Shalonda Barnes admits she was intimidated.
There are currently 83 interviews transcribed and archived online through UTC’s Digital Collections under Chattanooga Women’s Oral Histories.
Among those is Ernestine Hall, one of the Howard High School seniors who sat at lunch counters in local five-and-dime stores in February 1960, joining the civil rights sit-ins that were quickly gaining popularity throughout the Southeast.
“We were tired of things the way they were. We knew our parents would not do it because they would have repercussions,” Hall says in the interview.
An interview with Gloria Griffith, whose August 1968 wedding was perhaps the first celebration of an interracial marriage in Chattanooga, describes the preparation for the couple’s wedding day, their romance leading up to it and their honeymoon.
She recalls traveling with her husband and meeting a man from Vermont who had never met a black person before. He was utterly convinced that she would have a tail or, if he touched her arm, something like paint would rub off onto his fingers, she says.
“He said he’d been told a lot of different stuff about black people, but these things weren’t true, and I says, ‘Y’all must discuss us quite a bit.’ He says, ‘There are some discussions.’ He says, ‘But I, for myself,’ he says, ‘I can go back and honestly tell them that things that we have been told are lies,’” Griffith recalls.
Walking into an office to conduct an interview with Dr. Autumn Graves, head of Girls Preparatory School, was out of Barnes’ comfort zone and approaching research in a whole new way. There weren’t library books or a computer screen to hide behind; Barnes was face-to-face with her subject.
“It was kind of scary at first,” said Barnes, a junior in political science at UTC.
She had spent weeks researching and planning the interview, an assignment in her history class to interview local black women who are movers and shakers in Chattanooga history.
So, list of interview questions in hand, she met with Graves.
“Initially when I did it I was like, ‘OK, maybe I don’t want to steer away from these questions. Maybe I just want to stay right here, just ask these questions and get it over with,’” Barnes explained.
The experience, Barnes said, gave her a new perspective on research, an approach not familiar to a lot of students.
“We just know to go to the internet, cite it and that’s it,” she said.
In her course, African American Women, Assistant Professor of History Susan Eckelmann Berghel has students engage with history beyond the textbooks, getting personal with local history makers and recording their stories and perspectives. The end result is the Voices of African American Women Oral History project.
“As an educator, I always think of ways to involve students in the community, to think about how they can apply history specific skill sets,” Berghel explained.
The project partners with the Mayor’s Council for Women’s History subcommittee, a group that is recovering, archiving and publishing the experiences of local women leaders, advocates, educators and community builders. Not just telling “history,” as the subcommittee’s website says, but telling “herstories.”
To gather these stories, UTC, along with Covenant College and Southern Adventist University, is supplying a pipeline of oral history collectors: students.
Berghel was already teaching courses on African American history, women’s history and post-1945 history when the chance to work on the oral history project came along. It was a natural fit that takes students beyond what they read in their textbook and shows them how worldwide history connects with their own backyards.
In a grant proposal to raise money for the oral history project, Carolyn Runyon, assistant head of collection services and director of special collections for UTC’s Library, wrote: “These interviews provide the opportunity to connect historical issues to present day challenges, understand the complex junctures of oppression over time, and highlight an understudied group’s unique approach to leadership, activism, and community.”
Nicholas Cooper saw Marva McGee, an administrative assistant in Social, Cultural and Justice Studies, in UTC’s Brock Hall almost daily. A senior secondary education history major, he jumped at the chance to interview her for the oral history project, to talk to her beyond the surface-level interactions. Even though she had been a friendly face and helped him out with logistics of registering for classes, she was a stranger to him.
“You see someone every day, but you don’t know anything about them. Now I know that woman’s entire life, which is really cool,” Cooper said.
In the interview, he developed a skill that is valuable in many professions, but is especially useful for historians, whose work focuses mainly on written texts, “but not a lot on oral history because, in today’s age, it’s just now becoming more and more accessible. So I think it’s really rare that we’ve gotten to do that,” he said.