Emerging Voices

This piece was originally published at Medium.com on August 3, 2015

They usually start tentatively, even when delivering basic information such as names, dates, and the location of the interview. The male voices are often too loud, perhaps to compensate for their anxiety about this unfamiliar new assignment. Some female voices begin nearly inaudibly, but gain volume as the young woman discovers her capacity for guiding the conversation. Other, older voices join in. They can be nervous too, but their range of tones is greater- they express confidence, joy, nostalgia, wariness, and sorrow. These older voices are the ones I came to hear, the ones that we hope will interest our audience, but as a teacher I am also attuned to the younger voices.

Over the course of this summer, as racial violence garners so much public attention, I am editing transcripts of oral history interviews that High Point University students have conducted for The William Penn Project during the past academic year. The William Penn Project is an ongoing service learning initiative, run primarily through my History Detectives course. Students on the project are researching and building a website about the history of William Penn High School, the all-black school that existed from 1892 until 1968 just a few blocks from our university in High Point, North Carolina. Interviews with William Penn alumni are a vital part of this process; they give the community a literal voice in the project (the recordings are being uploaded onto the website), and they draw students outside the gates of the university to engage with our neighbors and to recognize the powerful impact that their historical work can have.

My editing work provides a good opportunity for assessment as our project nears its one-year anniversary. What I hear as I review the interviews in bulk are two types of emerging voices. The William Penn alums share, often for the first time on the record, an incredible array of stories about their lives, their school, and their community. The students, as they receive these stories, become increasingly confident in their roles as historians. One example of the latter process was a young woman who, while conducting her second interview, displayed both her growing knowledge base and increasingly sophisticated interviewing skills. Speaking with a member of the class of 1954, she knew that her interviewee had graduated before William Penn students began demonstrating for civil rights. When she learned later in the interview that the woman was back in High Point when the city’s sit-ins began in 1960, she asked how it felt to watch the protests and not participate in them. Examples such as this one make listening to the interviews in chronological order akin to witnessing a time-lapsed version of the learning process.

The William Penn Project is both a public history initiative and an instructional endeavor. When an alumna reports that our interest in her school makes her proud that her history matters to someone, that represents a goal achieved. So too does a student’s recognition of his growing expertise in the history of African-American civil rights movements. Indeed, it’s the convergence of these gains, the intertwining of older voices emerging from an overlooked past and younger ones developing in the midst of current racial turbulence, that gives the Project such value.

If you’re interested in learning more about our Project, please like our Facebook page (where we post regular updates) or visit our website-in-progress at http://www.highpoint.edu/servicelearning/william-penn-project/.