Why Oral History is Important

By Morissa J Robinson

I recently worked on a project in one of my history classes that required us to dig up any information we could find on a person assigned to us and write up a biography entry. Easy, right? Well it wasn’t that simple. Some of us had first and last names to go on and nothing else. Do you know how many Elizabeth Jones’ there are out there? Not to mention if the name you are assigned simply says Mrs. John Jones. It’s a bit tricky to say the least. Fortunately, I was able to locate my person, but the lack of information I found was frustrating. I did not find much beyond the basic info: parents, spouse, children and less than a handful of events attended. How was I suppose to write a biography entry with that? Here is a person who is believed to have played a significant role in Women’s Suffrage, and no one even knows it. No one knows anything about her. It was all very sad to me.

It got me to thinking about my grandparents, whom have all been gone for several years now. Exactly how much do I know about their lives? I remember going thru some photos shortly after my grandfather passed away. Most were family photos, school pictures and pictures of the old farm they used to live on. There was one that grabbed my attention. A young man, who you could definitely tell was grandpa, wearing what appeared to be khaki pants and a white T-shirt. He had is arm around a distinctly Asian looking woman standing out side of a small hut with a thatched roof. All that was written on the back was Korea 1951. I showed it to my older cousins, they knew nothing about it. I took it to my Aunt, she said she had never seen it before. We knew grandpa had served in Korea, but who was this woman? We searched the photo for clues, he was wearing a wedding band. But wait! Grandma and Grandpa weren’t married until 1953, had he been married to this other woman before he married grandma? No one in the family knew anything, or if they did they weren’t telling.

My point is, there are so many things I wish I knew about them, about there lives. What were their parents like? Where did they grow up? First job? First kiss? What was the war like? What were their dreams? Who was that woman!? There is so much that I could have learned from them, so much that I could have been able to share with my children so that they could have had the chance to know their great-grandparents. Unfortunately, it is too late for me, but it may not be too late for you.

That’s where oral history comes in. Sit down with your grandparents,  your parents, or anyone else that may have an interesting story to tell. Have a conversation, ask questions, really listen to them and soak it all in. Record it (ask permission first), write it all down, cherish it, keep it safe and share it with other family members. I wish I had. All I have left are the memories and as I get older, even those are fading.

Photo by Barbara Nicholson

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