Paul Ringel, Associate Professor of History, High Point University

Proposal Type

Structured Conversation

  • Seeking Additional Presenters
  • Seeking Specific Expertise
  • Seeking General Feedback and Interest
Related Topics
  • Civic Engagement
  • Oral History
  • Teaching

Our project on the history of a Jim Crow-era African-American high school in our home city of High Point, North Carolina has received tremendous support from some parts of the city’s black community. Other factions, though, have offered resistance – and some outright opposition. My idea is to share discussion of whether and how to continue working in the face of such opposition, and how to both engage with and circumvent opponents.


For the past five semesters, my undergraduate classes at High Point University have worked on The William Penn Project. William Penn High School was the black high school in High Point before desegregation. It operated from the 1890s, closed in 1968 when the city’s schools were desegregated, and reopened in 2005 as a magnet arts high school. This project began as a joint endeavor with the AP U.S. History class from that school, but when they dropped out for logistical reasons, we kept going. The end product (for this stage, at least) is a website on the history of the school that will include more than 40 oral history interviews.

One segment of William Penn alumni has been very supportive of our project. We developed the idea after meeting with an alumnus who was a science and math teacher at the new school (since retired). He connected us to a network of alumni who were thrilled that we were interested in their history. One broke down in tears over lunch with me, telling me she was so happy that someone outside of their community cared about their stories. Other alumni, though, have been more resistant to our efforts. There are many reasons for this resistance, including suspicion of a white professor and mostly white and wealthy group of students by a group of older African Americans who justifiably fear us stripping their history. There is also animosity and mistrust of our university, which has been expanding rapidly into the neighborhoods surrounding the school where many of these alums grew up and some of them continue to live. Finally, a community historian has done some good archival work on African-American history in High Point, and believes he has completed everything that needs to be done, so he is actively discouraging alumni and community members from working with us.

My idea is to have a conversation (or panel or roundtable, depending on interest) on the practice of doing public history in the face of resistance. Topics for discussion could include when to persist (or not) with such projects, how to engage with the resistors (and particularly negotiate power imbalances among the parties) or other community members who raise the issue of resistance, and perhaps how to build a rapport across cultural divides under challenging circumstances. I suspect these issues arise under circumstances both similar to and quite different from ours, so this subject provides an opportunity for an important, complex, and wide-ranging discussion.

If you have a direct offer of assistance, sensitive criticism, or wish to pass along someone’s contact information confidentially, please get in contact directly: Paul Ringel, [email protected]

If you have general ideas or feedback to share, please feel free to use the comments feature below.

All feedback and offers of assistance should be submitted by July 2, 2017.


  1. Benjamin Filene says:

    This could be a really useful panel–a nice reminder that “The Community” often is not a singular entity. And it’s refreshing to hear a story of when things don’t always go so swimmingly. If you want to extend the net of potential panelists, you might include not only outright resistance but just blah disinterest (!).

    1. Paul Ringel says:

      Thanks, Benjamin!

  2. Julie Peterson says:

    This is a great topic proposal that really engages with the idea of “power lines.” I really like your approach of acknowledging the dissonance between current students/faculty undertaking research, community members whose history is being addressed by the project, and other community stakeholders who don’t see the value of the work being done. This dynamic occurs in many public history settings, and I think a robust discussion about how to handle this kind of situation would be particularly useful.

  3. Mike Dove says:

    I like this topic- fear, suspicion and distrust of those researchers perceived as being outsiders to a community is a very real issue for public historians. I believe it will attract a diverse group who’ll be able to provide varying perspectives based on their work experiences or as members of a community or sub-community. Providing the audience with discussion questions or having break-out sessions (depending upon the size of audience) would allow for some wonderful sharing.

  4. Melissa Barthelemy says:

    I think this is a really important topic for discussion at NCPH, and I hope you have been contacted by others who are interested in joining in. I would be interested in attending a structured conversation on this topic. Sounds like that would be a good format, but if you end up looking for panelists I could probably suggest some PhD students who might be interested. One thing that really stood out to me in what you shared was this: “Finally, a community historian has done some good archival work on African-American history in High Point, and believes he has completed everything that needs to be done, so he is actively discouraging alumni and community members from working with us.” I think this is an important aspect that I encourage you to integrate into whatever session you organize. It really exemplifies the idea of history as “fact” and “truth” versus the idea of history as interpretation, and the present having a conversation with the past. Of course every oral history interview captures something different because of the timing, the setting, the rapport (or lack thereof) between the narrator and interviewer, the questions that are asked, the larger context of what is going on. And if oral history interviews are more about the meaning that one attaches to their lived experiences than about verifiable “fact” or “truth” being recited…clearly each oral history interview is unique and necessary, as well as the interpretations that are created afterwards. So what does this mean in terms of claims about “authority,” especially within the context of insider/outsider status and privilege (race, class, educational, generational…). I know this is a rambling comment, but hopefully some of this is thought provoking! I hope to see this session in the schedule.

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