Oral History with Elaine Ferguson

Special Collections at UNC Asheville
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00:00:00 - Introducing Elaine Ferguson

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Segment Synopsis: Elaine Ferguson (Interviewee), an Asheville community member of 48 years, introduces herself to Rachel Muir (interviewer). Ferguson is an oral historian working for the BRPA and also gives a basic description of herself, describing her gender identity, race, and changes in her income due to retirement.

Keywords: Asheville; North Carolina; Pennsylvania; Retiree

00:03:31 - Moved to Asheville in 1974

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Partial Transcript: I came to Swannanoah to attend Warren-Wilson College in 1974 and graduated in 1978. [I] spent some time in Asheville in the Kenworth area; I lived there for a while and bought my home in Swannanoah three miles from Warren-Wilson College. I knew when I was a student there that I would buy my house in Swannanoah Valley because I always felt very nestled there, very cared for, and it's my heart home. It's where I belong I feel. I don't hesitate in knowing that that's the right place for me. So, that has kept me here.

I met my best friend at Warren-Wilson in '75, so I had been there one year. She still lives in this area and we have been best friends ever since.

Segment Synopsis: Elaine explains that she came to the Asheville area for college and has stayed because of the sense of belonging she experienced in the Swannanoah Valley.

Keywords: 1970s; Asheville; Swannanoah; belonging; home

00:04:39 - The Meaning of Lifelong Friendships

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Partial Transcript: [Long-term friendships] mean everything. This is someone that I can talk with; who can say 'Well I remember you when you were 19, and when you were in your 20s, and your 30s, and your 40s, then your 50s and your 60s.' and I can say that to her, although she's 9 years older than I. So I start with 'I met you when you were in your 20s' and now she's in her 70s. So, having that kind of consistency, someone that truly loves me for who I am and has been through all the ups and downs and ins and outs and thick and thins is, I would say, an anchor.

Segment Synopsis: Elaine discusses her relationship with her best friend of 5 decades.

Keywords: Friendship; building community; long-term friends

00:05:53 - Elaine's Early Life

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Partial Transcript: So, my dad got a pastorate when he was still in college in Lancaster County [Pennsylvania]. That's where he and my mother had just gotten married; he had not graduated. They were married in '54 and I came along in '56, and he didn't graduate until after I was born. But he had this position: they needed a substitute at this little country church, and they came to the college and said 'we need a minister for Sunday', and my dad had his first service without even being ordained and he was there for 42 years. So, he went in as a student pastor and he retired from the same church.

There was a little house just right up the street from the church that one of the church members allowed us to live in. Meanwhile, they built the manse for us to live in across the street from the church. So, my childhood was my father going to work across the street. Anytime I walked out my front door, there was Unionville Presbyterian Church, you know? I was the oldest and I didn't have a sibling for about 6 and a half years until my sister was born, and then about a year and a half later my brother was born; so they grew up together there. When I came down here, they were still in school. So, my childhood was pleasurable. I was in a small community in which, for a long time, I was an only child and everybody in the church was like 'Oh, Reverend Ferguson's daughter is so cute let's buy all her girl scout cookies.'.

I felt safe there, spent a lot of time outdoors playing with the little boy next door, and went to a very small school as you might think since it was a small community. Which then consolidated with another school district of elementary schools so that we were together as a high school. There was no middle school at that point; I went from elementary school in sixth grade to seventh grade at the high school with seniors and I'm like 'woah', but I didn't have a problem with being the minister's daughter. Now, my sister, on the other hand, when she has her oral history done, she's going to have a whole different story to tell. But, I felt like people had my back, and that was a great way to grow up. I felt supported in my household; my dad and I were extremely close; he just passed, it'll be 2 years in June and I miss him terribly. He died during COVID, and we weren't allowed to be there, so that was hard. That's another story too, it touches me deeply. But, he and I spent a lot of time together as an only child and he was just so excited to be a dad. He was a gardener and a just a gentle spirit. He would always say 'You know, honey, you and I are just like two peas in a pod.' and that makes me smile.

Segment Synopsis: Elaine describes her beginnings in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and growing up as the minister's daughter in a small community.

Keywords: COVID; Pennsylvania; caring communities; childhood; father-daughter; preacher's kid; religion

00:10:19 - How Community Shaped Elaine

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Partial Transcript: One story [my father] likes to tell is that when I was a toddler and the service would start in church and he would walk out with his robe on and I'd be sitting with my mother pretty close to the front and I would say 'That's my daddy!'. That made him smile. My mother was lovely also. They were a good fit for that community; just giving, loving, generous, thoughtful people. All of that shaped me because I would use those words for myself as well.

There wasn't even a stoplight [in town]. The church was small in number and as my dad was there for 42 years, of course he built it up. But also, it was close to Wilmington, Delaware and Dupont was there. So some of those folks were coming to Wilmington to work and then moving to the suburbs and found our little church and liked what they found there. That was an interesting change too, thanks to my mother and father.

But, this was a community where the fire department was right up the road and it was all volunteer. There was a grange that was active, kind of like a rotarian type of thing. All of those things that you have to really hunt for these days were the strawberry festival and the ox roast and all of those things where people baked things and brought them for sale to make money for the fire department or something like that. My dad had a program at church called 'God and Community' for the Girl Scouts and 'God and Country' for the Boy Scouts and worked with us. Took us to nursing homes and to the mental hospital that was nearby. I mean he would take us there, we would sing little songs, and just said 'you are part of this community', which is one of the reasons why I love Swannanoah; because it's just a mirror of Unionville.

Segment Synopsis: In this segment, the interviewee describes her youth in a small town and how this upbringing has altered how she sees herself and her community.

Keywords: Community; Pennsylvania; small town

00:14:15 - Finding New Communities in Asheville

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Partial Transcript: Well, I absolutely refused to believe that I could possibly be gay. When I was in high school, I didn't date at all. I was a preacher's kid and there wasn't anyone who asked me. So, when I got to Warren-Wilson as a freshman, I didn't think anything differently than I would hopefully finally date a guy. I just wanted to have a date, but it wasn't a priority for me. I just liked being around people and I was trying to get adjusted. I already knew about Warren-Wilson because I had 2 cousins that preceded me, and we would bring them down to the college, my folks would; and I came down to Warren-Wilson for a church camp because my dad's a Presbyterian minister and Warren-Wilson was a Presbyterian college. I got a scholarship and I already knew about Warren-Wilson and I just loved it. I didn't think about being gay. In my freshman year, I dated 2 guys. They were both from Thailand because Warren Wilson had a huge intercultural community there, which was one of the reasons why I went there too. People from all over the world had been given an opportunity to study abroad. The first guy I dated, it was hand-holding and maybe kiss, I don't remember; and then his partner came in. I would say partner in crime because, as it turns out, they had a little something going where they targeted freshmen girls. I didn't have any prior experience, and I was very gullible. As far as I knew, that meant we were going to get married and move to Pennsylvania and he would be getting a job and my parents would get us a car, and that was very pollyanna-ish, very naive. I didn't have a clue what was going on, but was no longer a virgin. Sophomore year, I had a roommate and this Warren-Wilson phenomena in '75 occurred; it turns out there were a lot of us there, most hadn't pursued being a lesbian or a gay guy. We were discovering it together, and in most small communities that meant that we were switching partners and figuring out who we should be with and how that should be and how that would go. For the rest of the time I was there was about figuring out who I was. So, a lot of those folks, my classmates, my dorm mates, my roommates, came to the understanding that they were gay before I did. I fought it, because how could that be? That didn't mean that I didn't spend time or hang out or go places with them. They'd say 'One of these days this is gonna hit you. You're just gonna know, that you are a lesbian.', so there was a lot of support, but also we were all going through that stage of curiosity and questioning and figuring out who we were in lots of other ways, too. What direction did we want to go in and it was nerve-racking to me in a lot of ways, but it was an exciting time.

We were supporting each other. Even that whole thing about 'well I think I like her, but you're with her, so how...?', that's teenage, right? It was like we realized there were so many of us there that we had options and we could feel safe. Once we went to the bar for the first time, that was another part of the story. The student population was so small; pretty much everyone knew each other's names... I'm gonna say 400, but I don't know if I'm right about that. At Warren-Wilson, every student works and that pays for your room and board. I was in education classes and knew that small group that was in my education classes, but then I also had a job on campus, so I met a whole slew of new people. Not to mention the folks that were in the dorm, so it was a fantastic opportunity to learn about different people. Like I said, there was a big intercultural community there, and I had that opportunity too. By the way, about the guy from Thailand, I must have said something about marriage or something, he looked at me and he says 'oh no, I'm going to be married to the young lady from Thailand that's a student here in your dorm.' he says, 'She doesn't really have a choice.... because I'm from Thailand and she's from Thailand and that's what I'm gonna do.'. And they did! And they had children and they stayed in Belton county. Anyways, very narrow there.

Segment Synopsis: In this segment, the interviewee shares how she found the beginnings of her new community as she entered college.

Keywords: Building Community; College; Coming out; Dating; Warren-Wilson

00:22:17 - LGBTQ+ Influences in Elaine's Early Adulthood

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Partial Transcript: My best friend that came in 1975 had just divorced and had realized that she was a lesbian as well. She was going through all of these changes even though she was 9 years older and she didn't live on campus, but she was such an influence and not just with me. This book, "Looking for Sheville", was written by a friend of ours who also graduated from Warren-Wilson and my best friend and I are characters in her book. This is about the time period after she graduated in the 70s and to the early 80s. She was also a best friend of my best friend. It was like that, you know? It's Asheville without the A, and it was about the lesbians in Asheville during the late 70s and early 80s. This is my signed copy because I was in the book. But she used pseudonyms for all the characters; the stories are very true. It's a good way to learn if you want to know what it was like at that point in time. But my best friend was such an influence and so she was realizing that she was also a lesbian and she was also coming to a lot of discoveries and I was very influenced by her experiences and her describing. I would characterize her as a mentor for sure. She was one of those people that would say 'Of course you're a lesbian.', and she had a nickname for me and she still has a nickname for me and it's Boe. So she would look at me and say 'One of these days you're just gonna go 'Oh, yeah!'', and she was right. And it was gradual and even though I wasn't declaring being a lesbian to myself, which meant then I wasn't declaring it to anyone else, I was still apart of what was going on. There were people that lived in the community that were not students there, and once we started going to people's homes, there were so few out lesbian and gay people in Asheville in the 70s, even when we started going to the bars. Once we started to meet other people from the community, they were accepting of us. So, they were going to have a barbecue or an outing or whatever, 'let's let those students over at Warren-Wilson know and see if they wanna come.', and we did. So, that was really how we started to blend. Then a lot of us stayed here after we graduated, and so our community grew and grew with those parameters.

Segment Synopsis: Elaine tells the interviewer about specific people in her life that inspired her on her journey, focusing on her best friend, Ruth.

Keywords: Coming out; Community; Friendship; Lesbian; Looking for Sheville; Role Models

00:27:02 - Sudden Influx of Lesbians in Asheville

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Partial Transcript: It never felt like there were that many of us. It hasn't been until the last 5 or 10 years that I would say Asheville has quite a large number of lesbians here, and that's very recent. I can look at a list of names and I'm like 'I don't know any of these people.', and that is the total opposite of what it was for me the majority of the time that I've been here as an adult making friends and meeting people. I mean, there were so few of us that we, just as an example, NOW (National Organization for Women) was establishing a chapter, and we wanted a community center; a space where we could come and collaborate and say 'hey, we're apart of this' and we found out that we weren't really welcome. Even in this little place of Asheville, because it was little at that point; nothing like it is now.

Segment Synopsis: The interviewee gives insight into the LGBTQ+ population change in Asheville over the past few years, as well as how this population change affects the way organizations serve the community.

Keywords: Asheville; Community spaces; Lesbian; NOW; National Organization for Women

00:29:02 - LGBTQ+ Emotional Support and Relocation in the 1980s

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Partial Transcript: Upon graduation and not moving and having lots of other folks that didn't go anywhere either, the emotional support was each other. The group that was formed in school and then the different people that we met as we started to venture out and be invited to things. There really didn't seem to be that many lesbians; then there was more gay guys. If there were more lesbians, they were more in the rural areas and not really coming to Asheville to go to the bar or to events. I think once they discovered themselves and each other in any of these 18 western counties, it wasn't so much that they were wanting to even be out, they really kept to themselves. So, the group that we were trying to fit with was the gay guys because if we're going to the bars, that's who you saw most of the time unless we were bringing our lesbian friends with us and we were going together to a dance or shoot pool or whatever; just those of us that we already knew because there weren't really that many others that we knew of until people started to move here. Even back then, there was a slight influx, I would say. A lot of those people stayed, but you know people transient and they're thinking 'Oh I think I'll try Asheville. Oh I think I'll go to Providence'. Maybe friends would say 'Hey, you wanna come and check out Asheville? I really like living here, I've found some friends, and I found a place, got a good job.'. Maybe you want to check out job vacancies that way. You know, some people would do that and, like I said, would stay, and then became very much a part of that community in the 80s.

Segment Synopsis: Elaine answers where she received emotional support from, in which she describes her close-knit friendships made in college and a small boom in the LGBTQ+ population of western North Carolina.

Keywords: 1980s; Asheville; LGBTQ+ Nightlife; Lesbians

00:32:22 - Family, Religion, Coming Out, and Loving Women

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Partial Transcript: One of the good things about Warren-Wilson is that we, once it became obvious that we were experiencing this coming out, the college didn't ostracize us, didn't try to stop it. I'm not saying we were encouraged, but it wasn't like 'Well we're not having that here at this Presbyterian college,', because even when I first started there, there was a rule that if a male was in a female dorm, the door had to be open and each person had to have one foot on the floor. And that was in '74 that was still happening. The church was on campus, Warren-Wilson College Presbyterian Church, so the minister there was very influential. And the associate, who I know I talked with on multiple occasions about, 'Well how can this be? How can I be a Christian and be a lesbian?' and that certainly isn't the way I was raised. However, my parents were not firing brimstone people, they were 'Jesus loves all the little children all the children of the world red and yellow black and white they are precious in his sight Jesus loves the little children of the world'; that's what I knew. As far as I was concerned, a person was a person was a person, and loved by God. That helped me do some justification, but it finally came together for me. I used those resources and didn't feel like I was put in a box, and that was important. There was a book that I brought home at Christmas that I was going to read. It was called "Loving Women", and in our family we had a practice of whatever needed to go upstairs on the steps so the next time the next person went up, you just took it up with you. Well, I left that book on the stairs and one day, I was out visiting a relative or whatever, and my dad picked it up. And when I got home, he says 'honey I'd like to have a conversation with you about the book you're reading.', and he says 'Now what exactly is this book about?'. And I had to decide right then, because at that point I had not come out to myself, but thought I was getting ready to. I think maybe part of that was needing to let them know this is what I was thinking about. I felt like I didn't want to do it, but I needed to do it; and I said 'Dad, it's about women loving women.', and then I said 'well, you know women love all kinds of people.'. My dad was like 'Well, I looked through the book honey, and I think there's a little more to it than that.', and I said, 'Well, yes I think there is', and I told him about what I was thinking and feeling about Ruth, my best friend. So, she had to deal with my folks not being sure if she was a great influence on me, which she was strong enough to handle, I know. The outcome of that, after a while of uncomfortableness and trying to decide how we were going to handle Elaine being a lesbian was my folks saying 'We love you, we support you, we don't think this is the right way or a good lifestyle for you to go, but you're our daughter and we're here.'. I have a sister, who is a year and a half younger than me, and a brother that's a year and a half younger than her, and as it turns out my sister is also a lesbian. My sister also moved to Asheville right after high school and became immersed within our community, and has lived her life with her friends and I've lived my life with my friends. Then, every once in a while we're at a gathering and we say 'Oh hey!'. But there were my folks with 2 out of 3 and they're not really sure what to do with that. I mean, 'how did that happen' and 'what part might have we played'. So, what happened was not so much their uncomfortableness, although it was definitely there, but how that played out in the community of this small town, because I was away but my sister was still in high school. So, when she came to visit me soon after that, she was going to come out to me here in Asheville, I was going to be coming out to her about seven years older than her. That's how the conversation went, 'I have something to tell you,' 'I have something to tell you, too,'. I was surprised because she had boyfriends, I didn't date anyone, I was the preacher's daughter. She was the preacher's daughter that didn't want to be the preacher's daughter. The answer to that question is that the community didn't know about me, but they did know about her, and she was rebellious. It was the rebellion, not just the liking girls, too, because until she took a girl to the senior prom and she was dressed in a tux; it made it difficult for my folks. So, my sister is out and proud, it just took me longer to realize that for myself. She did the same thing that I did: she chose a profession where it wasn't a good idea for her to be out for most of the time she's been at this profession, and she is still in that profession. So I'm just gonna leave it at that because that would be up to her, but in terms of being in the community, she's out.

Segment Synopsis: Elaine tells the story of coming out to herself and her family; she also describes the uniqueness of both her and her sister's experiences as preacher's kids and lesbians.

Keywords: 1970s; Christianity; Coming out; Community; Family; Parents; Religion; Siblings; Sister; Small town; Warren-Wilson College Presbyterian Church

00:43:08 - Careers and Community Involvement

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Partial Transcript: I can talk about the profession I chose and how that happened. I did study education while I was at Warren-Wilson and I did graduate with a degree and a certification, but I could not find a teaching position for 15 years. I was in Asheville applying to city schools, county schools, and all the neighboring counties and could not get my foot in the door. My concentration was social studies, so I started working on my masters one class at a time and getting various different jobs. I did as many interims as I could; substitute teaching, lots of after-school programs, anything I could do to work with young people to get my foot through the door, plus I enjoy them. I wanted to teach seventh grade North Carolina history, and I did that one time by accident, but I was working on my masters degree and they say to me 'we need science and math teachers', I said 'Well, it's not gonna be math.'. So, when I graduated with my master's, that was in '89, and even before I had my master's, I had a job teaching science and I had one all for the rest of my career teaching science. But there was no social studies. The reason I say by accident is because I finally did get my foot in the door at Buncombe Community School, which is now called Community High School, which is in Swannanoah. The principal that hired me was a Warren-Wilson graduate and he had gotten a grant that would allow Asheville city students to attend because, at that point, they didn't have a school for kids who needed an alternative education. At the school, we taught some things that maybe we hadn't gone to school for. So I got to teach seventh grade North Carolina History one year at that school. But I finally did get my foot in the door but it was 15 years later. And it wasn't because of Warren-Wilson not having a good reputation. As a matter of fact, not only that, when I did my student teaching, I did it at Reynold's Middle School. By that point, at Warren-Wilson, there was an athletic director there who took a shine to me, and I guess I would put him under the category of a mentor, also. I realized not only do I have an interest in social studies, but also the athletic department. While I was there, I helped start women's softball with his help. I would say that every student has to work, well one of the positions was intramural coordinator, so I was taking classes with Hank. One day, I went to do an intramural with some other females, I think volleyball, and the guy that had that position hadn't shown up to open the gym. And Warren-Wilson, the instructors live on campus; that's part of their payment of their salary. So, I called up Hank and I said 'John isn't here to open the gym again' and he immediately said to me 'Do you think you could do a better job?', I said 'Absolutely, I sure could.', and he says 'Well, I'm going to take care of that tomorrow.'. So, for the last few years of my time there, I was intramural coordinator so when I got to do my student teaching at Reynold's, they allowed me to student teach in a social studies classroom, and at P.E., and when I finished that year of student teaching, they were interested in me. I thought I was going to have a job as soon as I graduated in either social studies or P.E. because they had a position in each one open. But that was the year they decided that they wanted people with master's degrees. So I didn't get either one of those positions and therefore the rest is 15 years. While I was working these various jobs and trying to get my foot in the door, I was the first paid volunteer coordinator at WNCAP, Western North Carolina AIDS Project. Up to that point, the buddy program was being run by mostly gay guys in the community. My sister was a big part of that, she was already living here. They had their own volunteer orientations and they were spending a lot of time in the hospital because a lot of folks were passing away. WNCAP was new at that point, it was an all-volunteer community, and not a minute too soon because there were so many folks here, that they applied for a grant to pay someone to be the volunteer coordinator, and I was the first person. It was a half-time position and it was a full-time job, of course, but I loved it. I loved figuring out how a buddy program could be the most effective because there's 18 counties. How do you get buddies from way out yonder, because they have to go through the training. Even though those that did, there were clients. I was able to place them with a buddy in all those counties. Well, I don't think I could say I was successful with all those counties, but whoever did apply and goes through orientation. But it was one of the most loving experiences, one of the hardest and heartbreaking experiences that I've had. Spent a lot of time sitting next to bedsides holding hands and some of the folks that passed were my friends. But it was a very fulfilling and WNCAP still has quite an amazing impact here. As a matter of fact, yesterday I went to dining out for life, which I've gone to every single year without fail. Yes, I felt like I could be out there, but I couldn't be because I was trying to get a teaching job. It's always been this for me; [tension] all the time. That's why I haven't done an interview for oral history until this moment.

Segment Synopsis: To conclude this interview, Elaine delves into the late 1980s and 1990s, emphasizing her career path and how her sexual orientation was affected by this path. She discusses her services as the volunteer coordinator for WNCAP, a program established for those with HIV.

Keywords: AIDS Crisis; Athletics; Buddy Program; Careers; Community High School; Dining Out for Life; Education; Professions; Teacher; WNCAP; Warren-Wilson