To shed light on the campus activism happening today, undergraduate students Sydney Lopez and Liv Linn turned to the past. Through internships last summer at the Southern Oral History Program, they produced a digital exhibit, “UNC Foodworkers’ Strikes of 1969,” and a complementary audio documentary on the event, perhaps the largest and longest example of collective activism in UNC’s history.
In 1969, hundreds of food workers, in collaboration with the Black Student Movement, protested oppressive labor policies in UNC’s dining halls through strikes that lasted nearly 60 days in total. The summer interns turned to the rich trove of interviews in the SOHP database and archival materials from Wilson Library to tell the story of the strikes through the voices of the people who experienced them.
Both students learned about the oral history database and internships through a spring course, the “History of Women’s Activism in the South,” taught by SOHP director Rachel Seidman.
“I fell in love with oral history’s bottom-up approach,” said Lopez, an exercise and sport science major. “It showed me that this was about more than just dates and events, that history impacts people’s lives.”
“One of the beautiful things to me about the oral history archive is that it equalizes the access people have to creating or writing history,” added Linn, a women’s and gender studies major. “The tag line of the Southern Oral History Program is, ‘You don’t have to be famous for your life to be history.’”
The students, who are both pursuing minors in social and economic justice, used different platforms for showcasing their undergraduate research.
The digital exhibit was produced with a storytelling mapping tool called ArcGIS. Lopez and Linn received guidance from data visualization services librarian Lorin Bruckner in creating the project; the library has a subscription to the software.
The software allowed them to weave together audio clips with interactive maps of campus locations and archival materials such as letters, Daily Tar Heel articles and telegrams.
Voices on all sides of the story are presented, from food workers to student activists to university administrative officials.
It was difficult to convey through text alone the emotion and complexity of the movement, and that’s where the audio clips add context, the students said.
“When state troopers were called to campus to control the strike, there’s a powerful and poignant quality to the workers’ voices when they talk about that,” Linn said. “It’s a second layer that you can’t really understand through just documents — listening to the pauses and the interplay between interviewer and interviewee.”
The two produced a companion 45-minute audio documentary through SoundCloud, The Ladies in the Pine Room, which is structured similar to a podcast. They comment on what they have learned as they stitch together audio interviews from food workers Mary Davis and Elizabeth Brooks and BSM activists Preston Dobbins and Ashley Davis. The work has a different interpretive focus, as the narrators draw parallels between the 1969 strikes and present-day activism and grapple with the complexity of the issues. Harmonyx, the a cappella group affiliated with the BSM, composed an original song that’s featured in the documentary.
Lopez wrote in a blog post that the documentary gives the strikes “voice and heart.”
“Something we really grappled with was, ‘Do we have the power or responsibility to tell this story? Is it our story to tell?’” she said. The two explore this issue in the documentary itself.
Although the students originally set out to use only audio and documents to tell the story of the strikes, University archivist Nicholas Graham stumbled upon a rare video clip and shared it with them.
It’s a silent film of the National Guard patrolling campus during the protests. The text in the exhibit says, “What the strikers had intended to be a peaceful protest had transformed into a dangerous and hostile environment for all of those in support of the first strike.”
While viewers watch the film on the right-hand side of the screen, they can listen to audio of food worker Smith, who describes threats she received and the beating of a protesting student and a worker.
“We knew we had to include it because it’s so powerful,” Lopez said.
Seidman said the students’ digital exhibit is “the most sophisticated one we have at the SOHP right now.”
“The fact that it was produced by undergraduates in one summer is fantastic,” she added. “They both ended up with a level of depth in terms of research and analysis that far outstripped my expectations. It’s a fabulous example of the creativity and commitment that our students bring and the ways they are capable of connecting what they’re learning in the classroom to their own interests and engagement.”
Seidman also appreciates the “vertical integration” of the project — undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff at SOHP all learned from one another during its development. She values that Lopez, a sophomore, was paired with Linn, a senior, in doing the research. They also worked with Lauren McCoppin, an English and romance languages major, who helped to edit and proofread text for the digital exhibit.
“I like to get students working together to build a community, where they can trust each other enough to work collaboratively and to build on each other’s individual strengths,” Seidman said.
The Southern Oral History Program is part of the Center for the Study of the American South in the College of Arts & Sciences.
SOHP undergraduate research and internships are supported by the Plambeck Family Fund, through gifts from Charles and Suzanne Plambeck, and the Southern Oral History Program Enrichment Fund, through gifts from J. Vann and Jennifer Vogel.
By Kim Spurr