The Power of a Story

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By Andrea Wuerth, Reposted from March 18, 2017

For anyone who doubts the impact one person’s story can have, for anyone who thinks history is only about the past, I say, you should have been at Lakewood Middle in Durham yesterday.

The students had been learning about social movements and today were learning about the value of oral histories from our group from the Jackson Center in neighboring Chapel Hill, an organization dedicated to preserving the history of the historically-black Northside neighborhood whose residents had been at the center of the local civil rights protests and sit-ins.

After listening to a presentation about oral history and interviewing techniques, their assignment was to come up with questions to ask one of the four visitors we call “mentors.” I had the privilege of introducting one of those mentors, Miss Gwen. Miss Gwen, a retired teacher in the Chapel Hill schools, took a seat in front of twenty-five middle schoolers, who sat on a rug in front of her, waiting in anticipation. The only thing they knew about Miss Gwen was that she had been involved in the Civil Rights movement.

First, they listened to a short audio recording of Miss Gwen talking with an interviewer from the Jackson Center in Chapel Hill,

In the 90-second interview segment, Miss Gwen described her experiences as a Black teacher at the moment when schools were just being integrated. She talked about how she had just gotten her teaching degree and was hired by a school in Virginia where she was one of two Black teachers in an otherwise all-white school. The students listened intently. Every one of them.

Their hands shot in the air as soon as Miss Gwen finished speaking. And for the next 45 minutes, Miss Gwen answered one question after the other. One boy began the discussion by letting Miss Gwen know that they have a way of applauding—by snapping their fingers.

Snap, snap, snap, he demonstrated.

Turns out that these middle schoolers were natural oral historians. And Miss Gwen knew how to prime a pump.

“What kind of school did you go to?” Answer: an all-black one-room schoolhouse in Louisiana where there was still strict segregation, including “white” and “colored” water fountains and bathroom stalls.

“Why did you go to Virginia for college?” Answer: she wanted to get out of Louisiana and see somewhere else. (Snap, snap) Since at that time black students could not attend “white” universities, she went to the all-Black Hampton Institute.

“Why did you take the job?” Answer: she decided she would stay in the area when she got the job.

“Was the principal nice to you?” Answer: Yes. The principal’s support was the reason she was able to persist at that school. Snap, snap, snap.

“Were the other teachers mean to you?” Answer: The principal made it clear that she was welcome and the teachers seemed to accept this. Still she felt the stress of being so obviously different.

“Did any kids say anything mean to you?” Answer: No, well only a few times. And that was surprising at first, she said. But she organized some out-of-school events to get to know the kids better and this helped them all feel more comfortable with each other. Surprisingly most parents supported this. It turned out that she kept in touch with some of those students to this day. Snap, snap, snap.

When one boy asked her, “What did you do during the Civil Rights movement?,” she explained that she brought the message to the students like this: “I made sure everyone was heard and everyone respected each other all the time, that everyone felt safe.” (snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap…)

When the class period ended, hands were still shooting up. The discussion easily could have continued for much longer.

When history comes alive and when connections are made to the lives of students right now, one person’s story makes a world of difference.

Andrea Wuerth is a volunteer participant in the Center’s Learning Across Generations local history curriculum,.  She agreed to let us post her blog entry on a recent visit to Lakewood Montessori in Durham, where the education team and 4 Community Mentors engaged 200 students in learning how to conduct oral history interviews and listening to elders tell their histories of life in Northside.

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