From the Rock Wall works to get Black history right


By Fraser Sherman

Kathryn Wall says nothing brings Black history to life like hearing from someone who witnessed it. “Listening to someone tell their own story in their own words has a unique power,” Wall, the Co-Director of Public History at the Marian Cheek Jackson Center told The Local Reporter. “It’s one thing to read about something in a book, but quite another to hear someone tell their own piece of history in a personal, specific way.”

That’s the premise of From The Rock Wall,  the center’s ongoing project remembering and recording Black history in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. The project collects oral histories on multiple topics: food and cooking, education, civil rights and protest, and personal reminiscences of everyday life. You can search the site by topic, neighborhood, or individuals’ names.

Why Oral History?

Wall said using first-person accounts “allows the listener to hear histories that are often left out of the history books – stories of people who may not be famous, but whose lives can illuminate our understanding of the past, and also inspire us with their courage, insight, and compassion.”

The recorded stories present history without filters or analysis, giving Black residents the power to interpret events for themselves.  “As our neighbor Eugene Farrar has said, ‘The only way our history can get told right is that we have to tell it.’”

The Original Wall

The project’s website says it’s named for a low rock wall Atlas Bradshaw and local masons built in the 1930s in Pottersfield, using materials left over from a job across the street. Lit by one of the area’s rare streetlights, “the wall quickly became a gathering spot. Kids stopped there on their way down the hill from school. Their parents rested there on their way back up the hill after work.” It became a place to connect, exchange news and lay plans for local civil rights work. Community members chose the name for the website before it went live on Valentine’s Day 2020.

The Jackson Center

The grant-funded project is the brainchild of Chapel Hill’s Marian Cheek Jackson Center. The center is named after the former historian for St. Joseph CME Church, who participated in multiple interviews to teach the history of Northside and said that “without the past you have no future.”

Wall, Co-Director of Public History for From The Rock Wall, said she’s worked in oral history since the 1990s. Fellow director Anna Spencer joined the Jackson Center in 2020 to help transfer its existing oral history archive to the website.

Wall said the Jackson Center’s community ties help with the work of finding people willing to share their stories. The Center’s Community Review Board includes many long-term local residents who recommend people or themes for interviews and make introductions to potential interviewees. In addition, the “respond” button on From The Rock Wall’s web pages lets people upload their own audio or videos, documents, images, suggestions for future topics and corrections for errors. The Jackson Center also works to engage the public in local history:

  • Creating new lesson plans about local Black history for schools.
  • Organizing community events showcasing the oral histories.
  • Presenting films of interest at the Chelsea Theater, then inviting people to share their personal history on related topics.
  • Organizing an annual pool party with Hargraves Community Center celebrating the history of the A.D. Clark Pool, the first community swimming pool for Black residents.
  • Building gateway monuments to honor Black builders, masons, educators and faith leaders.

Why The Wall Matters

Wall said finding funding to keep the project going and share its content is an ongoing challenge. The best part of the job, she says, is interviewing so many people from the Northside, Pine Knolls and Tin Top neighborhoods and preserving their histories. Asked for a favorite of the accounts she’s heard, she said it’s hard to single out just one.

“I think about the oral histories with members of the Chapel Hill Nine, whose activism was pivotal in advancing civil rights in the community,” Wall said. “I think about interviews with Black entrepreneurs like Mildred Council and her daughters Spring and Neecy Council talking about how Mama Dip’s grew into a local institution with a national reputation. I think about the interview with Bubba Norwood in which he talks about playing drums with artists like Ike and Tina Turner.

“And I think about the interviews we’ve recorded recently with the family members of local Black builders and masons who literally built this town, brick by brick and stone by stone. Taken together, these oral histories tell a story full of diverse experiences and sometimes contradictions, but always bound by a commitment to community and to making sure that the history of that community will never be forgotten.”

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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