History woven story by story


Earlier this week, U.S. Army Reserves Brig. Gen. LeAnne Pittman Burch of Monticello told a local group of aging veterans to “tell your story” as part of a Veterans Day program at Trinity Village. Burch’s encouragement could not be more timely or important.

All that we know is a history of one kind or another. Most of human history is a fabric woven one person’s experiences and observations at a time. Lose a voice and our collective fabric misses a thread. Lose enough voices and our fabric becomes dotted with holes.

Even though individuals might not consider their stories to be vital or even interesting, Burch reminded the group that every story is uniquely important in the cause of keeping experiences of war-time sacrifices alive. She added that future generations need more than a brief history book or web accounts of wars to truly “feel” their impact.

Again, the soldier hit her mark. Moreover, her bid to have old soldiers spin their yarns is not without precedent. There have been several important personal narrative history projects over the last hundred years.

Perhaps the best-known of these projects was the Works Progress Administration program, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938. Housed at the Library of Congress, Born in Slavery offers more than 2,300 typewritten narratives comprising over 9,500 page images with searchable text and bibliographic records, and more than 500 photographs of former slaves with links to their corresponding narratives.

Deep in the Great Depression between 1936 and 1938, the WPA Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) sent out-of-work writers in 17 states to interview ordinary people and write down their life stories. At first, only four states involved in the project (Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia) focused on collecting the stories of people who had once been held in slavery. In 1937, the remaining states involved in the project were included. Often making multiple visits to people’s homes, federal field workers were given instructions on what kinds of questions to ask their informants and how to capture their dialects.

The documents were organized by state, and then alphabetically by name of informant within each state. They were published in 1941 in 17 bound volumes under the title Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.

Imagine what we would have lost had this project not taken place. Imagine what we stand to lose if today’s elderly veterans’ stories are not similarly recorded.

Of course, one need not go through a great travail to have an interesting and worthwhile story. An ongoing project by the non-profit organization, StoryCorps, has as its mission to collect the musings and memories of the average American. According to the organization’s website, “Our mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives.

Since 2003, StoryCorps has collected and archived more than 40,000 interviews from nearly 80,000 participants. Each conversation is recorded on a free CD to share, and is preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. StoryCorps is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind.”

For a sample of the often unusual and inspiring stories they collect, you can take a listen at http://storycorps.org/listen/.

Featured recently are tales like the one told by Army National Guard Specialist Justin Cliburn. We hear as Cliburn tells his wife, Deanne, about Ali, the young Iraqi he befriended during his service in Iraq: “We were as close as people who don’t speak the same language can be.”

We listen to a poignant family journey as Priya Morganstern and Bhavani Jaroff interview their father, Ken Morganstern, who has Alzheimer’s disease. They pose a simple question, “What’s your life like now, Dad?”

Regular people telling stories about things great and small — this is American history at its finest.