Jacquelyn Dowd Hall

National Humanities Medal


Oral history, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall's way of recording the past, captures voices that otherwise would fade. She says that oral history is motivated by the fact that "only certain people, and usually the victors and people who have access to publicity, have power over historical memory. Even people who have that often are lost because fashions change."

Last spring, in a seminar on women's history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Hall's students completed oral histories involving three generations of women in their families. Most interviewed their great-grandmothers, their grandmothers, and their mothers. "I've noticed that grandchildren often will hark back to their grandparents," she observes. She says the assignment helped these students put their lives in historical context.

Using personal perspectives to enrich-and sometimes contradict-popular views of history has been her job since 1973, when she was hired out of graduate school to direct the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina. Last year marked its twenty-fifth anniversary.

Unlike some other programs, Hall's flourished despite tight humanities budgets in the 1980s and early 90s. "The National Endowment for the Humanities and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation have been among our major supporters," she says. The charged, personal aspects of oral history certainly keep the program bounding forward. And Hall's enthusiasm radiates energy.

From stories of white female activists to tales of laid-off Southern textile workers, from the taped voices of African American civil rights leaders to collaborative written histories-the range of Hall's work shows that for her, discoveries never cease.

Because oral history offers myriad voices giving multifaceted accounts, it reinforces a positive uncertainty, she says. "The tug between listening to our critics and forging our own vision-are what keep us honest and keep us alive," she wrote in Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World.

That book, which won the Alfred J. Beveridge Award from the American Historical Society and the Philip Taft Labor History Prize, among others, developed out of a project supported by an NEH grant in the early 1980s. "We recorded the voices of Southerners who were the first to go from farm to factory," relates Hall. "The stories were so compelling that the group concluded that we had to write a book." The pluralistic history, written by Hall and five others, gained her larger audiences for her work.

At the same time, it surprised Hall that "there was so much resistance to it, mostly on the grounds that we were too sympathetic to white, working-class Southerners.

"It's almost that people were saying that at the end of the day, the only thing to tell is of their pathologies and racism. It's not that white working-class southerners didn't buy into the racism, because many did," she says, "but the same story is told over and over again in every media."

As a doctoral student in American history at Columbia University, Hall tried to run away from the South. She first chose the history of New England and then the impossibly broad history of black women in America, before the South drew her back. Observing this pattern in other expatriates and exiles, she says: "You see this all the time in southern history-'She wasn't really Southern,' or 'She wasn't typically Southern.' It's problematic to categorize people as regional characters."

After she completed qualifying examinations at Columbia, Hall took a position with the Southern Regional Council, an Atlanta organization that succeeded the moderate Commission on Interracial Cooperation. There, she found records of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching and of its director from 1930 until 1942, a white Texas woman named Jesse Daniel Ames.

"Writing about her made it possible to write about women, the South, and race," says Hall.

As she developed a framework for Ames, Hall resuscitated other stories from the early Civil Rights Movement. "The students in the movements of the sixties thought of themselves as the first, so part of my motivation was to encourage a longer, deeper history of dissent-particularly for white Southerners-to argue against the notion that they'd been unified."

Hall identifies with and admires early activists because that is when, she says, "Southern intellectuals and writers emerged as critics of their own region."

During anticommunist scares in the late forties and early fifties, these pioneers became suspects-spied upon and silenced. These "lost" activists have a lot to teach us, Hall says.

She also observes, "Even when stories end tragically, the struggle will plant the seeds for something to come later. Writing about people keeps them alive; it keeps the seeds alive."

By Elizabeth Gibbens

About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.