Connecting to Oral Histories
Last week the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture hosted an oral history workshop for over 140 high school students from North Charleston. In a series of rapid-fire thirty-minute sessions with different student groups, the Center’s Education Outreach Coordinator, Shelia Harrell Roye, and I provided an overview of why oral histories are important to Avery’s archives before breaking students into pairs to practice interviewing each other. They were preparing for oral histories they would conduct with former teachers and administrators about school desegregation later in the day.
During the presentation, Shelia and I emphasized how oral histories are powerful resources for accessing diverse and often underrepresented voices and experiences—a vital issue for African American history in the South Carolina Lowcountry. For example, Avery’s current oral history collections (which are featured in the Lowcountry Digital Library (LCDL), a DPLA partner through the South Carolina Digital Library) include interviews with activists like Mary Moultrie, a former nurse’s assistant who helped organize the 1969 Hospital Workers’ Strike in Charleston. In the future, we will add interviews with influential civil rights activists from the Lowcountry such as Septima Clark and Esau Jenkins. Avery’s archivist, Aaron Spelbring, is also preparing two new oral history collections to go into LCDL—one of interviews conducted by Dr. Maggi Morehouse with African American World War II veterans, and another from Dr. Millicent Brown of African American students who were the first to desegregate schools in various parts of the U.S. South.
During our presentation, I asked students why they thought oral histories helped us better understand complex historic experiences. We had already covered what could be problematic about using interviews as sources—people may embellish, they may forget things, or they may avoid difficult topics. During the interview exercise, we even asked the students being interviewed to act out these potential “quirks,” so that their practice interviewers could come up with ways to overcome them. Even with these challenges, many students noted in the discussion afterwards that oral history research not only provides access to a more diverse range of voices and experiences, it is also a really “interesting” and “personal” way to connect to history.
For this post, I decided to follow the themes that came up in these student discussions at Avery and highlight interviews from DPLA collections that I found to be personally interesting from different regional contexts. A quick search in DPLA came up with more than 5,500 sound files, images, and text transcriptions related to oral histories from over 100 contributing institutions. My list is by no means comprehensive—but I had fun digging around, so here goes!
- “We had no company except for a stray cowboy now and then.”
Oral History interview with Ed Cosper, 2011, Alpine Public Library, Arizona, Mountain West Digital Library
I enjoyed learning about the rural western life Cosper describes in this interview—from growing up on a cattle ranch to stories about of his parents’ courtship. They had to ride all day just to meet each other for a date at a dance in Alma!
- “When I was a girl in Ellijay, Georgia, my friend’s father could stop bleeding . . . there were good medicines, even back then.”
Oral History interview with Mrs. Harmon and Claudie Duggan, 1967, Atlanta History Center, Digital Library of Georgia
When I lived Atlanta, Georgia, a friend of mine had a family cabin in Ellijay where we could escape to the mountains. According to this interview, in the 1940s and 50s local Ellijay residents often relied on “folk remedies” for their ailments. Apparently, it was a mystery how her friend’s father stopped bleeding, but no one doubted he could.
- “And that’s when we sat down and put our heads together and said, ‘This isn’t right.’”
Oral history interview with Carolyn Koudela, 1979, Minnesota Powerline Oral History Project, Minnesota Digital Library
You can hear the frustration in Koudela’s voice in this interview as she describes how she became involved in community activism. She and many other farmers were concerned about the environmental impact of the expansion of electric plants and powerlines in the Minnesota in the 1950s and 60s.
- “My father always spoke how secretly the boys taught him to read . . . you couldn’t have a paper that had writing or printing on it when you were a slave.”
Oral History interview with Marcellus Forrest, 1981, Charleston, South Carolina, Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, Lowcountry Digital Library
Had to include something from Avery’s collections! In this interview, Marcellus Forrest, a graduate of the Avery Normal Institute (now the Avery Research Center) in Charleston, South Carolina, powerfully describes stories he heard from his father as a child. His father was a former slave who learned to read and write even though it “was a crime” under slavery. He became a minister after Emancipation.
Mary Battle, PhD
Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture
College of Charleston
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