Oral History Project Captures Black Voices in South Carolina
"Black Carolinians Speak: Portraits of a Pandemic" chronicled more than 100 expressions for the state’s permanent public record.
Every year we provide space for recipients of a National Preservation Award to share a piece of their work. This story is from the WeGOJA Foundation, the recipient of 2021 Trustee’s Award for Organizational Excellence, which recognizes a nonprofit organization, large or small, that has demonstrated sustained and superlative achievement in historic preservation.
When the COVID-19 virus emerged in the fall of 2019, it caught the world somewhat by surprise. Although we were accustomed to respiratory viruses that caused illness, a highly contagious and deadly pathogen that overwhelmed communities in a matter of months was a traumatizing new development.
It also shed light on the striking disparities in the Black community on health and healthcare. As the virus took hold in the United States in early 2020, and prior to medical defenses like vaccinations, more than 56%of the COVID-related deaths in South Carolina were Black, who only made up about 27%of the population.
These disturbing circumstances encouraged members of the South Carolina African American Heritage Commission (SCAAHC), specifically longtime Commissioner Michael Allen of Charleston, to develop a program that captured the perspective of Black people in the moment. How did they face this once-in-a-century public health crisis? How did they cope with loved ones suffering from premature, unexpected death? Did they trust the healthcare community enough to follow advice or seek help? The SCAAHC wanted to make sure those livelihoods and perspectives were permanently chronicled.
“The goal was to gather as much information as possible about how this pandemic affected us, how did we respond, how did we cope,” Allen said. “Future generations are going to be as curious about the Coronavirus’ effect on our community as we were about the Spanish flu of 1918. They will likely seek to understand how this global pandemic redefined what it meant to be Black in South Carolina and how the crisis altered the rhythms and traditions of African American life in the Palmetto State.”
Black Carolinians Speak
With support from the WeGOJA Foundation and grants from several foundations, the Commission, led at the time by Chairperson Jannie Harriot, opened a portal called “Black Carolinians Speak” on one of its more popular websites and labeled it “Portraits of a Pandemic.”
Through that portal, they invited Black South Carolinians to submit expressions of COVID-19’s impact on their lives. They collected paintings, poetry, drawings, and song. They also interviewed more than 100 people—healthcare professionals, pastors, teachers, students, first-responders and more —who gave first-hand impressions on how they adapted.
One person interviewed was Joseph McGill, a founding member of the SCAAHC and director of the Slave Dwelling Project, an history awareness initiative that invited people to spend nights at extant slave cabins and engage in conversations.
As the state was shutting down to stifle spread of the virus, McGill was swamped with cancellations and postponements of his events. He quickly discovered he needed to adjust to maintain his audience’s interests.
“To remain relevant, for me, meant just going back to basics,” he said during one of the project’s interviews. “Instead of sleeping with a group of people in these places, (I had to go back to) sleeping by myself. And using technology to bring the audience with me.” McGill said that, although discussions with a group around a campfire sparked intriguing conversations, the Zoom meetings he deployed reached larger audiences.
Another entry included photography from Acacia Brown from Florence, South Carolina. Her black-and-white self-portrait evoked gloom, and she was wearing a mask with the words “I Can’t Breathe” printed on it. She said it referenced the breathing trauma from the virus, but also the suffocation death of George Floyd, which struck the African American community in the spring of 2020, in the middle of the pandemic.
Other photography submitted to the project illustrated how children coped with going to school virtually, how churches held Sunday services in parking lots, and how families hosted reunions on Zoom.
In July 2021, the WeGOJA Foundation opened an exhibit of some of these expressions at the South Carolina Archives and History Center. Through the fall of that year, the organization hosted public programming that discussed the pandemic’s effect on minority communities.
The project also was expanded to North Carolina in 2021. The state’s African American Heritage Commission spent the fall and winter capturing expressions in the Tar Heel state, and will build a virtual exhibit of both states’ entries in the spring of 2022.
In South Carolina, all material submitted to the portal is being housed in the SCAAHC’s collection at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History. “We don’t want this historic event to be chronicled without the African American voice,” Harriot said. “It’s our obligation to make the historic record as complete as possible by including the Black perspective.”
WeGOJA intends to continue using “Black Carolinians Speak” as a basis for oral history, tagging other critical topics such as social justice or environmental justice to capture the African American voice.
Dawn Dawson-House is the executive director of the WeGOJA Foundation.
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