​Oral History: Unsilencing Sewanee’s Black History

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer
“Oral history enables us to work through the silences of the unremarked upon and ignored,” said oral history workshop leader Margo Shea. “The narrator and the performance, the tears, pauses, nodding, are part of the story.”
Professor of history at Salem University and former visiting professor at the University of the South, Shea led the April 8 workshop in conjunction with Sewanee’s Black History Project, an initiative that arose from within the Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation.
“The Sewanee archive is the history of white people,” said project coordinator Woody Register. “We needed to do something to change the archive.” Register stressed that the history of African Americans in Sewanee is about more than slavery and desegregation.
“We call the stories of the powerful people history. They put their stuff in museums.” Shea said. “But we all make history. We just don’t all make history from circumstances of our own choosing.”
Shea cautioned against viewing oral history as unpacking memory’s filing cabinet with a goal of decorating traditional history with juicy anecdotes or, worse, turning it into a judgmental exercise about the narrator’s trustworthiness and accuracy.
“Memory is constantly changing based on where you’re at now and other things that have happened to you. Oral history has a different credibility. It’s not about the facts, but departure from the facts as imagination symbolism, and desire.”
Shea recounted the example of an anthropologist interviewing a Pueblo descendant about his ancestors’ reaction to the arrival of white men. The interviewee told the anthropologist, ‘We were so afraid, we jumped on our horses and fled.’ The anthropologist discounted the information as false since the Pueblo didn’t have horses then.
“Things with emotional resonance enhance our memory,” Shea insisted. “We get the details screwy.”
Shea emphasized again and again, the importance of listening. “The person speaking may be recollecting, revisiting, changing the story to fit in with other stories, taking advantage of the opportunity to speak for themselves for a change. The process matters, the moment of the interview. The silences and pauses matter. Don’t try to fill the silence.”
“The goal of oral history is to restory the past by making room for the ignored and repressed,” she said. Shea gave several reasons for history taking a wrong turn, among them things being ignored because they weren’t what the researcher was looking for and archivists’ judgment about what is valued.
“Show a people as one thing over and over and that’s what they become.” Shea said. She cited black consciousness in the era of Jim Crow. “If you’re seen as a problem, you come to believe you’re a problem.”
“Telling Sewanee’s black history is an important repair measure,” Shea insisted.
Shea advised local interviewers to be alert to certain themes as doors into the past, comments like “That’s just the way it was,” talk about food white people didn’t eat and places white people didn’t go, and stories about leaving.
Archiving the past takes space, a repository, and the leisure to do the work, Shea noted, pointing to the advantage of the Sewanee Black History Project being under the umbrella of the University Project for Race and Reconciliation.
The motto of the Sewanee Black History Project is “Nothing about us without us.” Register plans to involve the local African-American community in not just collecting the stories, but the actual archival process.
Why does restorying Sewanee’s history matter?
“A community that knows its history more truthfully is more inclusive,” Register said, “and more just. The hope is we’ll be a better community.”