t do much, honey. I know I shouldn’t take credit for that.  I was just doing some math.”  They weren’t really grasping the sort of contribution that they made to the greater whole and that they were key components. Men are much more eager, typically, to come forward and claim “Yeah, I contributed to that.” It’s been interesting work but also a challenge. Not everybody puts themselves forward to talk. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I’ve always been impressed with the women who have worked on the project here at Meredith. Morgan Johnson, she’s now a reference librarian here, but she was part of that Women’s Forum initiative along with fellow alumna Miranda Pikaart. Inaya Rivera and Madison Weiss were a team who collected interviews during COVID and made significant contributions to the collection despite facing unprecedented challenges.  In short, our students have been the greatest contributors to it. We’ve expanded our work and have been so fortunate to have our partners across the Southeast that are participating.   I tend to get a lot of the credit because I’m the person at the front. But there are a lot of people with hands on this effort that make this work. The Meredith College Library and Archives professionals have also been vitally important in making these efforts happen.  We don’t have a collection without their initial support and dedicated ongoing efforts.  In all of these cases, I appreciate all their labors and believe future researchers will too!

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