VGCC History Club partners with area historian on oral history project

Historian Billy Yeargin talks with members of the VGCC History Club. (VGCC photo)

Historian Billy Yeargin talks with members of the VGCC History Club. (VGCC photo)

Students in the History Club at Vance-Granville Community College are working on a unique project that will bring local history to life and preserve it for future generations.

Billy Yeargin, a historian who has taught for VGCC in the past and is now a professor of Southern culture at Duke University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, is writing a book on the history of tobacco in the Oxford area and the culture that surrounded the crop. He has enlisted the help of students, who will play a critical role by conducting oral history interviews with longtime local residents. Yeargin recently visited VGCC to discuss the project with History Club members.

“This book’s focus is on people,” Yeargin said to the students. “It won’t just be the farmers and buyers, but also those business people and professionals whose lives as members of the community were impacted by the tobacco economy. You’ll just sit down with someone and have them talk about their experiences. There are people who are longing to tell their stories.” 

Yeargin grew up on a Granville County tobacco farm, so he knows the culture “inside and out,” he said. “Tobacco money fueled the entire economy for decades,” he added.

When he met with students, Yeargin introduced them to Mark Pace, the North Carolina Room Specialist at the Richard H. Thornton Library in Oxford. Pace discussed how resources at the library can help provide students with historical context as they conduct their interviews. “I find oral history interviews to be fun,” Pace told the students. “You will be glad that you did this, because this will make important contributions to history and could be read a century from now.” Yeargin recalled that, as a young boy, he knew an older African American man named Zebediah Daniel who was born in 1851. He would now give anything to have an oral history recording of Daniel.

The new book will be Yeargin’s fourth related to tobacco history. His partnership with students will make this one unique, however, and he intends to recognize them in the book for their efforts. “I look forward to working with each of you and I want to make it as easy and as fun as possible,” Yeargin told the History Club. “I’m grateful to the college for allowing us to collaborate. I’m excited about this project and that you are willing to do this.” He has donated copies of the “Dragon Naturally Speaking” speech recognition software to VGCC for students to use in conducting and transcribing their interviews. 

Yeargin noted that sales from the book will help support the Granville County History Museum.

Membership in the History Club is open to all VGCC curriculum students interested in expanding their classroom knowledge of history and enjoying cultural experiences. Advisors for the club are VGCC History instructors Victoria Klesmith and Dr. Natasha Thompson. For more information, contact Klesmith at (252) 738-3229 or Natasha at (252) 738-3527.