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A Personal Case for the Power of Oral Histories

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A Personal Case for the Power of Oral Histories

Looking back at the hundreds of stories I wrote and edited for Southern Living Magazine, I realize now how much I wrote about the transformative, intergenerational benefits of oral history.  The following published excerpts are just a few examples:

1.  Oral Histories Build a Sense of Community / Passed Down Skills / Creative Heritage

Article: “Around the Quilt In Gee’s Bend,” Southern Living Magazine, 2005, by Majella Chube Hamilton

The women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama continue a time-honored tradition.  “In years past, as the Alabama hot sun took its rest every evening, generations of women from tenant farming families in rural Wilcox County gathered in a full circle around makeshift quilting frames.  There, at the end of a hard day’s work, they bonded through shared experiences.  There they created warm and vivid bed coverings for their families.”

“‘We were making those quilts, singing around them, laughing, and praying around them.  We learned around the quilt,’  according to quilter Arlonzia Pettway.”

“Today, these extraordinary women are reaping the rewards of a craft passed down from their ancestors.  Living in poverty without the benefit of education and isolated from the world at large by a God-given bend in the Alabama River southwest of Selma, they banded together to turn a simply joyful pastime into modern-day American art.”

“Since the late 1800’s, Gee’s Bend quilters have pieced together scraps of well-worn clothing to provide functional coverlets.  Today’s quilters-turned-artists, often compared with the great artists of the 20th century, follow the same vivid representation of design and color that are unique to their community, their skills, and the cultural techniques passed down though the years.”  “These women have sewn and sown the very fabric of a community, and we all reap the benefits from that labor of love.”


2.  Oral Histories Enhance a Legacy & Culture of Responsibility and Service

Article: “Southerners / Marian Wright Edelman,” Southern Living Magazine, 2006 by Majella Chube Hamilton

“If you are a parent, the inclination to protect your child is a personal one.  If you’re in the trenches, competing for resources to provide quality education, health care, or extracurricular programs, your fight on behalf of children is one of fairness.  If you work for poor or homeless families, your crusade is one of justice.  If you are Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), which advocates for the critical needs of all children, your fight is a formidable one.”

“Leave No Child Behind has served as her battle cry for nearly three decades.  Mrs. Edelman started CDF in 1973, and it maintains one goal-to ensure basic rights and necessities for all of America’s children…”

“This children’s advocate is first, a Southerner.  She was born in Bennettsville, South Carolina, the daughter of a Baptist minister and a resourceful mother – both role models in faith, integrity, and service.  The product of a segregated era, Mrs. Edelman bloomed during a time in our history when racial barriers were daily obstacles, when money was scarce but hearts were rich in spirit.  Her childhood resembles those of many African-American children during the Depression era, exposed to the realities of a prejudiced society, yet insulated from its devastating impact by a supportive community.”

“Marian Wright Edelman considers the work she does for America’s children just like the work of her parents did in Bennettsville for their community – just on a different scale. ‘We always knew who we were; that the measure of our worth was inside our heads and hearts and not outside in our possessions,” she writes in her book, The Measure of Our Success, ‘We were told… that being poor was not an excuse for not achieving; and that extra intellectual and material fits brought with them the privilege and responsibility of sharing with others less fortunate.  In sum, we learned that service is the rent we pay for living.’”


3.  Oral Histories Further Tradition, Set Expectations and Standards of Excellence

Article: “Windsor Jordan Caters to Tradition,” Southern Living Magazine, 2004, Majella Chube Hamilton

“In these times of keen competition and unlimited choices, it’s not just what you know, but who you know – and Atlanta-based caterer Windsor Jordan knows everybody.  In addition to a love of food and Southern culture, this tried-and-true culinary expert shares a storehouse of knowledge about barriers broken, the value of networking, and building on a tradition of success.”

“Windsor, the youngest son of Atlanta catering legend Mary Jordan and brother of Washington, D.C., businessman and political insider Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., carries forth their mother’s prized family recipes and her dogmatic assertiveness, disciplined initiative, social style, and strong work ethic.”

“Mary set the standard in the 1930’s when her savvy business sense, uncompromising perfectionism, constant drive, and extraordinary penchant for cooking let her down a path of social forays previously unexplored. ‘My mother served the food at the premier gala of Gone with the Wind at the Belle Air Building on Peachtree,’ Windsor explains. ‘Mary Jordan created the trail. She took the food industry by storm.  Food opened doors for her.’”

“Windsor says he and his brothers learned valuable lessons about attention to detail, planning strategically, and never underestimating the power of relationships.  Windsor, who says he caters more than 900 events a year, is well-known for enhancing Mary’s legendary menus with an updated twist.  He specializes in using diverse cultural influences and seasonings in his recipes, always blending unexpected flavors. ‘I’m fortunate that she left our family a solid legacy, and I share what I learned with my children and staff.’”


4.  Oral History Opens Minds, Builds Understanding and Diverse Perspectives

Article: “Past Meets Present at Williamsburg,” Southern Living Magazine, 2007 by Majella Chube Hamilton

“There’s always a story behind a story – especially at the country’s largest living-history museum.  Step back to 1774, and you’ll happen upon a pre-American Revolution street debate between patriot and loyalist neighbors.  Turn the corner, and you’ll witness enslaved residents whispering behind a shed about their plan of escape.  From choreographing protest meetings to scripting daily activities in the homes and businesses to tradespeople, Rex Ellis brings to life the stories behind the great events at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. ‘It’s the names, faces, personalities, and situations to residents endured that permit us to provide a human connection,” says Rex, vice president for Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s 301-acre Historic Area.”

“Rex knows how to measure success. ‘If we’ve challenged your thinking or changed your perspective,’ he says, ‘our mission of bringing real-life stories from the past to today’s audience is working.’”


Build Lasting Strategies of Community Impact 

For the past seven years in Birmingham, The Ballard House Project, Inc. staff have captured and documented oral histories from individuals and small groups and their memories of what life was like in the community, how people lived, worked, socialized, and served their community. The project is ongoing with plans to exhibit key educational elements from our digitized oral histories of individuals from a cross-section of the city.

Serving as a cultural think-tank, the Ballard House Project, Inc. endeavors to capture the past, gain a greater understanding of the individual and community challenges and opportunities, amid the real-life historical context and backdrop of the times. “If we are to properly understand the past, we have to try to understand what it meant for those who lived it.  We must try to place ourselves in their situation.”


Majella Chube Hamilton


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