Ashelee @ OHA in Baltimore

It’s been a couple of week since I attended the Oral History Association’s annual conference in Baltimore and it was maybe-probably one of the best conferences I have had the pleasure of attending.
I started my conference with an oral history project planning workshop, “What Does Done Look Like?” The workshop was co-led by Doug Boyd, director of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky, and Jen Cramer, director of the T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History at Louisiana State University. After an icebreaker interview with a post-doc from Connecticut, my workshop cohort listened to the facilitators guide us through a project planning tool kit. We learned the three stages of an oral history project, along with the considerations regarding available resources. Different examples of ‘done’ included repositories, exhibits, podcasts, and writings in peer-reviewed journals. Some interesting topics that were mentioned during the workshop were how to protect oral histories from AI software like ChatGPT and how to consider interviewees who are delivering stories that are linked to trauma they may have experienced.

The sessions and panels started early the following day and there were dozens of interesting topics and projects and a few of my favorites are detailed below:

African American History and Activism: Oral History Considerations, Questions, and Conundrums Carmen Bolt, Robert D. Jiles, and Donelle Boose
Using scholarship and honest historical story telling as activism, Donnelle Boose highlighted her work with HumanitiesDC in creating a series of podcast episodes with former civil rights activist, Sister Koko. Leading with activism, Boose emphasized avoiding neutrality in her work as a Black Studies professor at Randolph-Macon College. As a former DC resident, I was interested in Carmen Bolt’s work with the Smithsonian’s Oral History Project that uses an environment justice framework to approach curating community oral histories. Bolt addressed questions about shared authority and power dynamics in oral history projects and how to ethically handle these relationships but also encourage individuals to share their stories for posterity and the benefit of users. . I was also informed of Robert D. Jiles’ work with the African American descendant community of Section 14 in Palm Springs. I visited Pal Springs once and never thought about the minorities who were doing a lot the domestic and service work during the resort development phase of the city. His work brought up a lot of questions and problems that arise when people who would have a living memory of events are no longer alive and the adventures of using municipal records to confirm events communicated through generational storytelling. At the end questions of institutional rights to oral histories in addition to trust and relationship building provided for a lively Q&A discussion.

Building Sustainable Oral History Projects in Higher Education Elissa Stroman, Kristen Diehl, Abra Schnur, and Kopana Terry
This panel was of heavy interest to attendants from large and small organizations. Presenters discussed developing infrastructure for oral history programs at their respective institutions. It was illuminating to find out how many institutions have dedicated oral historians and related positions for managing different parts of oral history components – indexers, transcribers, interviewers, and program directors. Attendants learned about different ways to preserve and oral histories in addition to the different levels of access that can be provided to not only protect the integrity of the materials but also, the donor’s preference for user access. Hosting platforms like the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer, TheirStory, and Our Story were frequently mentioned. A really neat feature of OHMS is that interviews can be indexed and timestamped for better subject searchability. I also learned about different transcription software such as, TRINT, and Whisper from Open AI which is supposed to be “a gamechanger”.

Expanding the Narrative at William & Mary: Oral History, Descendant Communities, and Liberatory Pedagogy Andre L Taylor, Tonia Meredith, Jajuan S Johnson

The theme of the conference was oral histories as education in and beyond the classroom, so I enjoyed hearing Jajuan Johnson talk about his work with students and community members on The Lemon Project at William & Mary. He discussed the history of the Mellon-Grant funded project and how oral histories provide historical context where archival materials are missing. Johnson spoke about partnerships with students and coaching them through developing their own research agendas to engage and collaborate with pockets of descendant communities proximal to the college. The Lemon Project is a great example of the connections between archives, communities, history, and education.

Culture Keepers Oral History Project: National Lessons with Regional Distinctions Kami LaShae Fletcher, Sarah Peralta, James Morgan III, and Cat Ton
Presenters’ projects were about Black funeral traditions and the impact of COVID-19 on Black funerary practices. They interviewed Black funeral home directors and death workers. One of the presenters was a former classmate of mine from undergrad who presented on the relationship between Prince Hall Freemasonry and Black funeral rites and traditions in the Midwest. I also learned from his work, the political and economic influence of the Prince Hall Masons during Reconstruction. Other interesting points of discussion brought up were, new funeral practices in response to the Pandemic, Black women becoming the future of mortuary science, identifying death-care work as community service and a civic duty, and self-care for death-workers during not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but to cope through other community problems like high gun violence.

Memory Health and the Passage of Time (abridged)– Raina Croff

  • Sharing History through Active Reminiscence and Photo-imagery (SHARP Study)
  • Impacts of gentrification on cognitive and mental health.
  • Neighborhood as a memory storehouse is impacted by environmental change
  • African Americans are at a disproportionate risk for memory decline but are a vastly understudied population in clinical trials
  • Participants go on memory walks in groups of three and stop at memory markers and look at historical images to reminisce and talk about their experience with a place during a specific time in their life.

Other sessions of note that I wish I could have attended.

  • Diversifying Bourbon: The Women in Bourbon Oral History Project
  • From Farm to Table: Oral Histories from Black American Farmers and Cooks as Pedagogy

Overall, my experience at my first OHA meeting was both inspiring and informative. Meeting so many practitioners from different types of organizations and institutions was a highlight of the conference. I learned about research frameworks, identifying a purpose and deliverables among other considerations when developing oral history projects. I was also made aware of useful tools for managing and sustaining projects and I am now considering all the smaller communities within the larger Wake Forest community who have plenty of interesting stories to tell that I hope will be shared.