Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage Building on 50 Years of Capturing Mississippi’s Story
Thu, 05/05/2022 - 11:57am | By: David Tisdale
The University of Southern Mississippi’s (USM) Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage (COHCH) marked 50 years of oral history education at the school during 2021-2022, as it continues its work documenting the story of the Magnolia State through the voices of its people.
The USM COHCH is one of the oldest active oral history programs in the nation with a collection of approximately 5,000 audio and video interviews and remains the most relevant repository of the state's history as told by Mississippians from all walks of life. The major events of the 20th century, as well as the triumphs, tragedies, and tedium of everyday life, are preserved by the Center for future generations.
As defined by the Oral History Association, oral history is a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events. Oral history is both the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word, and one of the most modern, initiated with tape recorders in the 1940s and now using 21st-century digital technologies.
“I'm so proud to sit in the director's chair during this historic time for the Center,” said Dr. Kevin Greene, associate professor of history and current director for the COHCH. “The USM COHCH has blazed a path in the world of professional oral history for five decades, and its collections hold their own against any other across the country.”
Dr. Greene noted that one of the joys of the anniversary year was the design and execution of an oral history project with former directors and staff members, “whose tireless efforts and brilliant work have helped make the Center what it is today.”
“Of course, the history pulled from the collections is remarkable, but the Center, too, has its own incredible story as an institution within USM,” Dr. Greene continued. “Fifty years strong, the Center is yet again on the cusp of making some serious noise in the world of oral history and I can't wait to see how it unfolds.”
The COHCH traces its origin to the university’s oral history program that began in 1971, which launched the Center’s vast collection of interviewees sharing their experiences ranging from the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, military combat in multiple wars and conflicts around the globe to surviving Hurricanes Camille and Katrina. Others include stories of Mississippi food ways, rural life, and local, state and national politics, among many more.
"Over the past half-century, the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage has been documenting and preserving the lives of Mississippians, from civil rights workers to military veterans,” said USM Professor of History Dr. Heather Stur, who served as co-director for the center along with Dr. Greene from 2015-2017. “The collections literally give voice to Mississippi history and allow Mississippians to tell the stories of our state in their own words."
Jerra Runnels, a master’s degree student in the USM History program, said the Center’s collection of interviews has been an invaluable resource for research on her thesis, which looks at Hattiesburg during World War II and the role of Black women in the community. Runnels was enrolled in Dr. Greene’s oral history seminar (HIS 785) during the spring 2022 semester.
“We are so fortunate to have the collection at USM. Many times, primary sources are difficult to locate, and I have found many oral histories in the collection that not only gave me essential information but ideas for other sources,” Runnels noted. “Having these stories and experiences allows historians to use multiple sources to understand the past.
“Accessibility to sources is crucial to historical research,” Runnels said. “Thankfully, USM's oral histories are mostly digitized, with both the audio file and transcript available. Having both is critical to understanding the information, and Ross Walton and Stephanie DeArmey (current staff members with COHCH) at the Center do a great job of working to make the collection available.”
Runnels also expressed gratitude to Dr. Greene for his help with suggestions on where to find interviews in the collection that have helped with her research. “Having just completed my graduate seminar class in oral history, I have learned about doing oral histories and the importance of oral histories as sources,” she explained. “Dr. Greene was a great professor, showing us ways to get the best interview as we worked on our projects. These skills are important to those of us receiving our Public History certificate with plans of working in oral history.”
Origin of USM oral history education
The original oral history program at the university was formed in the spring of 1971, under the policy direction of the Mississippi Oral History Committee, which included Dr. William D. McCain, Dr. R.C. Cook, Dr. Claude Fike, Dr. Jack Smith, Dr. John Gonzales, Dr. Neil McMillen, Dr. William H. Hatcher, Dr. Ray Skates (co-chair), Dr. Stanford Gwin (co-chair), and Dr. D.C. Williams. The first completed oral history volume of interviews was with Turner Catledge, a native Mississippian who became executive editor of the New York Times. The oral history program then transitioned to the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage in 1996.
Past directors and co-directors of the then USM Oral History Program and now COHCH include:
- Orley B. Caudill (founding director of the original oral history program)
- Dr. Chester M. “Bo” Morgan (director from fall 1984-spring 1991)
- Dr. Charles C. Bolton (director from fall 1991-spring 2003)
- Dr. Curtis Austin and Dr. Stephen Sloan served alternately as directors and co-directors from 2003-2008.
- Dr. Louis Kyriakoudes (director from 2008-2015)
- Dr. Heather Stur (co-director with Dr. Kevin Greene 2015-2017)
- Dr. Kevin Greene (2015-current director)
The Center has 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.
In recent years, the Center has secured grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) 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.
For more than 20 years, the Center has worked with the Mississippi Humanities Council and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in the Mississippi Oral History Project (MOHP), funded by the Mississippi state legislature. The project 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 Cultural Heritage, and local communities and organizations document and preserve local history and culture.
Mississippi Moments, an award-winning weekly radio program that airs on Mississippi Public Broadcasting (MPB), is another partnership between the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage and the Mississippi Humanities Council that includes MPB. Content for the program, produced by COHCH Sound Engineer Ross Walton, comes directly from the Center’s vast collection of interesting and entertaining stories. Hosted by Bill Ellison, the program airs Monday - Friday at 12:30 p.m. on MPB Radio. Listeners can hear about Freedom Summer, the Piney Woods, music, food and other aspects of the history and culture of the Magnolia State found in the Center’s collection of interviews.
Mississippi Moments is also a podcast available for download from the Center’s website at http://www.usm.edu/oral-history/mississippi-moments, by visiting its podcast page at MississippiMoments.org , or liking the Center’s Facebook page. It can also be accessed by downloading episodes from iTunes or Spotify.
Former directors of the COHCH also weighed in with their reflections on the Center reaching a milestone anniversary:
Dr. Chester “Bo” Morgan:
“It’s hard to believe the COHCH’s roots go back half a century,” said Dr. Morgan, who also served most recently as University Historian and History program faculty member prior to his retirement from USM in 2019. “What was then known simply as the Mississippi Oral History Program was barely a decade old when I became director in 1982. It has since grown into one of the world’s leading resource centers for scholarly research, especially concerning civil rights history.
“It is rewarding to think that our staff in the 1980s made a small contribution to that development by redirecting what had been a largely scattershot interview process into one more project-oriented.”
Dr. Charles “Chuck” Bolton:
“When I came to USM in 1990, the oral history program was called the Mississippi Oral History Program,” said Dr. Bolton, a USM alumnus who is now associate dean and professor of history in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “It was fairly well established and primarily focused on collecting and preserving oral histories. What existed when I came was wonderful in many ways: a lot of interviews had been recorded, and the collection had a great deal of breadth--people from all walks of life had been interviewed.
“With the help of a wonderful assistant director, Shana Walton, who I hired soon after I arrived, we were able to continue that core work of oral history documentation but also take on new tasks, primarily in developing public programming and educational materials based on the rich collection of oral source material. As a result, we convinced the administration to change our name to one that reflected our new mission (the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage).
“The many new initiatives of the Center included a radio documentary series that aired on Mississippi’s statewide public radio network; exhibits, including one that debuted at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival; and a biannual, live radio show, ‘Roots Reunion,’ that featured the traditional music of Mississippi and was broadcast on the USM campus radio station. The last two programs were made possible because of a major grant we received from the National Endowment for the Arts, which led to the creation of the Pine Hills Culture Program within the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage. We hired Carolyn Ware, a folklorist, to direct this program and she created most of the wonderful programming of the Pine Hills Culture Program. The radio documentary series was “Mississippi Voices: A Trip through the Twentieth Century," a 26-part radio series, which aired on Mississippi Public Radio between November 1998 and March 1999 (the latter transitioning to the radio program Mississippi Moments).”
Major projects that took place during Dr. Bolton’s tenure as director include:
*Stennis Space Center History Project, funded by NASA, 1991-2005. This project set up and maintained a history archive at the John C. Stennis Space Center and conducted an oral history project to document the creation and development of the south Mississippi NASA facility.
*Civil Rights Documentation Project, 1997-1999, funded by the Mississippi Legislature and the Mississippi Humanities Council. The Project was done in collaboration with the Tougaloo College Archives. This project led to a nationwide survey to create an online bibliography of existing oral histories about the Mississippi civil rights movement; the recording and preservation of new interviews in several Mississippi communities; and the development of an interactive CD-ROM about the Mississippi movement, which was distributed to Mississippi secondary schools (at that time, the CD-ROM was a cutting-edge technology).
*Mississippi Oral History Program, 1999-2000, funded through a $500,000 line-item appropriation from the Mississippi Legislature. This project was done in collaboration with the Mississippi Humanities Council. This first phase of funding launched a statewide oral history program that created community-based oral history projects in five locations across the state of Mississippi.
*In the late 1990s, the USM oral history program was one of the first in the country to put oral history transcripts on the internet.
“The oral history program at USM is a real gem; it provides first-hand testimony about so many of the events and personalities that make up the story of Mississippi in the 20th century and into the 21st century,” Dr. Bolton continued. “It is an important resource for historians and anyone else interested in understanding the recent history of the state.”
Dr. Stephen Sloan
Under Dr. Sloan, the Center conducted an interview project focused on the impact of Hurricane Katrina; other projects included continued management of the Roots Reunion program and working with Mississippi Public Broadcasting on Mississippi Moments, Defenders of Freedom, and Mississippi Veterans Speak); Dr. Sloan was also program chair for a meeting of the Mississippi Historical Society.
The Center produced significant content for Mississippi History Now during Dr. Sloan’s tenure. Other efforts while he served as director included interview projects with the Mississippi Wildlife Federation, Jones County, Mississippi Armed Forces Museum and Mississippi National Guard (on 155th Brigade Combat Team returning from Iraq), Hattiesburg Clinic, legacy of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Mobile Bouie Neighborhood Oral History Project, Turkey Creek Community Oral History Project, and the Community Bridges Oral History Project in Biloxi, among others.
“The Center is the voice of Mississippi’s history over the last few generations, covering a variety of topics that well represent the diversity of voices and experiences of the people of the state,” said Dr. Sloan, who now serves as director of the Institute for Oral History at Baylor University. “The Center is very special, and I am honored that part of my career could intersect with its great work.”
Dr. Louis Kyriakoudes
Dr. Kyriakoudes said serving as director of the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage was one of the most satisfying phases of his career. Upon being named director in the summer of 2008, he said he felt a deep sense of responsibility to try to live up the high standards of the outstanding directors who preceded him.
“COHCH has been led by impressive scholars: Orley Caudill, founding director; Chester Morgan, Charles Bolton, Stephen Sloan, and Curtis Austin set high bars for excellence,” Dr. Kyriakoudes continued. “The Center represents 50 years of skilled and dedicated work capturing the life stories of Mississippians from all walks of life. It represents an incalculable resource for the people of Mississippi.”
Dr. Kyriakoudes stepped away as head of the COHCH when he left USM in May 2015 to run the Albert Gore Research Center at MTSU. He said during his tenure with the USM COHCH, four projects stand out as especially meaningful.
“First and foremost was the COHCH’s long-standing commitment to recording the stories of veterans of Mississippi’s Civil Rights Movement. This had long been a priority of the COHCH, and its oral histories with Mississippi’s civil rights leaders and activists are unequalled. We conducted an extensive project on participants in the Biloxi Beach Wade In movement, an early 1960s effort to desegregate the beaches of Harrison County led by the late Dr. Gilbert Mason. Also, we conducted interviews in Holmes County, Mississippi, an important site for civil rights protest in the 1960s. This also led to the McCain Library and Archives acquiring the extensive papers of Sue Lorenzi Sojourner, who lived in Holmes County in the 1960s. When we commemorated the 50th anniversary of Freedom summer, we were able to conduct many interviews with civil rights veterans who had come to Hattiesburg for the commemoration.”
The second project he noted was a commitment to digitizing older interviews on audio tape and expanding online access to the Center’s oral histories. When Dr. Kyriakoudes became director, few of the center’s oral histories were available online.
“Getting the Center’s interviews migrated from fragile audio tape to digital formats and accessible online was my number one goal,” he said, and was able to accomplish that in 2014 when he won a major National Endowment for the Humanities Grant to digitize and published online 700-plus civil rights oral histories. “I’m proud to have played a role in making these oral histories available or anyone with access to the internet.”
The third project was documentation of the history of the seafood industry along the northern Gulf Coast. “During my 18 years at USM, I lived on the coast in Bay St Louis. I’m an avid marine fisher and sailor,” Dr. Kyriakoudes noted. “I was always interested in preserving the history of Mississippi’s marine harvesters, fishers, and seafood workers.” He won funding for a history of the design and implementation of Turtle Excluder Devices, which are attached to shrimp nets and allow marine mammals and turtles to escape the shrimpers nets while retaining the harvest of shrimp. “We found that shrimper’s experience was critical to designing and adopting these devices,” Dr. Kyriakoudes said.
That project led to a major research effort to document the impact of the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. A major grant from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) funded an 18-month study of marine harvesters and seafood workers all along the northern Gulf Coast. “My students and staff interviewed dozens of shrimpers, crabbers, oyster harvesters, and seafood processors about how the oil spill had impacted them and the fishery.”
The fourth is one Dr. Kyriakoudes says he’s especially proud of – his work with Mississippi Moments. “I had inherited this high-quality oral history radio program, and my role was to put it on a sustainable basis with a steady source of funding and to hire Ross Walton, a skilled producer who continues to create this program to this very day. This program continues to connect the people of Mississippi with their history through its statewide radio broadcasts over Mississippi Public Broadcasting.”
Linda VanZandt, former managing editor
Linda VanZandt, former managing editor for the Center under directors Dr. Sloan and Dr. Kyriakoudes, said the Center’s 50 years of collecting and sharing the stories of Mississippians represents a significant achievement. Reflecting on her time at the Center (2004-2013), she says she appreciates how earlier, important projects on the civil rights movement and with veterans of war inspired her work expanding the diversity of voices through recording life histories with Sudanese Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Vietnamese Americans of the Gulf Coast, who survived the trauma of war, leaving their homeland, Hurricane Katrina, and the BP oil spill disaster.
“For myself and my Center colleagues, learning to interview post-crisis, immediately after two of the greatest disasters in U.S. history, was challenging and it was new territory for the practice of oral history,” VanZandt said. “We were all deeply impacted during the telling of these stories, amazed at the resilience and courage of those we interviewed, and grateful for the funding of these ambitious projects.
“Much of my work (and the Center’s) was also supported by the Mississippi Humanities Council, allowing time and funds for me to travel the state and region building community outreach, conducting training, planning events, producing CDs featuring our collection, and many other initiatives connecting communities with the university and our work. In the process, it was evident that oral history is not just past history. It’s past, present, and future. It was important I ask myself, ‘How can this be empowering and transformative for narrators and those who will hear their stories?’ because I had seen firsthand the power of connection for individuals and communities sharing their stories.”
“Every one of the approximately 5,000 recorded interviews are forever imprinted with its own special strengths and character – the dedication and empathy of the interviewer, the courage and willing reflection of the narrator, the joining together in a journey into the depths of dialogue and memories perhaps unanticipated,” Van Zandt said. “To have served as an interviewer and also a trainer, managing editor, special projects director, and everyday partner with a team of gifted colleagues for a decade was one of the great honors of my life.”
Bill Ellison, the voice of Mississippi Moments, says in his 50 years of work in radio, he’s been associated with many programs and features, but gets as many questions and positive comments concerning the program as any he’s been a part of.
“I’m told that some Mississippi Moments program segments make listeners proud to be Mississippians,” Ellison continued. “Others fill in the blanks for unfamiliar details of our state’s history. What a treasure trove the center had the foresight to preserve.”
Stephanie Millet, Ross Walton
In addition to his sound engineer duties, Walton also serves the center as a researcher, writer, producer of Mississippi Moments and audio CDs, and narrator.
In 2008, after spending 20 years in retail and marketing, Walton returned to USM to pursue a degree in creative writing. After successfully completing his first semester, he reached out to the COHCH about volunteer opportunities, intrigued by the possibilities in its collection. The Center's director at the time, Dr. Kyriakoudes, offered him a job he found so fulfilling that it compelled him to stay on long after attaining his degree.
Preserving, promoting, and growing the Center’s collection has proved rewarding in many ways, he says.
“Because the Center has collected broadly, I am always discovering new and interesting things about our state and her people,” Walton continued. “As the producer of Mississippi Moments, it would be impossible for me to come up with fresh ideas each week without having such a wide variety of topics from which to choose. After 689 episodes and counting, I can assure you we have only made a small dent in the number of stories available to share.”
While digitizing tapes and producing public-facing content has constituted the bulk of Walton’s efforts so far, he also been fortunate to work as an interviewer on several projects. Of these, the history of the Waveland Fire Department and the Holiday Inn Oral History Project have been two of his favorites.
“I’m also interested in helping train future oral historians and aspiring documentarians on the best standards and practices as prescribed by the Oral History Association. I believe our mission moving forward should include the role of incubator for future public historians. It seems a natural progression in our evolution as a vibrant, oral history trendsetter.”
Walton says the foresight of the Center's founders to begin documenting the stories of the Civil Rights Movement so soon after desegregation--while memories were still fresh and raw—“never ceases to amaze me. “And our military veterans collection, covering every conflict from WW I to today, is unsurpassed in breadth, depth and relevance,” he continued. “Our collection is a crowning jewel, that the University and the entire state, should wear with pride.”
An interview with famed Mississippi-born comedian Jerry Clower stands out among Walton’s list of favorites in the Center’s vast collection. “It’s hard to pick just one, but I have to say that Jerry Clower’s is certainly one of them,” he said. “He was such a decent man who just loved this state and humanity in general. And of course, he’s just so entertaining you can’t help but smile.”
DeArmey’s work with the Center includes interviewing; transcription of interviews; sending transcripts out to interviewees for review and making changes as requested by the interviewee; writing tables of contents and biographies; proofreading; having interviews bound; making copes available to the interviewee; and archiving copies at the Center as well as with USM Archives. She also trains others to conduct interviews, and edits and archives the Center’s backlog of transcribed interviews.
“Our COHCH is a storehouse of Mississippi’s people’s life experiences throughout time,” DeArmey said. “We have been visited and called by authors, students, researchers, and institutions, including those who helped shape Mississippi’s Civil Rights Museum, all needing to find data or stories or sound bites, all needing to use our public history recordings and transcripts, to further understanding events that shape our lives.”
“As we contemplate the 50th anniversary of the Center, I’m thinking back to when I started in 1998 on the Civil Rights Documentation Project, which recorded, transcribed, bound, and archived interviews with civil rights activists throughout Mississippi, After earning my bachelor’s degree in Family Life Studies, I had worked at Southern Miss about 10 years on grants from the U.S. Department of Education, the last of which created an institute on the prevention of hate crimes, where I got my first education on civil rights in Mississippi. When the grant applications were no longer available, I turned my skills to the COHCH.”
DeArmey has worked on numerous projects for the COHCH, but some of her favorites are Mississippi’s Longleaf Legacy Oral History Project (OHP), Hurricane Katrina OHP, Deepwater Horizon Oil Disaster/NOAA Voices from the Fisheries OHP, and the Two Mississippi Museums OHP.
“Working at the COHCH hasn’t felt much like work. Over the years I have conducted oral histories, transcribed and edited them, and archived them; taught many others to conduct oral history; met with legislators, MHC, MDAH, and those who use our collection, collaborating with them to preserve and make available public history,” she continued. “Several plays and exhibits have resulted in these collaborations; students from the U.S. and Canada have participated in service learning by collaborating with us.
“Every oral history I hear pulls me in, and I engage in another person’s story; I really can get lost in them and find a ‘time out of time’ moment. I have enjoyed it, and I think preserving these personal and public histories is important. We want to leave a legacy that gives others a window into the past.”
Learn more about the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage by visiting www.usm.edu/oralhistory.