Today we’re starting a new series on the blog where we explore the intersections of oral history and social change. Throughout 2017 we’ll bring you origin stories from activist historians, updates from the front lines, methodological approaches, and more from people who are using oral history to change their world. We begin with Joshua Burford, who first appeared on the blog last June to share his experiences preserving the history of queer people in Charlotte, North Carolina.
I have been working on preservation of Southern Queer history for ten years, and I have never felt the urgency that I feel at this moment to make certain it is safe and available. I think many archivists would agree that urgency is an undercurrent of most of the work that we do since so much information is lost when people die or move or leave their work. When the Charlotte Queer Oral History project began in late 2015 the urgency that we felt was based not on fear but on the excitement that a project like this would give us access to information that didn’t exist anywhere else. I would describe our group as a family that is looking to support each other, but also support the people whose stories we are attempting to capture. Every time we meet it feels like the possibilities are endless and the urgency to get this project moving has created a set of siblings that represent generations of experience, desires, and the need to be connected to something that feels so important.
When HB2 happened in North Carolina and Charlotte was put under a microscope, the project took on a new feel for us. We had been so focused on the stories that were at risk (several people on our list were in bad health) that we didn’t really sit down and discuss how this project could be a locus for resistance to a growing anti-Queer and Trans sentiment from our state capitol. The decision had been made that each of us would follow our own interests and create micro-oral history projects within the larger scope of the project. Almost immediately we drifted towards the stories that highlighted the political work of Charlotte and the people that made the community what it is today. My first large scale project was to interview Sue Henry, a local business owner and political organizer who was most visible in Charlotte in the 1990s. I completed three interviews with her and realized right away that, although I wanted to know about her running a LGBT bookstore and her time as the first openly lesbian identified candidate for mayor, I really wanted to know how she had accomplished all she had in the face of very organized discrimination. I knew that her history would help to shed light on the processes by which this community organized politically and that her words (which have always inspired me) could light a fire under others. What I didn’t understand when I talked with her is that I needed so badly for her to tell me that we would survive HB2 and whatever came after it.
What I didn’t understand when I talked with her is that I needed so badly for her to tell me that we would survive HB2 and whatever came after it.
Sue had been a part of the LGBT group that first fought for a comprehensive anti-discrimination policy for Charlotte back in 1992. They ultimately lost that fight but the waves they created galvanized the community in a way that it had not felt before. I needed her story for my own survival as a Queer person organizing in 2016. I had always imagined that the audience for these stories would be people not directly involved in the work of the committee. I had seen students, our community elders, and future generations as the consumers of this knowledge but I had not really thought about what it could do for me. These feelings of urgency were indeed growing from my own sense of fear about where we are headed as a community and a nation. Preserving history is an act of resistance, but it’s also an act of survival. I tend to think of oral histories as the fire that lights the way to manuscript collections and all they contain. People love stories, but these stories give guidance as much as the create inspiration.
The Charlotte Queer Oral History project is a social justice endeavor. The committee struggles each month to make certain that we have room for all the voices that are overlooked. We began the project with a mandate to collect women’s history and the history of Queer people of color because we know how often these voices are silenced. Each story and its connection of the growing local King-Henry-Brockington community archive are an attempt to create a blueprint of our history so we can fight in the present. These stories shed light on what is possible and out of each comes the antidote to HB2. Our government can pass a law but our stories are the seeds of resistance because now that we know where we have been, we know where it is possible to go from here.
Featured image credit: “HB2 Protest” by Selena N. B. H., CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.