Archive for the ‘Oral History’ Category

Remembering Mammaw

While many of us earnestly research and write of ancestors long buried, the family history writer can leave a legacy of stories to future generations through memoirs and oral history woven among the dry facts of name, place and time. Years ago, I began my work as a genealogist. However, it was soon apparent that I desired more depth of my family’s history from my efforts. So my research evolved into the work of a family historian.

My experience at ancestral family research has been a challenge. My remote ancestors left few records detailing their lives. Only those born in the 20th century obtained literacy. One of my ancestral lines eschewed the broader community of city or town. They preferred, it seems to remain isolated along the Blue Ridge Mountains of the western Carolinas, where the outside world rarely ventured. I can use generalities from circumstantial evidence and social histories of the region in order to imagine the content of the daily lives of these ancestors, but I cannot know it. Thus, their stories are imbued with uncertainty and disclaimers.

However, from my long interest in oral history and its methodologies, I recognize that I can leave to my descendants a first person account of their ancestors as told in the ancestor’s own voice or the voice of an eyewitness. So over the past several years, I have collected narratives from my living generations. Slowly, I hope to compile these accounts into a family’s journey through generations. I do this because I discovered during the process of family oral history research what it means for me to be the person that I am. I would like to teach my children how to understand themselves through their origins.

Not all such accounts, whether biographies or memoirs, are easy for me to write. Facts are easy enough to collect, but the interpretation that weaves these facts coherently into an understanding of events are difficult and sometimes painful. The story about my maternal grandmother is one example. So much of her life was so closely connected with the latter part of my mother’s life. It was difficult to write about my mom as a major character in Mammaw’s story. Each time I would write “Mother” or “Mom” in the draft, I could feel grief surface and my objectivity as an historian dissolve into tears. When I began using my mom’s given name, however, the one that my grandmother gave her, I was able to distance myself enough to allow Mammaw’s voice to more clearly come through. It helped enormously to examine that period from someone else’s perspective. It added dimension to my knowledge and understanding of two women who were so prominent in my life.

An earlier version of Mammaw’s story was originally published in The Dallas Journal (2007).


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I have been lecturing recently on the topic of “Oral History for the Genealogist.” When I get the opportunity, I like to ask my audience to give me their definition for “oral history.” I explain that lexicographers (dictionary compilers) generally create definitions from how the word is used in speech and writing. So, I tell the audience, they either can offer up a dictionary-like definition or give me an example of a genealogist, like themselves, engaging in “family oral history.” In social science research, this kind of definition is called an operational definition. Whether or not formally stated (such as in my little exercise), operational definitions greatly influence how we interpret our sources and our data.

I have received a variety of definitions, one which I want to discuss here. This definition is simply stated as: “Oral history is what you get from family when you ask them to tell you about your ancestors. It helps you find records.” What is interesting about this definition is the embedded assumption that family “oral history” is part of your early research, but has little additional value as your research matures into looking at written records.

I hope to correct a misconception about the “starting with family” advice given to most beginner genealogists. It’s not that I disagree with that advice. I support approaching family early in your research. However, the manner in which this advice is communicated suggests that once you have visited mom, Grandpa Jones or Aunt Mayzie—once you’ve gotten elders tell you the names and vitals of all the ancestors that they can recall—you can contentedly consign your living relatives back to holiday visits and the periodic phone call to catch up on current events. The fact that they might know more about the family genealogy than they initially provided just does not get the attention that I am convinced is warranted.

For me, this “single shot interview” advice is analogous to using a starting pistol in a race. Once the gun is fired, the runners surge forward and the race begins. The pistol is never fired again. The oral historian within me knows how false that underlying assumption is. Contemporary research in psychology argues against it. We can never tell all that we know in one session, even if “telling all” is our intent.

Moreover, many of these stories told and re-told by our relatives will sometimes take on the air of old TV reruns. So familiar, we feel that we can lip-sync the narrative as Uncle Joe describes the magic of that high school touchdown in 1957. Why would we deliberately subject ourselves to hearing him tell it again so that we can audio or video record it?

Why? Because, oral history is more than the traditions passed down through generations. Within social research it is “history told in the first person,” eyewitness accounts of history. Someday the traumas of events, such as 9/11, Katrina, the assassination of the Kennedy men and Martin Luther King will be gone from human memory. The same will be true for those more wonderful events, such as the landing on the moon, the Shoemaker-Levi crashing into Jupiter, and wedding of Charles and Diana, their latter public separation. Someday, the people, who rose to prominence as a result of those events, will be footnotes on an historical page. However, not every story will be so enduring. What was the impact on these events in the lives of your relatives? What was the impact in your own life? What were some of the events within your family that changed how you perceived your life? Those are the stories to collect for the generations to come.

I try to keep a private journal of my life, the mundane as well as the important. Recording my reactions, my thoughts about those events have produced a remarkable source for my family oral history. How did others in my family perceive those events? Collecting and recording the different perspectives help me personally, but from an historian’s perspective, they will provide future family historians, something new to study, an historical record.

Being a genealogist, I can appreciate how much better my research would be if only I could resurrect ancestors for an hour or twenty hours of conversation. You may feel the same as I do. Ask questions about when, how, and who—and why? With technology, you can give that gift to future generations, by recording the stories of the lives around you.

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Recently I spoke to a genealogical society about the importance of collecting family history as a “project” not simply a stop on the way to the written records. We have the opportunity to create historical records of the quality and standards of any written record if we understand the procedures and apply the standards. Among the archives that collect oral histories from ordinary people include several universities and the Library of Congress.

In 2000, a bipartisan, joint resolution was signed into law establishing The Veterans History Project under the auspices of the Family Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. The project depends on volunteers to interview and record the stories of veterans of the armed services in every major conflict since WWI. (By the way, only two WWI vets are still living as of this date.) As importantly, the project seeks the stories of men and women who, in some material way, supported these war efforts in war industry, USO, flight instructors, etc.

If you wish to have a vet’s story included in the project, the website offers a field kit to help you get started.

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Teaching the topic “Learning from Family” to a class of beginning genealogists, I described how I gather family stories from relatives when I visit, some distant cousins. At the end of the class, a student wrote on the feedback survey that she did not think that the information learned from the class would be useful for her. You see, she explained, all her older relatives were dead. The class being over, I did not have the opportunity to stress that family history research is not just about ancient ancestors. It is about understanding ancestors in the context of social history—AND it is about understanding the family in which we now live. DNA does not trace that information for us. Documents rarely offer those insights. Stories do.

So now my lectures on family oral history, I start with the questions: What do you want to know about a ancestor, who is now gone? Can you name five ancestors whom you would love to resurrect for an evening, share a meal, and ask them questions about their lives? I share my top five (I actually have more):

  1. Burt MOORE (ca. 1756-1836)—my 4th great grandfather who served as an Indian spy during the American Revolution. After independence was won, he settled in the remote parts of South Carolina. When children and other relatives moved westward, he stayed. What kept him bound to the land on which he lived and died? What was his first wife’s given name?
  2. Bluford FLANARY (ca. 1822 – ca. 1878)—my 2nd great grandfather. He served in the VA State home guard during the Civil War. He had two brothers, named Black and White (really!), who served the Union from KY. The men lived within 100 miles of one another. All three men must have been close as brothers because they named sons after one another. My central question would be “how did these political differences affect their relationships?
  3. Flossie FLANARY (1910-1993)—my grandmother. Her father died when she was seven, leaving her mother to raise six girls alone. Poor to the point of heartbreak, her mother put all six girls to work in fields to pick whatever they could for a few cents a day. My grandmother’s education ended at age 9. She did not go beyond fourth grade. My central question would be “having experienced many hard times (loss of a parent, the Great Depression, divorce, widowhood, …) during your life, which was the most difficult for you? Which one taught you the greatest wisdom about life?
  4. Virginia COLE (1926-1991)—my mother. Dealt with health problems while raising four of her twelve grandchildren, sometimes with only a disability check to support everyone. If she could pick a defining moment in her life, one whereby if that moment had not occurred her life might have turned out differently, what would that moment be? Would she change it if she could?
  5. Joab MOORE (ca. 1855 – ??)—my great grandfather. According to family lore, Joab died in GA on 21 August 1909. He was murdered by a person/persons unknown. When he failed to return home from a cattle buying trip, wife, Mary Lou, asked her sons, Jim, Will, and Henry to go looking for their father. They discovered his body thrown in a ravine along side the road on which he had been traveling. But research points to the “boys,” then grown men and married lived 150 miles apart, two in GA, one in Pickens, SC. In 1909, telephones were sparse in rural South Carolina. So it surely took a couple of days for the brothers to meet, agree to search, and ultimately find their father. The story, as passed down in the family, begs several questions. My central question would be “Tell about your death. How did it occur? When did it occur?”

Of course, these questions are just the start of that fantasy evening of conversation and stories, but they make a point with my audience. As family historians, we have questions about our ancient ancestors and questions about those departed ancestors that we knew. Sadly, we don’t think to ask those questions until after they have died. Our family history is diminished by the missed opportunity. Some questions are basic, but others are a desire for stories—stories that define the person and, by extension, the family with whom they lived.

I think that I can speak for most genealogists on one point: After we die, we hope to leave a legacy of connectedness behind us. Technology now allows us to gather stories and create historical records on par with any written document—if we also apply the methods used by professional oral historians. As genealogists, we search for records, analyze and interpret them, but we don’t think of being able to create an historical record. That is the perspective that I would like for other genealogists to consider. As family historians, we have the opportunity to create an historical record that can reveal the spirit of those lives; fill in gaps in the public/written record; preserve family values and traditions; and help us appreciate the influence of time and place upon our kin and ancestors.

Then, I invite my audience to flip the handout over and during my talk, write the names of living relatives: nieces, nephews, children, in-laws…, let your list continue.

My list of “living ancestors” is longer than the one about dead people. To give you an idea of the kinds of story that can come out of ordinary lives, I’ll share three. Since these are living people, I publish only their initials.

  1. J. R.—career soldier in the U.S. Army. Combat veteran, having served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mother of an autistic child. When she is deployed overseas, she must leave her son in the care of others, something that is difficult for both mother and son. Both her combat experiences and her family concerns would produce powerful stories.
  2. D. F.—mentally retarded. After living with his mother and grandmother until age 35, he finally achieved independence. He was married, only briefly, with no children. He supported and took care of himself, living alone, with only someone to help him manage his finances. Age and health issues forced him to chose a group home for men like him. Going from living with his mother to independence to modified independence. What made the greatest challenges? How did he feel about giving up full independence? During his youth, there were no special education classes, he attended with regular students. What was his school experience like? Did he feel that being “slow” make him different from other children? Given that he was once married, did he ever desire to have children? (D. F., by the way, has a remarkable memory for places and people’s names.)
  3. P.N.—married at age 15 to an alcoholic. After 20 years marriage, divorced and remained single. What were the most difficult challenges, as a single mom, that she faced after her divorce. How did that relationship change her life? What were her fears about her children growing up in an alcoholic household? How did she deal with those fears.

Who are the “living ancestors” in your life? Ask children about their grandparents, who probably told them stories about the “olden days.” Ask them about what they enjoyed best or least about that grandparent. Interview siblings about parents. Often they can recall events that you have forgotten. How did they see those parents? What stories can they tell about that relationship? Ask them about their own lives? What would they most like to be remembered for?

Record their stories for posterity. Let them tell it in their own words. As family historians, you don’t always have to research in the remote past. Preserve something of the present for those family historians who will follow into your footprints.

© 2007, Sharon Gayle, all rights reserved.

 First printed in The DGS Newsletter, 33(5), May 2008.


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Luna’s comments the other day started me to thinking about how to make family oral history available to others on a permanent basis. Presently, I do not know of any public archive that accepts the responsibility for preserving the oral history of individual families. We do a disservice to those family researchers who follow us not to consider long term availability. Consider, if you will, the stories you have heard about a genealogist’s life work going out with the garbage because his/her children did not wish to keep their work. Articles have been written exhorting us to donate our research to a library, a genealogical society or historical society just to preserve our work for future generations. From my training, I learned that one of the first questions I should ask and answer before I go out and collect interviews is “what will become of those recordings?”

So the question becomes: what do we do about family oral history interviews? They become more problematic because many of these interviews stay in audio or video format and are not transcribed. Libraries—if they accept such materials—prefer the transcription. (They also have a number of other prerequisites.) The cost of archiving recordings is more than most library budgets allow. Have any of you given thought to what will happen with your oral history research after you die? I am only now thinking about that eventuality, myself. My family is not notable in any way, just regular folks. A few have had experiences that might be accepted by professional/academic oral history projects or programs. For example, Texas Tech University (http://www.vietnam.ttu.edu/) is collecting the oral histories of Viet Nam veterans; University of North Texas (http://www.library.unt.edu/ohp/) collects the oral histories of WWII vets. StoryCorps (www.storycors.org) does collect an infinite variety of interviews, but only those recorded in their facilities.

You can anticipate that much of your work will someday find its way to the landfill if other plans are not developed to preserve it. Personally, I would love for generations to come to actually hear the voice of their ancestor, telling their stories in their own words. I would love to be able to hear my Revolutionary War ancestor detail his experiences, not just read a deposition composed by a court clerk. It would be a wonderful form of “time travel.”

So what ideas can we develop to address this archival issue?

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Although there have been well over 100 articles written in the past 25 years touting the benefits of oral history methods in genealogical research, it seems that the actual use of oral history methods remains largely untapped. I have background and training in both disciplines and can attest to the value that oral history methods provide.

So why aren’t more genealogists using these research methods with their families to garner more clues to their ancestral past and to give a fleshly appearance to that skeleton that is their pedigree chart?  If you have undertaken a family oral history project, I would like to hear of your experiences. If you have thought about doing a family oral history project but have yet to start one, I would like to hear why you haven’t begun one. For either group, what you would like to know about family beyond the BMDB?

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