Walk along High Street and you’ll see multiple historic buildings, such as the Hope Building at the corner of High and Madison which is over 175 years old. The story of our community is told through the buildings we choose to save and preserve. They are daily reminders of the history that occurred in that exact spot.
Historic buildings tell only one part of our city’s history which is why for over a decade Historic City of Jefferson has been collecting oral histories of our community. We are not the only ones to realize the importance of oral histories though.
Over the years, as technology has broadened home recording options, many families are choosing to record their own oral histories. Even businesses are conducting oral histories to record the story of both their founders as well as recollections of their employees. For example, imagine how much we could learn about our community if there had been an oral history project focused on one of the shoe factories that thrived in our town for decades.
Interestingly, oral history is both the oldest type of historical inquiry--predating the written word and relayed through time often via song--one of the most modern--beginning with tape recorders in the 1940s and not utilizing state-of-the art 21st century digital technologies.
Technically, oral historians define “oral history” an interview based on a guide or outline and recorded in a format that likely will last into the future. Recordings made without the awareness of the recording device, such as the Nixon tapes, do not classify as oral history.
Instead, oral histories should be planned interviews that will yield in-depth information—this applies to any individual you interview, whether it’s a member of the community or someone in your family. Ideally, the histories will be used to form a finished project that will be accessible in some manner to future generations.
In recent years, HCJ spent a number of hours collecting oral histories regarding “The Foot”. The Foot refers to a section of town located at the base of Lincoln University and roughly bounded by East McCarty, Chestnut, Atchison, and Jackson Streets. As Jefferson City became increasingly segregated in the early and mid-1900s, black-owned businesses sprung up in the Foot to serve the displaced population while at the same time creating a unique culture.
Structurally, much of the Foot was demolished during the urban renewal push in the 1960s. However, at least some of the stories of the people that worked there, and descriptions of the community are preserved in the oral histories that have been collected. These oral histories help us remember the community as it was--the music at Booker T. Hotel on Lafayette, the stories of prominent black businessman and entrepreneur Duke Diggs, and so much more.
Oral histories are helpful not only for communities, but also for families. Over the past decade, more and more individuals are interested in the history of their families. Online services have helped foster this interest, with sites such as ancestry.com and newspapers.com making it easier than ever to find information.
Technology has also made collecting oral histories more accessible. Organizations have websites offering free templates to help guide individuals through the process of collecting an oral history. Cellular technology has eliminated the need for a separate recording device as many phones have a voice and video recording feature. Applications such as Facetime even make it possible to interview people that are far away and would otherwise not be accessible.
Over the years there have been large scale oral history projects, ranging from documenting the atrocities of World War II to the shock of September 11. Thousands of oral history projects are smaller but equally important for the communities and individuals whose stories are being preserved.
For example, in May 2019, we saw our community pull together after a F3 tornado ripped through our town. Everyone in Jefferson City remembers that day, what they were doing, and how they went about their life in the days following the storm. A year removed from the event, these memories are still fresh for many; however, with time, they will start to fade. Creating a documented oral history of this event which includes stories from a wide range of people and businesses is important to our community.
Similarly, you may find that recordings with the stories of your parents, their parents, and their parents before them becomes an important family memento. While you may have heard your grandmother’s story of how she first met your grandfather a hundred times, conducting an oral history interview with her would allow you to accurately preserve the story for your grandchildren.
If you have even a spark of interest in recording an oral history of someone in your family or your community, I encourage you to take the next step and learn more about the process today. We often take time for granted; however, with each passing day, memories fade and more stories are lost to time.
There are abundant resources available online through Google related to oral history interviews. In addition, HCJ has a variety of resources related to the topic on their website www.historiccityofjefferson.org. In November, HCJ will be offering a free online tutorial for local participants which will be available on Facebook at @HCJInc.
For those that want to get started now, Sean Rost of the Missouri State Historical Society has made a great video presentation available online at https://shsmo.org/news/2020/oral-history-intro-online.
Historic preservation matters. What matters just as much though, is preserving the stories of the people that came before us.