IN THEIR OWN VOICES
Jessie Wilkerson: Very Personal
Soon she will join the Southern Oral History Program’s long list of alumni. When she came to Chapel Hill for a doctorate in history, Jessie Wilkerson chose not to be a teaching assistant but a research assistant.
She helps prepare interviewers for their subjects and coaches
aspiring oral historians in the art of the interview. She also has her
own piece of a larger project, and it’s close to her heart. Her home
in Knoxville and her undergraduate study at Carson-Newman College are near the Highlander Research and Education Center, an
incubator for activists where people like Rosa Parks went to study.
Wilkerson saw Jacquelyn Hall’s name on one of the texts after
she and others petitioned for a women’s history class at Carson-
Newman. As a master’s student at Sarah Lawrence, she became
interested in oral history and was told Carolina was the place she
needed to be. “I learned about women’s activism in environmental
campaigns and civil rights campaigns,” she said. “I got into this
when I was 18 and 19, so it’s a dream come true.”
Wilkerson did interviews as a volunteer and joined the SOHP
in summer 2010. She went back to Knoxville to document
women’s activism as a part of a bigger project, the Long Women’s
Movement. She has done about 50 interviews in Tennessee and
eastern Kentucky. “It is a very personal thing for me. This is my
community, and I don’t think some of this history is being talked
about. Going back as an adult, I wanted to get involved.”
One of her favorite interviews was with Helen Lewis, an
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expert on labor rights in the coal fields of Appalachia, the subject
of Wilkerson’s dissertation. Lewis has been much-interviewed, but
Wilkerson broke ground as the first to ask about her marriage,
about being a woman.
“This gives me a completely different experience. I get to build
an archive in women’s history — that’s a different job from writing
a dissertation in history. My dissertation hopefully will be read and
enjoyed by a lot of people, but it has to be written for historians.”
Elizabeth McCain: Impact of the Listening
Elizabeth McCain had some experience with seeking out oral history as co-president of the Campus Y, so she was “primed,” she said, for Jacquelyn Hall’s Southern Oral History Program seminar.
McCain knew the issues of Chapel Hill’s Rogers Road neighborhood, of residents living in the shadow and smell of a landfill for
years. But when she interviewed 90-year-old Gertrude Nunn —
with whom all oral histories in the area seem to start — she was
unprepared for Nunn to volunteer that her son had been murdered.
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Should she ask her to elaborate? Yes, Hall said. And Mrs. Nunn
did, calmly and comfortably, and in the tiniest detail. “The way she
talked about it, the grace she showed, that’s something you would
have to capture,” McCain said. “She really needed to talk about it.”
A senior now, McCain had thought she wanted to go big-city
for a while. Now she wants to get a job here and do some more
work for the SOHP, along with volunteering at Rogers Road.
“Professors can come in dangerous combinations, and the course
bulletin has no dosage warnings,” she wrote in a reflection paper
for the seminar. “This semester, it has been difficult to sit through
classes while learning about social injustice in all of them. … I like
writing the papers; it feels like what I am learning is important.
This has been my favorite course schedule at Carolina.
“Nonetheless, sometimes I crawl to the weekend. It is the
courses’ content rather than the volume that is overwhelming. At
times, trying to enjoy the moment while engulfed in analyzing
inequality can be difficult. I know that sounds melodramatic
because I have enough to eat, a place to sleep and rarely feel
oppressed. When I go visit Mrs. Nunn, she talks injustice, racism
and fighting against it. Her house is in the shadow of a landfill, and
she hates that. Yet she has chosen and is choosing to be happy in
the midst of horrible things, after horrific events. To me, that is
true strength. It’s grace. It is the only way that you can take prob-
lems on. I have so much to learn from her.”