Voices of Chatham

Oral history project keeps history alive as the county grows


Jordan-Matthews High School hasn’t always been the home of the Jets.

Until 1971, the mascot was the Blue Phantoms — a name that caused many students and community members of color to feel unsafe in the school. Those who were there remember students coming to football games dressed in white sheets in what many Black students saw as an ode to the Ku Klux Klan. ”The African American people felt like the mascot represented the emblem of the KKK,” wrote Chad E. Seales in his book “The Secular Spectacle: Performing Religion in a Southern Town.”

The debates over the name change in the ‘70s caused multiple days of protest, violence and school closures. There were also lingering protests and acts of violence against Black students for months afterward.

While the violence has subsided, in some ways, the memory of the Phantoms lives on through the current mascot: the “Jets” name was chosen at the height of the Vietnam War when fighter jets became prominent iconography. One of the most prominent was the McDonnell Douglas F-4, also known as the Phantom.

It’s a callback to a darker period of racial intimidation and the struggles of integration in Siler City that continues to affect the culture of the school, and the community, today.

That entire story is just one of the close to 90 that have been shared with the county through the “Voices of Chatham” oral history project. The project began in 2019 but faced delays during the COVID-19 pandemic. Voices of Chatham has restarted its work with the goal of documenting the rich cultural heritage of the county.

It’s led by three N.C. State researchers and coordinated by Walt Wolfram, in collaboration with the Chatham County Historical Association. The end product will be an analysis of language change in the county, an oral history website and a documentary film.

Beyond words

Brody McCurdy is the research associate on the project. He said the work began as a way to capture the history of Chatham amid a future ripe for change. Even before VinFast, Wolfspeed and Chatham Park became headline news, it was clear the county was preparing for big changes. Voices of Chatham wanted to make sure the agricultural, rural and cultural history of Chatham was preserved for future generations.

“You drive down the roads and you see names on the signs of folks who are still around today,” McCurdy said. “That’s not something you see in most places.”

The study began as a work of N.C. State’s Language and Life Project, which examines dialect and language changes over time and “seeks to build awareness and appreciation of linguistic diversity through educational resources, television programs and award-winning documentaries,” according to its website.

Doing this work involves listening to people from a specific place — in this case, Chatham County — speak for long periods of time, then analyzing the waveforms of their voice to pick out how pronunciations and voice patterns shift from generation to generation.

McCurdy, 25, a graduate of N.C. State’s Masters in Linguistics program, previously worked on a similar analysis in Raleigh and said he found the dialect in Raleigh has become less traditionally southern over time as more out-of-state residents move in.

Interviewees participate in “socio-linguistic” interviews, which means they are there partly to study the research of their dialect, and partly for oral history research, too. But there’s more to the project than just having people talk for long periods of time, McCurdy said.

“We are aiming for this concept of linguistic gratuity,” he said. “Which is that you have an obligation to give back to the people that you research with.”

Part of the way they’re giving back is through the creation of an oral history website and documentary, which will both be available to the public. Voices of Chatham also hopes to encapsulate the breadth of life in Chatham — from agriculture to arts to small businesses, the project hopes to learn about all the things that make the county unique.


Culture intact

Structuring the expansive story of the county is a bit of a challenge for the small team of three researchers, but they each bring a unique perspective to the work, according to Documentarian Lydia Elrod.

“We’re looking for a lot of natives of Chatham to speak to their experience,” Elrod said. “For newcomers, we want to paint Chatham as a place to come to, but we also want to paint it as a place where its culture is still intact.”

Elrod, 25, who’s not from Chatham, said she’s found this work to be inspiring because of all the “quirks” of the county. For example, she said it’s rare that a place with so much pride in its rural character can also be open-minded toward development.

Where else can you be neighbors with the birth of the environmentalist movement, have a thriving local arts scene and share the lore of the Devil’s Tramping Ground? All the while, there’s the background of the American rural south — the complications over the end of slavery, Jim Crow and the struggles of integration, she said.

“The stories tell themselves in Chatham,” Elrod said. “You see the names of people, Black and white, repeated over and over throughout the county. Seeing where people live and knowing that their ancestors were on this land, and they still live on this land. That stuff is powerful to see.”

It’s rare, Elrod said, for people to understand and grapple with their difficult history.

‘A listening ear’

The three researchers aren’t from the county, but they said that’s more of an asset for this work than a drawback.

“People want to share their stories,” McCurdy said, “So coming at it with an open mind and a listening ear makes them eager to share and tell you more about themselves.”

More than 90 people have provided oral history interviews for Voices of Chatham, but Elrod and McCurdy said the work is still far from complete. There will still need to be more interviews, which will be uploaded to an oral history database at N.C. State, compiling of film and analysis of data. 

The researchers said they are especially in need of interviews with Chathamites who are Latino and/or under the age of 30 who lived the majority of their lives in Chatham. Participants must be 16 years or older. For more information or to get involved with Voices of Chatham visit voicesofchatham.org or email bjmccurd@ncsu.edu.

Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at brappaport@chathamnr.com  or on Twitter @b_rappaport.

Voices of Chatham, Chatham Historical Association, oral history, Chatham history