Tonight my wife Laura went to bed early, after a long, stressful day at the hospital, and I sat up wondering about the fate of the world and feeling a little lonely and Covid-weary.
When I feel a little low like this, I sometimes take out one of the old oral history interviews I’ve done and listen to it again. Or I go on-line and find one. Many libraries and archives now have oral history collections, and a growing number have digitized at least a portion of their interviews and put them on-line so that the general public can hear them.
Some of these oral history interviews are with movie stars, politicians and business leaders, but most are with just regular people who made history in their own ways, large and small. Most are with older people. My favorites are the ones in which our elders talk about their lives, the times in which they lived and what they have learned about life.
I’m not sure exactly why I find them so comforting at times like this. But I almost always listen to interviews with people who lived in eastern North Carolina, and sometimes I think I just want to be reminded of the way that the old people used to speak back home when I was growing up there.
Hearing their words and listening to their stories has been especially welcome to me during the Covid pandemic. Like so many people, I am spending much more time alone than I usually do: I welcome the chance to listen to these souls from our past and in a way to visit with them.
By a stroke of luck, I discovered a good one tonight. I went to the website for the Digital Collections at Joyner Library at East Carolina University, in Greenville, N.C., and the first interview I found was with a 94-year-old African American woman named Sally Phillips Smith. One of the library’s archivists interviewed her in 1973, nearly half a century ago.
Ms. Smith was born in Nash County in 1877, and she later lived there and in several other parts of eastern N.C.
When I started playing Ms. Smith’s interview, the first thing I heard was the loveliest laugh in the world. It was as musical and light-hearted as a young girl’s.
Ms. Smith was charmed, absolutely enchanted, in fact, by the thought that the time had come that strangers wanted to hear about her life and the times through which she had lived.
Ms. Smith told ECU’s archivist that she could not imagine what she could say about her life or her family that would interest anyone else. But a split second later, I heard her say, still in that sweet, soft lilt of hers, “Of course I can talk at length about my parents because they were slaves.”
I closed my eyes and listened.
* * *
Born in Nash County, N.C., in 1877, Sally Phillips Smith was one of the first students at the Brick School, a pioneering school for African American young people that was founded in Edgecombe County in 1895. She later taught in the African American schools of the Jim Crow Era for more than half a century– from 1901 to 1954.
In the beginning of her teaching career, she taught as many as 100 students and six different grades in a one-room schoolhouse, and did so, you can tell from her interview, with love and dedication. You can hear her interview here and you can browse ECU’s Digital Collections here.
I often visit other oral history collections that have interviews available on-line, too. The preeminent collection for North Carolina– and one of the best in the country– is the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where you can find thousands of interviews including some of mine.