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Oral History: A Family’s Legacy

posted Aug 24, 2012, 7:34 PM by David Burkhart   [ updated Nov 14, 2013, 4:16 PM ]
Everyone who knows me knows I’m big on oral history. I like to hear people talk about their families, and I enjoy writing down what they say. Just today, a lady shared her experience as an eight year old student. A sudden hail storm came up when she was having class in a one room wooden schoolhouse. The wind was so strong, it blew the structure off its foundation and the school landed on the front door trapping the children inside. While hail pummeled, the sky was as dark as night and everything became chaotic. It was a fascinating story of survival by a young female teacher about seventeen years old and her twenty-two pupils. 
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Personal histories are valuable to individuals, families, and the world. It connects people to their present day kin, as well as to their ancestors. It’s a point of pride and of support for future generations. 

But what about recording oral history? When taped or written down, it isn’t oral anymore. Right! But in modern times we’ve come so far in technology that people are not listening to talking anymore. My mother used to talk about attending protracted church meetings where attendees loved hearing the sermons. Politicians stood on stumps, on courthouse steps, and anywhere else there was a place to plant two feet. And, people came to hear them talk. It wasn’t unusual for citizens to hear both sides of an issue at the same meeting. It was a convenience. Voters could decide which person and which party offered the most. 

Time was when families were sure that one or more of their children memorized the family history through repetition year after year, knowing that would insure the family memories as an on-going or living history. That was not an American tradition. It was brought by every race who immigrated. Family by family, the Germans, Italians, Spanish, Poles, Asians, Africans, Lebanese, Syrians, Hungarians, and Russians kept their family’s culture and history alive through talking and storytelling. It became important to cherish the ways of the Old World in the New World.

Oral tellings of family concerns, successes, religion, superstitions, and migrations from original home lands are as old as time. Yet in the 2000s, they are as endangered as anything could be. In 2000, my book, "Voices of America: The Crystal Coast", created a great deal of interest as it featured residents of the North Carolina coast who were descendents of original 1700s families. The family stories were framed by native voices, as the stories came forth.
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Writing down what was once passed on orally has been my way of preserving talking, including old tales, history, family values, and anecdotes. Technology has changed the oral passing of talking in a way that was not dreamed of twenty-five years ago. That’s when people were still speaking to each other. They visited neighbors and hung around after church to share a covered dish dinner. That’s when people exchanged news, weather information, discussed child care, and talked about the best time to plant corn and ‘taters. They taught their children how to plant crops, take care of animals, gather berries, cook, take care of children, and prepare herbal cures.

Our elders brought all of this into the twentieth century through talking. Without them these lessons and much history would have been lost. It’s as simple as the fact that communities were isolated by transportation. Cutting roads through mountain communities was difficult. Therefore, small communities were close knit. These relationships might determine who married, what church groups were formed, best crops, and local language.

For instance in Ashland, North Carolina farmers considered raising turkeys as important as any cash crop. Other communities put importance on growing and drying burley tobacco, or cabbage, or cane that was processed into molasses. 

I captured voices of North Carolina tale tellers including their remembrances and family traditions in my book, "Voices from the North Carolina Mountains: Appalachian Oral Histories". The talkers offered valuable information about their neighborhoods, their parents and grandparents, and how things were done the old way before electricity was introduced into the ridges and valleys.

Purchase Voices of America: The Crystal Coast from Amazon