Jacquelyn Hall is the Director of the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She was the recipient of the National Endowment for the Humanities Medal in 1999.
As director of the Southern Oral History Project at UNC-Chapel Hill, she has coordinated the gathering of a large collection of primary source materials on all aspects of the New South. Her work is an innovative blend of Southern history, women's history, labor history and oral history that has earned her a national reputation for scholarly creativity and excellence; numerous honors from foundations, research centers and prize committees; and professional leadership positions.
Davia Nelson met Professor Hall when she was living in North Carolina doing stories for NPR. When the Kitchen Sisters first began their documentation of WHER, "The First All-Girl Radio Station in the World," they sought out Professor Hall and shared their work with her. Dr. Hall talks here about the women of WHER and the times in which they lived.
Jaquelyn Hall talks on:
WHER AND WOMANHOOD IN THE '50S
Women's Roles, Gender, and the Roots of a Movement
"The 1950's was a time when the way men and women thought about themselves was beginning to be questioned, and was coming under new kinds of stress and strain. The women's liberation movement, when it emerged in the '70s, didn't just come out of anywhere. It had roots, and I think that the WHER story is one of those roots. It was interesting when Sam Phillips said that he wished somebody would really track that history: really figure out exactly what influence WHER had on the changes and opportunities for women in broadcasting, and in the place of women in rock'n roll, and the changes that took place later on. But it's so hard. It's very hard to track exactly what those influences are.
"The WHER story is more of a story of women and gender in a period where the focus was, and is, more on the issues of race that were just about to emerge and erupt in the south. It seemed that on the one hand it was a just amazing and obviously progressive attempt to give women opportunities that they didn't have otherwise. And I don't doubt at all that that's what Sam was trying to do — consciously trying to do. But on the other had, it perpetuated the exclusion of women from the dynamic cutting edge of music at the time, so that women were not supposed to be associated with rhythm and blues and rock'n roll and so on. To maintain their association with easy listening was still to keep them away from the main action.
"I don't know how the media responded to WHER. But the thoughts which that set off in my mind were about the irony of the fact that the place where segregation was least effective, in fact I would say the place where there was no segregation, was in this very realm of radio and sound."
Southern Women and Sports
"I was struck by the way women's sports came into the story. Women's basketball, just to take and example of another kind of women's involvement in sports which we think of as something's that's very new and that it's only happened because of the Title IX and the women's movement and so on. But the reality is that women's sports of all kinds, especially basketball was a major, major sport in the south beginning in the 20's. In the 50s it was women who were pushed out of sports by the very forces that we think of as being liberating to women, by urbanization and then of television and by the physical education establishment which came in these just really strenuous, unlady-like sports. It was working class sport and a sport of the rural south and of the small town south that was one of the casualties of the south modernizing."
SAM PHILLIPS AND THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT
Crossing Racial Boundaries in the Studio
"The 50's in the south was a time of dynamic change in race relations, and Sam Phillips was right at the center of that, and a key figure in that. We know a lot of the story about Sam Phillips and his breakthroughs in the 1950's involving race and recording. That's a story that's amazing. That it is a story... that was completely contrary to the static image that we have of the South before the civil rights movement.
"When Sam Phillips first started recording black artists and looking for a white singer who could cross over, he understood that there was a revolutionary coming together of black and white cultural influences at that moment in time. At it was happening mainly because black and white rural people, the last generation of people who were sharecroppers and small farmers, were being pushed off the land and were pouring into cities like Memphis and bringing these musical traditions with them. And also bringing with them a much different, less rigid, separation of the races.
"In the rural south, for all of the racism and violence that was certainly there, the segregation in the sense of people being divided from each other and not having anything to do with each other and not seeing each other on a day to day basis — that was basically an urban phenomenon.
"As these people came into Memphis, there was an explosion of musical creativity. There was a kind of integration that preceded the civil rights movement, that preceded the attempts to integrate the schools.
"Fifteen years later, by the time Martin Luther King is killed, there is a kind of meanness and a kind of racial division and hatred that possibly didn't have to have happened. That whole trajectory could have gone differently. At least the music and what was happening among musicians and young people who were listening across the color line in the 50's makes you think that there were forces at work in the culture that meant that things could have unfolded in a different direction.
"And that story of people calling in to WHER and saying these horrible things about the leader of the civil rights movement that were just in sharp contrast to the way in which people responded, say to Elvis Presley when he recorded his first record. People didn't know whether he was black or white. And by the late 60's there was a very different scene."
MOVING AWAY FROM PANTIES AND PINK
WHER and the Complexities of Women's Roles
"Marge Thrasher said that when she was first asked to come and work for this station, she wasn't really interested in doing it in the beginning. She had heard this kind of sexy come-on style of the women who were at the station previous to her arrival.
"On one hand Sam Philips was describing the bras and panties that they hung on the line, and the cute names and the dress, not the dressing rooms but the cubicles, the aqua and the pink and all of that. And Sam does it in a completely un-self-conscious way. His point, I think, is he did a wonderful job of making this really pleasant and appropriate for women. On the other hand, I thought it is a moment just before the time when you could no longer be un-self-conscious and innocent about doing things like. The place of women in the music business then and continuing to the present is very problematic and those stories do point to some of the things that made it so problematic.
Listen to Dr. Hall speak about WHER as a double-edged sword in women's liberation:
28.8 or G2 SureStream.
"I think that WHER might be another example of the kinds of pre-history to the women's movement that makes the story less complicated than the story of how much progress we've made and how much better things have gotten.
"I don't know why specifically this radio station failed, although I imagine it did have something to do with some of the trappings of the all-girl-ness being no longer as cute to people. I can imagine it ceasing to be charming and novel in the way it had been before. But more generally, I think that it points toward something that is a real misunderstanding of the complexities of women's place in southern society and culture."