Program sees value in collecting oral history
When studying history, nothing equals having an eyewitness description of events, said Kerry Taylor, director of the oral history program at The Citadel. That's why oral history projects are increasing around the Lowcountry and across the nation.
For a long time, history collected from average individuals during oral history projects got very little respect from academic historians, Taylor said. Some academic historians still are suspicious of oral history because the stories that result often are not subject to scrutiny.
More people are beginning to see the value of oral history, he said.
"What oral histories provide is immediacy and emotion," said Taylor. Those are qualities that often are not present when reading official public accounts of events.
"A real strength is that it documents people who would otherwise be excluded," said Taylor. "My interest is in documenting the experience of working people in Charleston. There is little of that from service workers, hospital workers, sanitation workers and carriage drivers."
A new organization, Lowcountry Oral History Alliance, which provides a means for oral historians to keep abreast of each other's projects, jointly sponsored an oral history workshop at Middleton Place with Charleston Archives, Libraries and Museums Council last month.
The group also is interested in helping to ensure that oral historians have an opportunity to be trained in interview techniques.
Dale Rosengarten, curator of special collections in the College of Charleston Library, is involved in the alliance formed at Taylor's urging.
Rosengarten said the alliance, formed earlier this year, has raised the profile of oral history in the local community. She has learned of at least six oral history projects through it.
"The oral history movement really started in the '60s and is definitely tied to the civil rights movement and the women's movement," said Rosengarten, who wrote her senior honors thesis in 1968 at Radcliffe College on oral history.
Then as now, the idea is to get the historical perspectives of people who don't usually make it into the history books, she said.
Rosengarten said her first experience with oral history was joining Theodore Rosengarten, now her husband and College of Charleston history professor, in interviewing the survivor of the Alabama Sharecroppers Union.
The eight-hour interview with the subject, Ned Cobb, resulted in her husband's book "All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw," which won the National Book Award. The subject's great-granddaughter, Sharlene Cobb, joined Theodore Rosengarten during a program at Circular Congregational Church in March.
Avery Research Center
Among those involved in the alliance is Deborah Wright, coordinator of special projects at Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture.
Wright conducts oral interviews with local sweetgrass basketmakers about the basketmaking tradition brought to the Lowcountry by enslaved Africans.
"I want them to tell their stories about why they make baskets, who trained them. I want them to talk about how they feel about basketmaking and to get an understanding about how they feel about the tradition, whether they think young people will continue it in the future, whether they feel a connection to Africa."
Wright said the community of local basketmakers is too important not to be documented properly.
When researchers visit Avery, they can hear recordings of the interviews with the basketmakers or read the interview transcripts. If basketmakers requested that researchers have their permission before using the information, Avery has placed those restrictions on its use.
"I remember the time when the academics didn't do this," Wright said. "A person's story was not considered accurate information. But there is something to be gleaned from that too. There is room for the study of folk history and folk culture in the academy now."
Ryan Johnson, a staff assistant in North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey's office, has been interviewing the older people involved in founding the city since October. He's focused on former Mayors John Bourne and Bobby Kinard and past City Council members.
"We are not committing all of our resources," Johnson said. "We do a few here and a few there. We really need to get these stories documented. We would like to see them used publicly. To fully understand the community, you don't just look at facts and figures and things.
"We had a community member die who was essential in starting our Cultural Arts Department," Johnson said. "Of course, we have all of the hard facts, but we really did not have the social aspect that we needed to give the human perspective. That makes the history more colorful."
The Carolinas Conversations Collection is a digital collection of transcribed audio and video recordings of conversations about health that can be used for research, said Charlene Pope, principal investigator and archivist.
The digital collection, to be archived at the Medical University of South Carolina, records oral interviews with local people and those across the Carolinas who are older than 65, come from various ethnic groups and have a range of illnesses.
Research of orally communicated information indicated a vital need for a project to collect health information from older people across racial, ethnic and language groups, Pope said.
The three-year project, funded by the National Library of Medicine of the National Institutes of Health, is designed to help remedy that situation.
Interviewees are questioned first by MUSC student volunteers, then by volunteers from around the Carolinas as to how they acquired and live with their disease. The manner in which an interviewee responds to questions about the disease is studied for clues as to cultural differences in attitudes about having and treating it.
The interviewees sign a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act authorization form and the project gives them aliases to protect their privacy.
The Web-based collection of oral histories, set to go online in 2010, will be arranged so researchers can retrieve information by diseases, ethnicity and gender. Any researcher who wants to access the database will have to submit a proposal to Carolina Conversations.
Reach Wevonneda Minis at 937-5705 or firstname.lastname@example.org.