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Workshop promotes preserving history in Greenville

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Participants listen to a presentation on recording oral histories by National Park Services historian Lu Ann Jones at Joyner Library Friday morning.


Jennifer Bridgers
For The Daily Reflector

Monday, February 18, 2019

An effort to document the history of a Greenville community erased by an urban redevelopment project has spawned a workshop series to engage more people in collecting oral histories.

East Carolina University’s Joyner Library held its first two sessions aimed at arming participants with the skills and tools to conduct accurate and thorough interviews that will preserve stories for posterity.

"Now, we're really trying to expand and document the entire Greenville community and beyond," said Heather White, director of library project development. "So, we're hoping by offering these free workshops, we can really engage community members to assist us in that endeavor."

White said the effort is a direct result of a project to preserve the history of Sycamore Hill Missionary Baptist Church, which once stood on what is now the northwest corner of the Greenville Town Common. A redevelopment project forced the congregation to abandon the building and residents of the surrounding Shore Drive neighborhood to move.

The city of Greenville now is building a monument on the church site that will serve as a gateway to the Town Common and offer the histories of the church and people who lived there.

White said the workshops last week and upcoming sessions are a part of the North Carolina Humanities Council Large Grant that Joyner Library received for the Sycamore Hill project.

Lu Ann Jones, a former ECU professor who now works with the National Parks Service, led a session at the Lucile Gorham Intergenerational Center in west Greenville on Thursday and one at the library on Friday.

Jones has worked on several large oral history projects including the Southern Oral History program at UNC Chapel Hill and the History of Southern Agriculture project with the National Museum of American History.

She donated her time last week because she thinks oral history is an important tool, she said.

"It's more than a casual conversation," said Jones. "[I want to] help people discipline their enthusiasm that they bring to the oral history process so that the interviews are done well and that the interviews will have life beyond the actual interviews themselves."

The workshop focused on the entire oral history process as well as interview and documentation skills. The main point the workshop drove home was the importance oral history and why it needs to be a part of every history related project.

Both Jones and White agree that oral history gives a voice to the voiceless and helps preserve stories of minority communities.

"I think one of the things oral history does is allow us to get multiple perspectives," said Jones. "The archives historically has weighed in favor of certain people — people who could write, people who had the time to write, the skills to write."

Several participants already had experience documenting oral history in projects including documenting the Louisiana rodeo circuit and the stories of indigenous communities in the Pacific during World War II.

Jennifer McKinnon, as associate professor with ECU's Department of History in Maritime Studies, said she came to listen to an expert in a skill she uses frequently in her work.

"I use oral history in my research," said McKinnon. "So, it's great to be able to come and see somebody who's an expert in the field and brush up on some of my techniques and also learn from some other folks, too."

Kristin O'Lear, a graduate student in ECU's Department of History, attended the workshop to learn more about a method of documentation that she could use when working on her thesis, and later on in her professional career.

"It was very informative and I think it really helps tailor my professional goals," said O'Lear. "[It] really adds depth to what I want to do and add that as an element to future research."

Upcoming workshops at the library will focus on genealogy, taught by Jennifer Daugherty from 10 to noon on March 23, and a digital humanities workshop taught by Ann Whistant from 10 a.m. to noon on April 27.