Interview by Sterling Eason
Often described as “the first kind of history,” oral histories pass on knowledge, memory, and experience by word of mouth. They are a way of gathering, recording, and preserving a diverse range of personal experiences that generally are not well documented. In addition, they provide a voice for those who would otherwise be 'hidden from history.' The nature of oral history makes them an excellent primary source for people wanting to discover the impact events had on the people alive and involved
In December of 2021, The Echo Project launched the first phase of our Oral Histories initiative. Our goal is to document and convey the experience of those in the Laurens County community who felt the burden of racial hatred due to the presence of “The Redneck Shop and World’s Only Klan Museum.” In addition to using these oral histories as a part of our physical exhibitions, their findings will play an essential role in engaging our community and beyond.
Leading our project are Dr. Nicholas Gaffney, Director of the Center for African American Studies at USC Upstate, and Dr. Vernon Burton, the Judge Matthew J. Perry Distinguished Chair of History and Professor of Pan-African Studies, Sociology and Anthropology, and Computer Science at Clemson University.
Recently, we sat down with Dr. Nicholas Gaffney to talk about the project and why oral histories are so critical to understanding the effects of overt hatred and racism in our community.
Why conduct oral histories?
Regarding history, we generally have to rely on other people’s decisions who came before us as to what's worthy of saving. Essentially, that makes up the bulk of the historical record that we're able to pull from. If you look in the broader sense in which individuals have a chance to speak in the historical record, there's a bias there. You have a Thomas Jefferson, who has a research collection; you have Barack Obama and even Dizzy Gillespie, who have had the chance to have their voices and material saved and preserved. However, there are not a lot of opportunities for ordinary people to speak into the historical record. So oral histories played a critical role in filling those gaps.
How do you approach these interviews so that people feel comfortable sharing?
It boils down to forming a relationship with a subject as quickly as possible and creating a safe space. But the interview is the last step in a longer process. The first step involves getting together and just talking–building a rapport so that by the time you sit down for the actual interview, this person knows you a bit. You share your background, interests, and what you're trying to understand through their experiences. You want to have a relationship by the time you sit down for the actual interview.
Tell me about that process of how do you create the questions for a successful oral history project?
One of the most critical parts is developing the question set. That involves gathering as much contextualizing background information or research as humanly possible. It is what will help you ask the right follow-up questions. The art of all history interviewing is how to navigate the follow-up question to make the most out of what they're sharing.
In this project, we gather the stories of the effects of experiences people had in response to The Redneck Shop in Laurens. The overall goal is to understand how to build a better future as it relates to diversity and inclusion.
Why do you think taking oral histories is essential for TEP?
First, you have to make people comfortable about talking about race. And I think one of the challenges is that we're trained–African White Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans– to move to their separate sides of the room. And so I think, by taking an approach that talks about the effect on people can begin to bridge people together and build lines of empathy.
Why do you say The Echo Project Oral Histories initiative is a win-win-win?
First, our goal at USC Upstate is to be a community-engaged university. This project is one of those avenues to build relationships with community organizations.
Secondly, what we're doing with this project is bringing direct value to the community by exposing the stories and how people felt.
And lastly, it benefits the students who are working on the project overall–providing them with professional experience and skills that will translate across the board regardless of their career path.
For more information about The Echo Project Oral Histories initiative and how you can support our work, email us at email@example.com