April 25, 2019  

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Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage captures the story of Mississippi

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Rev. George Walker share his memories of the Civil Rights Movement in Port Gibson, Mississippi.

“Well, I didn't know anything about voting; I didn't know anything about registering to vote. One night I went to the church. They had a mass meeting. And I went to the church, and they talked about how it was our right, that we could register and vote. They were talking about we could vote out people that we didn't want in office, we thought that wasn't right, that we could vote them out. That sounded interesting enough to me that I wanted to try it. I had never heard, until 1962, that black people could register and vote.”

*Civil rights pioneer Fannie Lou Hamer of Ruleville, Miss., famed for saying “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” talking about her efforts to register to vote during the early 1960s in the Mississippi Delta during an oral history interview, part of the collection of the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage.

“I think, as long as I can remember. I recall when I was a little bitty boy, one Christmas they were talking about that somebody got a bottle of toilet water; and I said, "Toilet water, do you pour that down the john?" Everybody just laughed; I knew what they did with toilet water. I knew that they sloshed it on to make them smell good. Even now, since I got into show business and sold a lot of albums, people will go interview my mother, and my mother will bring up things that I did when I was a kid that I was trying to be humorous. I've been telling stories all my life; I backed into the show business due to my storytelling ability.”

*Comedian and Liberty, Miss. area native Jerry Clower, after being asked when his sense of humor developed, in a 1974 oral history interview that is part of the collection of the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage.

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From the hilarious musings of a beloved comedian to the wisdom of an oft-quoted civil rights heroine, the University of Southern Mississippi Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage’s rich collection of interviews with Magnolia State natives is recognized as one of the premier repositories of its kind in the nation.

More than 4,000 interviews that began with the university’s oral history program in the early 1970s make up the collection, which include the voices of people from all walks of life sharing their experiences ranging from military combat to surviving Hurricanes Camille and Katrina. Others include stories of Mississippi food ways, rural life, state and local politics, the history of the university and race relations, among many more.

The Center has also co-deposited many interviews in such archives as the Library of Congress, Tougaloo College, the Biloxi Mardi Gras Museum, the Biloxi Seafood Museum, Waveland's Ground Zero Hurricane Museum and the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life.

“The strengths of the Center’s collection are broad and deep, but the common, unifying theme is its illumination of the history of Mississippi,” said Dr. Louis Kyriakoudes professor of history and director of the Center.

Center’s work recognized with prestigious grant awards

In recent years, the Center has secured grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities to digitize and make available on the internet its collection of interviews focused on the civil rights movement in Mississippi, and from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to support interviews with those communities whose livelihoods rely on the seafood industry that were affected by the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

“Now members of the public can go online and hear Fannie Lou Hamer tell her story of registering to vote for the first time, or of hearing Dr. Aaron Henry talk about working with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in challenging the state’s all-white delegation at the Democratic National Convention (in 1964),” Kyriakoudes said.

Hayden McDaniel, a doctoral student in history from Dothan, Ala. and graduate assistant in the Center, is project manager for the NEH grant-funded digitization project. The work of the project is going through the COHCH’s collections and digitally preserving interviews that currently only exist on fragile cassette and reel-to-reel tape. Once digitized, the new recordings will be made available online through the Civil Rights in Mississippi Digital Archive and the Mississippi Digital Library, as well as the COHCH’s website.

“To be able to not only access the text of these interviews, but actually hear them, is a step in the right direction,” McDaniel said.

Matthew Germenis, a graduate student in English from Queens, N.Y. Germenis’ research includes Jewish and African-American Literature of the 20th century. He serves as a graduate research assistant with the Center, assists with the NEH grant project in cataloging and preparing interviews for publication in the university’s digital collection.

“An oral history collection is indelible to a university in general,” Germenis said. “It’s an incredible privilege to work here and have all of this primary information available, especially for someone with my research interests The opportunity is amazing.”

Millet, Walton assist director as keepers of the Center’s mission

COCH staffers include Stephanie Millet and Ross Walton. Walton wears several hats for the Center, including that of sound engineer, researcher, writer, producer of Mississippi Moments and audio CDs, and occasionally, narrator.

“I think the Center is a true treasure for the State of Mississippi and Southern Miss.  Our collection of interviews provides unique access into life and history here far beyond what can be gotten from textbooks and news stories,” Walton said. “We provide the human touch, the insider’s perspective. 

“One of the best parts of my job is when I am able to provide someone with a recording of a loved one who has long since passed on. For them to be able to hear that person’s voice again is always an emotional experience. The power of human voice cannot be contained on paper.”

With so many to choose from, Walton says the interview with Jerry Clower contends for top honors in his book. “It’s hard to pick just one favorite, but I have to say that Jerry Clower is certainly one of them. He was such a decent man who just loved this state and humanity in general.  And of course, he’s so entertaining you can’t help but smile.”

Millet works as a transcriber, interviewer and editor for the Center. Her duties include interviewing; transcription of interviews; sending transcripts out to the interviewee for review; making changes as requested by the interviewee; writing tables of contents and biographies for them; proofreading them; having them bound; sending a copy to the interviewee; and archiving copies at the Center as well as sending a copy to Southern Miss Archives. She also trains others to conduct interviews, edits and archives the Center’s backlog of transcribed interviews, and at various times functions as a receptionist when people come to the Center asking for guidance.

“As we have moved into the era of e-mail, the experiences and memories of people that were once captured in written letters are disappearing,” Millet said. “All manner of electronic communications have made information available in an instant; however, the information may not be saved in any form. This makes oral history preservation important, to document our past, our traditions, experiences, interpretations, culture, heritage, and knowledge.”

Millet said an interview she conducted that still resonates with her was with a nurse who was on duty at Biloxi Regional Hospital during and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The nurse told of how the hospital went from treating 80 patients a day to treating 800 people a day, while also serving 2,000 meals a day to anyone who needed to eat. 

“It (hospital) didn't charge money for any of these services,” Millet said. “If the storm surge had been 6 inches higher, the hospital would have lost their emergency generator, which powered lights in the parking lot that served as beacons to which survivors were drawn as they climbed down from attics, trees, and debris piles, suffering from snake bites, cuts, broken bones and all manner of injuries.”

Partnerships key to preserving Mississippi’s story

Since 1999, the Center has joined with the Mississippi Humanities Council and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in the Mississippi Oral History Project (MOHP), funded annually by the Mississippi state legislature. This innovative project was a ground breaking initiative to document the collective memory of Mississippi’s culture, heritage, and institutions in the 20th and 21st centuries. The oral history projects within the MOHP are partnerships between the Mississippi Humanities Council, the Center for Oral History, and local communities and organizations to document their own past, capturing and preserving their local history and culture.

Mississippi Moments, an award winning weekly radio program airing on Mississippi Public Broadcasting, is another partnership between the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage and the Mississippi Humanities Council that includes MPB. The Center’s staff meticulously combs through its vast collection to find interesting and entertaining stories for the program’s listening audience.

Hosted by Bill Ellison and made possible by a We the People grant, the program airs Monday - Friday at 12:30 p.m. on MPB Radio. "For 10 years, the Mississippi Moments radio broadcasts on MPB have brought to the people of Mississippi the stories of their common history from the people that experienced it,” Kyriakoudes said. “With this new daily schedule, we will be able to share more stories from our vast collections at the Center."

Listeners will hear about Freedom Summer, the Piney Woods, music, food and other aspects of history and culture of the Magnolia State found in the Center’s collection interviews.

Walton, producer of Mississippi Moments, is excited to continue sharing through the program the stories that keep Mississippi’s history and culture alive. "Some of the most moving and memorable stories are of the people of our state persevering through difficult conditions, be they wartime service, natural disasters or fighting for civil rights," Walton said.

Mississippi Moments is also a podcast available for download anytime from the Center’s website http://www.usm.edu/oral-history/mississippi-moments, visiting its podcast page at MississippiMoments.org , or liking the Center’s Facebook page. It can also be accessed anywhere by downloading episodes from iTunes or the Mississippi Moments App for Android from the Android Market.

“The Humanities Council has had a long and productive relationship with the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage,” said Dr. Stuart Rockoff, executive director of the Mississippi Humanities Council. “Working together with the Humanities Council and the Department of Archives and History, the Center has been in the forefront of ensuring that the voices of our state’s people, both famous and little known, have been preserved for future generations. The oral history collection they have amassed is an extraordinary resource for the citizens of Mississippi and beyond.”

Learn more about the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage by visiting www.usm.edu/oralhistory.