Chapel Hill Community History preserves memories of the pandemic years

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

COMMUNITY

By Fraser Sherman
Correspondent

If someone a decade or two from now wonders how Chapel Hill residents handled COVID-19, Chapel Hill Community History wants to have the answers.

The online Pandemic Stories Project collects interviews with Chapel Hill residents about living through the pandemic. Chapel Hill Pandemic Stories is a grant-funded project exploring how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted Chapel Hill’s diverse communities. In 2022, Chapel Hill Public Library staff worked with community partners to identify and recruit project participants who represented Chapel Hill’s diverse demographics, including residents from Spanish, Arabic, and Karen language communities.

The interviewees tell stories about quilting, listening to audiobooks at an accelerated speed, worrying about the community and sometimes about cracking pandemic jokes. Project funding is partly supported by North Carolina Humanities, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, at www.nchumanities.org.

Robyn Wilson said in her interview that, a few weeks before everything went into lockdown, she and her husband began receiving emails from local businesses about masking up and using hand sanitizer. All the emails, she said, seemed to start with “In these unprecedented times …”

“For weeks and weeks,” Wilson said, “when anything happened, my husband would go ‘Well, in these unprecedented times …’ And so it’s just little things like that that brought back a smile at quite a stressful point.”

All the interviews are available as downloadable audio. Wilson’s is one of several also available online as a written transcript, with more to follow.

“Our project focused on short oral history type conversational interviews with local people from diverse backgrounds,” Community History Coordinator Molly Luby told The Local Reporter. “We conducted almost 40 interviews, many of which are available for anyone to listen to on our website.”

Luby said she applied for and received grant funding from NC Humanities during the lockdown, which was available for projects documenting local responses to COVID-19. Chapel Hill Community History got the word out via the library newsletter and social media to recruit interviewees. “We also reached out to various community organizations and project partners to ensure that we recruited participants from diverse backgrounds.

The web project says that it includes residents from “Spanish, Arabic and Karen language communities.”

“The goal of the project,” Luby said “was to collect and share stories from around the community of life during the COVID-19 pandemic. We especially wanted to learn from and amplify the voices of those people most impacted by the pandemic. We wanted to record local people at a point in time that felt momentous and historic, to preserve these memories for future generations. We hope that these stories help to connect the community in its shared experience and provide us all with an opportunity to reflect on how unusual the last few years have been.”

The interviewees include retirees, parents, community organizers, students and teachers.

Elementary school teacher Gabby La Mantia said in her interview that when word of the pandemic began spreading, the kids in her class “were just frightened. They didn’t know what was going on. And we were getting some emails from our principal and administration saying  ‘have the kids wash their hands more frequently and don’t cause big alarm.’”

At that point, La Mantia said, it appeared that just a few people were getting sick and not anywhere around Chapel Hill. That made it a shock when the administration began discussing a temporary school closure. The projections were it would last around two weeks until things blew over, but of course “that is not at all what happened.”

Yvette Mathews, a community organizer with the Community Empowerment Fund, says the people the CEF works with struggle to make it in Chapel Hill on minimum wage even before the pandemic. The pandemic made that even worse.

Michelle C., a former UNC student, said the pandemic took a toll on her friendships as people judged other people’s actions — were they traveling? Did they leave quarantine too soon?

David L. Lyles said he thanked God he had the talent of quilting because it helped him deal with pandemic-related depression. He said he’d been raised to believe Christians never got depressed, but the pandemic had proven that wrong. “I was so glad I had that talent to fall back on,” Lyles said, “when I can’t be with anybody.”

While the project isn’t collecting more histories, it does have the resources for anyone to download and print out a pandemic workbook. You can use it to recapture your own thoughts and experiences, such as things you miss from the pre-COVID years and songs that sum up pandemic life.


Fraser Sherman has worked for newspapers, including the Destin Log, the Pensacola News-Journal and the Raleigh Public Record. Born in England, he’d still live in Florida if he hadn’t met the perfect woman and moved to Durham to marry her. He’s the author of several film reference books and has published one novel and several short story collections.

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