Oral Histories of Black Catholic Churches in the Protestant Bible Belt

by Aimee Mepham, Program Coordinator, WFU Humanities Institute

Oral Histories of Black Catholic Churches in the Protestant Bible Belt: Documenting and Writing the History of St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church, School, and Community
Project Director: Michele Gillespie, History

Michele Gillespie, Kahle Family Associate Professor of History

Michele Gillespie

This project began when Michele Gillespie, Presidential Endowed Professor of Southern History, received a call from Robin Barksdale Ervin. Gillespie had previously worked with Ervin on a project at the YWCA in 2003-2004 with her Modern South course in which her students worked on organizing the YWCA’s archival material and created ten-year histories of the organization. During this call, Ervin explained that she was a member of St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church in East Winston-Salem, that the church was approaching its 75 anniversary, and that she was serving on its anniversary history committee. Remembering the previous collaboration, she asked Gillespie if her students would be interested in helping with the anniversary project.

St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church was founded in East Winston in 1940. It began as a mission church under the Charlotte Diocese. Its membership has been historically African-American and its congregation remains predominantly black. There was also once a school next door to the church for grades first through eighth that educated many prominent residents of the Winston-Salem community (the school closed in 1979 due to declining enrollment).

As an historian, particularly an historian of southern history, Gillespie was intrigued by the formation of an African American Catholic Church in the North Carolina Piedmont, as most African Americans in this region belong to other denominations, particularly Baptist and Methodist. After talking further with Ervin about the history of the church, Gillespie thought about contacting Tanya Zanish-Belcher, Director of Special Collections & Archives at the ZSR Library at WFU, who is a trained oral historian. Enthusiastic about a potential collaboration, Zanish-Belcher suggested contacting Wrought Iron Productions to create the oral histories using video recordings of interviews with volunteer members of the church.

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St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church

Gillespie realized around the same time that she needed a collaborative research project for her Honors Seminar on the History of Theory and Methods that she will teach in Spring 2015, and that the project with St. Benedict’s would be a good fit. “I thought, wouldn’t it be great for a group of honors students to do oral histories – because that’s one of the methods that we study, the drawbacks and strengths of oral histories – and wouldn’t it be great to also have the students give back to the community in which they’ve been educated.” The students in the honors seminar will design and conduct the interview as part of the spring semester course.

As the project started to come together, Gillespie attended mass at St. Benedict’s and invited members of the congregation to sign up to be interviewed. Twenty-five volunteers signed up to participate. Gillespie and Zanish-Belcher will interview two elderly members of the church who are in fragile health, but the rest of the volunteers will be interviewed by students in the seminar. The project has received funding from multiple organizations, departments, and offices on campus, so it will be able to fund the production of all twenty-five half-hour oral history videos. Each participant will receive a DVD of his or her interview, and all will be posted on a website for the project. The participants range in age from a 23-year-old WFU graduate to a 91-year-old member of the church.

Zanish-Belcher also gave a workshop on document preservation for ten members of St. Benedict’s on a Saturday in late September to help in the organization of the church’s photos and documents.

The goal is for the students to finish the oral histories by spring break 2015 and for Wrought Iron to complete the production, transcription, and metadata tagging so that the videos could be posted to the project website by the middle of the summer of 2015. Gillespie says, “I don’t just want the students to being doing the oral histories alone. They are going to read Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. I think this book will give a general context for students and get them focused right away.” Gillespie will also work with students in reading other historical research documents like letters, newspaper articles, and records from the Charlotte Diocese. “Not only can we deliver the oral histories,” she says, “but I’d like to think that we will also draw from the oral histories and these other sources to tell a fuller story and put it in historical context.”