Oral histories are, if you ask me, the most underrated genre of written work. These documents, which are typically comprised of storytelling by everyday people explaining their work-a-day lives, are valuable, though often underestimated. The genre’s most famous adherent might be Chicago radio man Studs Terkel, whose Working and Hope Dies Last are among my favorite books, but the quotation that always comes to my mind is in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Our Town, where Thornton Wilder has the Stage Manager to say, in pontificating about small-town life:
Y’know Babylon once had two million people in it, and all we know about ’em is the names of the kings and some copies of wheat contracts . . . and contracts for the sale of slaves. Yet every night all those families sat down to supper, and the father came home from his work, and the smoke went up the chimney, same as here. And even in Greece and Rome, all we know about the real life of the people is what we can piece together out of the joking poems and the comedies they wrote for the theatre back then.
Recording the stories of people who may be passed over by “history” is among the most important tasks we in the cultural fields can do.
It was in that spirit that a fellow teacher, a handful of colleagues, and I proceeded last fall to plan and complete a project that would have our students to collect oral histories in the Newtown community in north Montgomery. After working closely with resident Martha Johnson, who coordinates the annual Newtown Reunion, the event was held yesterday. We talked to and photographed about a dozen Newtown residents during a three-hour morning session at the community center there. Those recordings, scans, and photographs will now be collected and archived for researchers and the public to access.
Our hope is that these archives, like the Jim Peppler Southern Courier Photograph Collection at the Alabama Department of Archives & History, will help the Newtown community to be more fully understood. This community has an extremely rich history that is underpinned by hard-working people who’ve stuck together through difficult times.
Thankfully, we had an honorable-mention grant from the Alabama Bicentennial that served to pay the rental fee for the location yesterday and to purchase supplies needed to conduct the work. Because the project was educational in nature and involved students’ effort and time, there are no plans for any summative publication to follow today’s event. As news becomes available about the completion of the time-consuming archival work and their subsequent public release, I’ll be sure to share that, too.