Research in Oral History: LGBTQ Activism in the NC Triangle Area

-written by Aaron Lovett, History and Communication Studies, Class of 2017

-editor Monica Richard

Before coming to UNC last fall, I thought research was something only done in the physical and life sciences. So when I heard about undergraduate research, I imagined chemistry and biology majors spending all day in a lab, manipulating a plethora of confusing technical instruments, wearing huge goggles and white lab coats, examining bacteria, and conducting experiments on mice.

Ian Palmquist Photo source: http://tiny.cc/brp8jx

Ian Palmquist
Source: tiny.cc/brp8jx

That was not at all where my interests were. But during my first semester at UNC, I took a research-exposure first-year seminar in history, and through that course realized that research could be done in any subject. After hearing about UNC’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF), I decided I wanted to apply for the chance to conduct research of my own.

As a member of the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) community, I wanted to learn more about being queer in the Southeast United States, an environment historically hostile to queer people. Throughout American history, people who are now collectively identified as LGBTQ have been branded as deviant, ignored, and hated.

Alexis Gumbs Photo source: http://tiny.cc/lvp8jx

Alexis Gumbs
Source: tiny.cc/lvp8jx

Religious fundamentalism and social conservatism in the South have exacerbated this issue. Making matters worse, there is a slim amount of studies and literature on LGBTQ topics in general, let alone LGBTQ issues in the south.

However, through the Southern Oral History Program at Chapel Hill, I learned that oral history was a valuable method for learning about oppressed groups of people whose history is not thoroughly documented in official texts. So, I began an oral history project on LGBTQ activism in the Triangle area, to learn about queer history firsthand from people who have devoted their lives to shaping it. My second semester at UNC, I received the Pine Tree Fund SURF for research in LGBT Studies to fund my research.

For the project, I interviewed hardworking local activists such as Ian Palmquist, Alexis Gumbs, and Carlton Rutherford. Ian Palmquist, a UNC alumnus, is the former Executive Director of Equality NC, a statewide LGBTQ political action committee, and currently works at Equality Federation, a nationwide advocacy organization.

Pastor Carlton Rutherford Photo source: http://tiny.cc/6op8jx

PR Carlton Rutherford
Source: tiny.cc/6op8jx

As an experienced lobbyist and political activist, he offered valuable insight into how various progressive lobbying groups helped pass the NC School Violence Prevention Act in 2009, the first law in North Carolina history to include the terms “sexual orientation and gender identity,” and the first piece of legislation in the South to include the phrase “gender identity.” Carlton Rutherford has been a pastor for several years at St. John’s Metropolitan Community Church in Raleigh, which offers an all-inclusive space for religious members of the LGBTQ community. His experiences as a gay man of color and clergy member brings to light the many intersecting identities of LGBTQ people. Alexis Gumbs is a queer feminist activist whose work documents the histories of queer black elders; she received her PhD in English, Africana Studies and Women’s Studies from Duke University and is a widely published writer on LGBTQ topics. Younger than most of the activists I interviewed, she was able to not only add a queer woman of color’s perspective on LGBTQ activism, but also represent a newer generation of progressive activists.

My research experience taught me two critical things. First, that there are people from myriad and diverse ethnic, religious, and political groups, who share many of my past experiences. The ability to speak to and learn from them has been invaluable. Second, not all learning happens in the classroom – rather, some of the most valuable knowledge is gained through personal experience. There is so much you can learn by going out into the world and actually finding knowledge, archiving it, and reflecting upon it. And this process of retrieval, documentation, and analysis benefits not only the individual researcher, but the community they are a part of as well.
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‘An active creation’: Oral history and race and equality in Chapel Hill’s public schools

-Written by Grace Tatter

[Brown vs. Board of Education] was the single most important moment in the civil rights movement, its most enforceable intervention, and its most powerful statement. But Brown was not all that we could have had or all that was due the South. (Glenda Gilmore, Defying Dixie)]

UNC alumna and award-winning historian Glenda Gilmore implies in Defying Dixie, that the success of Brown and the subsequent school desegregation in the ‘50s and ‘60s is often overstated

Howard Lee campaign brochure, 1969. North Carolina Collection Biographical Clippings. North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Howard Lee campaign brochure, 1969. North Carolina Collection Biographical Clippings. North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The dominant narrative suggests that equality was achieved when black and white students began to attend the same schools. In fact, there is a litany of other factors required to ensure equality, not least of which is communication between communities that, even today, are separated by the legacy of Jim Crow.

The opening of the Howard and Lillian Lee Charter School offers an interesting jumping off point into the discussion of racial equality, and the history of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS). The new school, founded by the daughter of Chapel Hill’s first black mayor, is marketing itself toward the African-American community, with the stated intent of reducing the racial achievement gap.[1] Some fear it sends the message that desegregation did not work, and that Chapel Hill should give “separate but equal” another shot.

In an oral history conducted in 2001 by the Southern Oral History Project, Fran Jackson, who helped desegregated Chapel Hill’s schools as a middle school student, described how miserable her experience as a black student at Chapel Hill High School was, and how little she saw change for her daughters, who attended school in Chapel Hill.[2] “I don’t think anybody was courageous enough to step out and say that we need to do something to assure that these students feel more accepted and more comfortable in class,” Jackson said of her experience in the 1960s.  “They just said, ‘Wow… maybe it’ll get better with time.’ And to be honest with you I don’t think that it has gotten better with time, because if it had then we would not see this wide gap in terms of academic performance,” Jackson said. Jackson’s experience demonstrates the importance of examining the tensions in CHCCS.

I decided to tackle this subject by conducting my own oral histories. As an academic discipline, oral history is often less about cold, hard facts, and more about the sense and perception of a period. Oral history is particularly valuable for expanding historical research to include “ordinary voices” or the “inarticulate;” it allows historians to draw on the experiences of people who will not necessarily be considered “important” enough to have their papers archived in Wilson Library or be written about in newspapers, but still have valuable insights on what it felt like to live in a certain time period.

Recently I interviewed David Kiel, now leadership coordinator at the UNC Center for Faculty Excellence, who worked with Upward Bound, a federally-funded summer enrichment program on UNC’s campus that aimed to create the equal educational opportunities promised by Brown v. Board of Education. Kiel described how the black students he worked with needed that space to talk about desegregation, which for some was a discouraging experience. Of desegregation, Kiel said, “…it did represent a victory against the Jim Crow regime, yet it certainly did not fulfill the best hopes and wishes of their parents and civil rights activists.”  My interview with Kiel illustrates the complexity of the community and the issues being studied.

Oral histories add nuance and understanding to research on issues that are missing from official documents. I have spent many hours in Wilson Library looking at microfilms and sorting through stacks of school board minutes. However, the face-to-face interactions I’ve participated in through oral history have added a new dimension to my research.


[1] Ferral, Katelyn. “Lee Charter School hits delay.” Chapel Hill News, June 12, 2012. http://www.chapelhillnews.com/2012/06/12/71726/lee-charter-school-hits-delay.html (accessed February 21, 2013).

[2] Interview with Fran Jackson by Christa Broadnax, 23 March 2001, K-0208, in the Southern OralHistory Program Collection #4007, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

 

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Alumni Spotlight: Reed Turchi – Music, Mississippi and More

Recently we had a chance to catch up with Reed Turchi ’12. Reed was an American Studies major with a concentration in Southern Studies and a minor in Entrepreneurship. His 2010 SURF project, “Documenting the Younger Generation of Hill County Musicians,” is one component of his consistent focus on music and musicians and has led to a number of other musical endeavors. Reed founded his own record label, Devil Down Records, to release music from the Southern Folklife Collection and draw attention to some of the North Mississippi blues musicians he recorded during his SURF summer. His band TURCHI has been actively touring this year and they are prolific; the band released an album in March, with a new album coming out in July, and they’ll be in the studio in August to finish up yet another album. And, Reed is director of the Ardent Music label at Ardent Studios in Memphis.

Reed credits Professor Bill Ferris with nurturing his interest in North Mississippi blues music, as well as encouraging him to apply for a SURF. In addition to providing Reed with the funding for his summer in Mississippi, having the SURF enhanced his credibility and helped him get face time with the musicians he wanted to meet, learn from and record. Reed recorded performances at the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic, a music festival whose goal is to “enhance appreciation and educate the general public about the native art form of North Mississippi Hill Country blues music through performance, preservation, and interpretation.” This recording turned into a Devil Down album, and the connections and relationships Reed formed in Mississippi have led to other albums.Reed Turchi photo

Reed’s SURF summer also provided a conduit to his current position at Ardent.  While in Mississippi he met Mary Lindsay Dickinson, mother of the North Mississippi Allstars. Her husband, legendary Memphis producer and musician Jim Dickinson, spent part of his career at Ardent Studios in the heyday of the Memphis blues scene. Mary Lindsay connected Reed to the folks at Ardent and he interned there the summer after his SURF research. Ardent hired him the day after his 2012 graduation. Reed is especially pleased that the first album wholly conceived of and completed since he became director of the Ardent Music will be released in late July; in the fall he’ll be working with three other bands that are cutting albums. Reed notes that his accomplishments with Devil Down Records in creating low-budget albums that garnered a lot of positive press and reviews led to Ardent’s interest in having him revive their label, which hadn’t been fully operational since the 90s. In the future he may transition Devil Down into an Ardent imprint to leverage his skills and success producing low-budget, low-fi albums featuring blues artists.

In his current whirlwind of activity, Reed spends one week each month in Memphis and otherwise lives out of his van while on the road with TURCHI. He’s particularly excited about a July showcase for the Oxford American magazine in Little Rock, Arkansas. In addition to TURCHI’s performance, Danny Nowell ’11, a fellow musician and Southern Studies major, will be writing an article on the band for the OA website and print edition.

Reed was the catalyst in creating the Sound of the South undergraduate award, which provides funding for a student wishing to record and work with musicians involved in any style or genre of southern music during the summer, and told us it might be the thing he’s “happiest about.” During his senior year, Reed worked with Ken Weiss – one of the instructors in his entrepreneurship minor — and pulled together folks from Southern Studies, Folklore and Music to develop the award. In the fall of 2011, Drucie French ’71 ’78 hosted the initial fundraiser, which garnered enough money to endow the award and fund one student each year. Reed’s goal is to increase the endowment so that it funds two students annually. One award will continue to be dedicated to undergraduate students and the second award might go to either an undergraduate or a graduate student. The recordings produced by the award winners are housed in the Sounds of the South archive at UNC’s Southern Folklife Collection. They might also be used by Southern Cultures, an award-winning quarterly which has published several issues focused on Southern music. The recordings that have been done so far are “pretty stunning,” according to Reed. The 2012 award recipient was Kaitlyn Vogt, who recorded musicians participating in an old time music jam at the Haw River Ballroom at Saxapahaw, NC. The inaugural award went to James Finnegan, who recorded Lumbee shape note singers in Robeson County, NC.

We asked Reed if he had any advice for current undergraduate researchers and he gave an emphatic “yes.” Students should definitely apply for SURF, he said, even if you feel like your idea is “way out of line” with what other folks are doing. Reed hadn’t even heard of SURF and only applied after Bill Ferris told him about it and suggested he apply.

Interested in learning more?  Reed’s band, TURCHI, will be performing at the Pinhook in Durham on June 6, at Motorco in Durham on July 21, and at the Crunkleton in Chapel Hill on July 22.