Thursday, April 30, 2015

Spotlight: Athens Oral History Project

This post was written by Alexander M. Stephens, a graduate student in UGA's Department of History and Russell Library Oral History Interviewer. He spotlights the Athens Oral History Project -- a new initiative of the Russell Library's Oral History and Media Unit led by Callie Holmes and Christian Lopez. This article also appears in the latest edition of Beyond the Pages, the newsletter of the UGA Libraries.  

About 500 yards from the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries, there is a place in downtown Athens that is unknown to the vast majority of UGA students and alumni. Its history is one of struggle and triumph, ingenuity and community, each renewed on a daily basis. This is Hot Corner, and for most people in Athens, it hides in plain sight.

For the better part of the twentieth century, Hot Corner was the center of commerce and culture for black communities in the Athens area. The Morton Theatre, which opened in 1910, was the crowning achievement of local entrepreneur Monroe Bowers “Pink” Morton. It became the creative center of the Hot Corner district and, thanks to Athenians who forged a partnership between the Morton Theatre Corporation and Athens-Clarke County, it remains vital to Athens civic life. But there always was, and still is, much more to Hot Corner than the Morton Theatre. As Homer Wilson puts it, there is a unique spirit that courses through this section of downtown. For him, the owner of Wilson’s Styling Shop on Hull Street, this spirit has never faded. The commitments of the Wilson family, the Browns, the Wades, and countless others have embedded this area deep within the beating heart of Athens history. For this reason, Hot Corner is one of the community spaces at the center of the Athens Oral History Project, an initiative of the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies designed to ensure that the history of our town reflects the people who call it home.

Christian Lopez, oral history archivist, gets the studio set
up for interviewee Rev. Archibald Killian, July 2014.
Wilson first began working as a barber in his father’s shop in the early 1960s. Wilson’s Styling Shop and neighboring Brown’s Barber Shop have kept local residents looking their best for fifty years. But more than that, these establishments are centers of social and political life. As Wilson told us in our first interview for the Athens Oral History Project, these barber shops have always been forums for community debates and regular stops for local politicians looking to hear people’s thoughts and make things happen. Whether Athenians go to Hot Corner to talk politics at Wilson’s, have a drink at Manhattan Cafe, or compete in world-class checkers matches at Brown’s, the intersection of Hull Street and Washington Street remains vital to the overall composition of our town. Some of the families with roots at Hot Corner joined together in 2000 to form the Hot Corner Association, an organization dedicated to honoring the district’s history and promoting minority entrepreneurship. The Russell Library’s goal is to support efforts like these by documenting the history of important community members and spaces—the ways things have changed and the ways they have remained the same.

But preservation is not our only goal. The Athens Oral History Project is also about learning to see what we normally don’t, the blocks that we may walk by every day without thinking about the people who live and work there. It’s these places, the ones perhaps least likely to end up in a brochure, that are most important to Lemuel LaRoche. Known around town as “Life,” LaRoche has been working in Athens communities for 15 years. As an undergraduate and later a master’s student in the UGA School of Social Work, LaRoche began looking for ways to bridge the gaps that he observed between local black communities and the university. He helped form the Dreaded Mindz Collective, a group of artists and activists who used spoken word poetry and hip hop to forge a closer bond between UGA and the town. LaRoche still uses poetry and music as a way to reach people in performances throughout the Southeast, but for a number of years his main method for connecting people around town has been the game of chess. LaRoche founded the Chess and Community Conference in 2012 to bring together youth from all over the Athens area. Chanting the mantra, “Think before you move,” he carries chess sets wherever he goes, inciting spontaneous play and honest conversations among people who otherwise might have never met. He has an uncanny ability to provoke introspection in both kids and adults while sitting at the chess board. And people are starting to notice. LaRoche received the 2015 President’s Fulfilling the Dream Award presented by UGA for his efforts to “build bridges of unity and understanding” in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

AOHP Interviewer Alexander Stephens talking with
Bennie McKinley, July 2014.
This building process, though exciting and often joyful, is also marked by pain. In our recent interview, LaRoche demonstrated that oral history is not only about recalling the past. This research method causes time to twist. In the act of remembering, past and present and future meld into fears and hopes and visions. This became clear when LaRoche spoke about his aspirations for Athens, the place where he and his wife will raise their son, now just 15 months old. Evoking the concerns that scholar W.E.B.

Du Bois expressed for his son in Atlanta in 1903 and echoing lessons that Homer Wilson’s father taught him in the 1950s, Laroche spoke of wanting to live in a community—and in a world—where his son can grow into a man and not have to fear for his life because of the color of his skin. After a year marked by the violent deaths of young black men around the country, our interview with LaRoche reminds us of the stakes history holds for the present.

Oral history has the potential to amplify voices that have been muted in the historical record. In some cases, interviewees offer new takes on familiar events, as Rev. Archibald Killian did when he spoke of hosting Hamilton Holmes in his house during Holmes’s years at UGA. In other instances, interviewees shed light on aspects of our past that might otherwise be forgotten, as Bennie McKinley demonstrated when she talked about the support that Hot Corner businesses offered her and other high school students who led local civil rights actions in the 1960s. The Russell Library’s Athens Oral History Project is about bringing together these voices—from political leaders like Gwen O’Looney, to business owners like Homer Wilson, to educators like Anne Brightwell—so that history will reflect not just the people who have made headlines, but the people who have made history happen every day.

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