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Making queer history visible in North Carolina

This year, we have focused on people and institutions using oral history in innovative ways, discussing the challenges they face and their motivations for using oral history to make positive changes in the world. In April we talked to Scott Seyforth and Nichole Barnes about the impressive development of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s LGBTQ archive. Back in March, we looked at websites that are using oral history to intervene in process of erasure, and talked to Sarah Gould about the difficulties of effectively utilizing oral history in museum exhibits. Today we take a very timely look at the work of Josh Burford, a North Carolina based archivist and activist, who is working to make the history of LGBTQ people in Charlotte visible. Read more below, and make sure to check out the archive on Facebook or on their website to explore the collections.

Over the last few months, we’ve seen a mobilization to fight HB2, the highly controversial North Carolina law that curtails the rights of queer people, and limits the ability of local communities to expand nondiscrimination ordinances or protect the rights of workers. Do you see your archival work connected to the current political fights happening in North Carolina?

I think that HB2 has given us a drastic reminder of what can happen when the community is not organized and does not know its history. When our history is invisible then we can be pushed aside as “outsiders” or not part of the community. HB2 reminds us that by making our history visible and accessible, we can see our place in the community and all the amazing work that is being accomplished. I want people to look back on this time and be reminded of how we fought and how we overturned this law.

How have the recent legal changes shaped the project or its reception? 

If anything, I think that the visibility of North Carolina at the moment has pointed our supporters to us in a much faster way. I would have preferred to live without it, but since the news went nationwide we have gotten amazing support. People see the oral history project as a way to get involved and a way to be a part of something that is not overtly political. Insisting on space to capture our history is an act of resistance but one that more people want to engage in and with.

Insisting on space to capture our history is an act of resistance but one that more people want to engage in and with.

Working backwards a bit, how did the project originally begin?

We started collecting Charlotte’s local history back in 2013. The manuscripts and materials are being gathered into the King-Henry-Brockington collection and we always knew that we wanted to expand into oral histories to enhance the collection. In October of 2013 one of our local leaders, Donaldson King, passed away a week before his oral history was to be taken. With his death we lost over 50 years of history and it really forced us to start much sooner than we planned so that it did not happen again.

How did you come to focus the project on historical figures in the LGBT community?

The committee working on the Charlotte Queer Oral History Project really wanted to capture the narratives of community leaders across generations. Since the physical collections had already garnered local and national attention, it just made sense that we start with the most visible leaders in our community and work out from there. Ultimately we will be focusing on historic events in Charlotte through the lens of these people and we will gather folks who are not as visible as we move along.

As you’ve gathered the collection, have you had any particularly memorable successes or frustrations with the project?

For me the biggest success of the project has been the planning committee itself. Our group is led by local community members who are giving their time to make this happen, the group is intergenerational (with our youngest member being 22 and our older in their 70s), and the group represents historic memory from past and present. The group is working so hard to make the project sustainable and accessible to anyone that wants to be a part of it. The only frustration we are experiencing at this point is there are simply too many people to interview and not enough time to do it. This is a great problem to have but one that forces us to work harder every day.

You noted early just how important it is for our history to be visible and accessible, especially in times of struggle. What plans does the collection have for publicizing its collection, or making them available, going forward?

The plan from the beginning has been to make the oral histories as accessible to the public as possible. We are going to try and engage the community in every aspect of the project from taking the histories, to transcribing them. We hope to make the oral histories available to the public as quickly as possible and we already have plans underway to organize events and community forums around the stories we collect.

What pointers can you give to other people interested in doing similar oral history projects?

First I would say to not be scared of doing a project of this size. Getting started is not as hard as people think, especially with a group of committed volunteers. I would find a local University/College and partner with their special collections department for both physical support and ideas. This way when you run into a problem you have an ally to step in to make sure the project continues. Lastly I would say that it is so important to capture the stories of older community members while they are with us, but don’t forget that our current Queer/Trans young people have so much to offer as well. Let this opportunity be one that creates space for dialogue between the generations so that everyone is learning and affirmed.

Let this opportunity be one that creates space for dialogue between the generations so that everyone is learning and affirmed.

You can read more about the King-Henry-Brockington Archive on Facebook and their website to follow along as the collection develops. If you enjoyed this article, make sure to check out the special issue of the OHR, “Listening to and Learning from LGBTQ Lives”, which is available for free until the end of June. Chime into the discussion in the comments below, or on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, or Google+.

Featured image: “Moral March on Raleigh” by James Willamor, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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