The Sumter County Oral History Project: A Past, a Present, and a Prospectus
By: Evan A. Kutzler
In February 2016, while driving to an environmental history symposium sponsored by the Historic Savannah Foundation, I stopped to make a scheduled phone call to Jody Noll. At the time, Jody was a graduate student at Georgia State University; now he is “Dr. Noll,” a professor at Perimeter College of Georgia State University, and—for full disclosure—my bother-in-law. I found an exit on I-16, checked my cellphone reception (poor), and called him from the side of a rural highway.
I had good news to share about a campus interview. I also had a question. Nothing in the job announcement indicated the need for an oral historian; however, during the first-round interview, the department chair asked an open-ended question about a set of unprocessed oral histories. I had practiced public history for years, but oral history is its own interdisciplinary field in which I had some familiarity but little specific training. Jody had studied under the late Cliff Kuhn, one of the most respected oral historians in the country, until his advisor’s untimely passing a few months earlier. I wanted Jody’s thoughts on oral history—especially about handling old interviews.
I got the job. When I arrived at Georgia Southwestern State University, I inherited the Sumter County Oral History Project and its unfinished product, the Thomas-Cheokas Collection at the James Earl Carter Library. Named after its sponsors, Russell Thomas Jr. and Arthur Cheokas, the oral histories had been collected from June 2003 to March 2004. Interviewees, or “narrators,” included Alan Anderson, Pat Aultman, Rev. J.R. and Mamie Campbell, Leila Case, Anna Cheokas, Robertiena Freeman Fletcher, Warren Fortson, Bobby Fuse, Brown Hodges, William King, Lewis Lowe, J. Frank Myers, Roy Parker, Eloise Paschal, Lorena Barnum Sabbs, Johnny Sheffield, J. Willis Shiver, Ted Swisher, Mary Anne Thomas, Russell Thomas Jr., Leonard Waitsman, Juanita Freeman Wilson, and Frank Wylie Jr. A few narrators, unnamed here, have requested their interviews be inaccessible for a set number of years or—upon reviewing the transcript—removed from the collection and destroyed.
As an interdisciplinary field and a distinct method of research, oral history goes beyond the historical profession. In fact, the inspiration for this collection came from a local artist. Tom DeTitta, a prolific author and playwright who wrote Georgia’s Official Historical Drama, The Reach of Song: An Appalachian Drama, saw the long-term potential in collecting the modern stories of a place with a rich and complicated history. It is the same lure that drives public history. On the northern edge of the county, 13,000 U.S. soldiers died for want of basic shelter in 1864-65. A century later, Koinonia Partners and Habitat for Humanity International dedicated themselves to improving housing around the world. The local challenges often reflect the broader problems in American history.
It showed great foresight to record these histories. It preserved an endangered stratum of local experience from being lost in what southern historian C. Vann Woodward once called “the twilight zone that always exists between living memory and written history.” The interviews speak to the day-to-day life of mid-century Americus, the long Civil Rights Movement, the rehabilitation of the Rylander Theatre and the Windsor Hotel, and many other topics.
Although oral history projects should have a clear purpose and goal, the specific fruits are not always predicable. The thick description in these interviews may not have yet led to the sort of cultural products that DeTitta, Thomas, or Cheokas anticipated. Yet even before they were fully transcribed, historians, graduate students, and other writers were reaching out to the GSW library and the history department for access to the tapes and the partial transcripts. Jim Auchmutey, author of The Class of ’65: A Students, a Divided Town, and the Long Road to Forgiveness (2015) cites the collection. Dr. Ansley Quiros, author of God with Us: Lived Theology and the Freedom Struggle in Americus, Georgia, 1942-1976 (2018) uses the collection as a foundation upon which to build. Jonathan Alter, author of the forthcoming biography, His Very best: Jimmy Carter, a Life (September 2020), looked at the interviews to contextualize southwest Georgia during Carter’s ascendency in the 1960s and 70s. Each interview is part of a slowly emerging archive of the city, the county, and the region. Like public schools and roads, oral histories invest in the future. They do so by looking to the past.
The Sumter County Oral History Project served as an introduction to my new community. Some transcripts required only a second round of listening and editing; others required drafting transcriptions from scratch. Imagine if every new job required listening—carefully—to residents talk for 100+ hours about the town’s good, bad, and complicated history. It was a tremendous gift to a public historian.
During the evenings, on weekends, and in the hours between teaching, the voices of Americus’s past and present resonated in my office. My transcriptions inched forward in three-, five-, and ten-second increments. There was no fancy transcription software or even a foot pedal to speed up or slow down the tape. I pressed play, typed furiously, and hit stop when my fingers fell behind or my ears failed to hear a word. I then rewound the tape a few seconds, pressed play, and started again. It took ten months. I learned a lot about Americus in the process.
As the transcriptions progressed, so did my vision for what it all meant. At first the mountain of tapes represented something to conquer for the sake of finishing it. At the months dragged on, I was reminded of Robert Pirsig’s memorable passage in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance about mountain climbing being about the steps and the slopes. “It’s the sides of the mountains which sustain life,” he wrote, “not the top.” The same goes for transcribing old interviews. The process gave me a view of the richness of public history opportunities.
The process of transcribing the tapes introduced me to many people. Each interview is part of a slowly emerging archive of the city, the county, and the region. While I have never met some of the narrators, others have befriended me since I mailed them new transcriptions. The tapes revealed one surprising, almost chilling, coincidence. The historian who had conducted all those interviews in 2003 and 2004 was Cliff Kuhn, my brother-in-law’s late advisor. It seemed that after calling Jody for his advice from the side of that highway, I got another gift: hundreds of hours of one-on-one instruction in the art of asking questions. Sometimes everything is connected.
Before our region felt the Covid-19 pandemic in full force, I had planned to publish this article in late-February or March and conclude with a call for volunteers for my Study of History students to interview this spring. I even furnished a “public history collaboration room” in a vacant office where interviews could take place. Historical forces intervened. My students instead practiced conducting oral histories with family members and, given the circumstances, the interviews involved subjects and questions that were hard to imagine three months earlier.
In the long run, beyond the pandemic, we need to be thinking about oral history as a public history resource. Good oral histories are not necessarily easy, cheap, or—as the long route to transcription indicates—fast. Some interview tools, such as the StoryCorps App, make conducting basic interviews easier and more democratic than in the past. Yet it is often still difficult work that cannot be left to one person or class. It takes approximately eight hours to transcribe a one-hour interview by hand or keyboard. And unless there is a clear plan for preserving oral histories at the Library of Congress (in the case of the StoryCorps App), a local historical society, or a local library, interviews are endangered as soon as they are recorded.
The challenges of integrating oral history with public history are worth the effort. From cotton fields to solar energy, from civil rights to public health, and from macro-economic changes to hurricanes, tornadoes and floods, there is still much to learn about this region that is within living memory. A broad-based, inclusive oral history initiative is an important way to preserve that information for future generations. It can come from my history students, sure, but it can also come from Americus-Sumter County Movement Remembered Committee, Inc, Lake Blackshear Regional Library, Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, Andersonville National Historic Site, the Sumter Historic Trust, the Rylander Theatre, Habitat for Humanity, or any group with a long-term interest in the city, the county, and the region.
There is a foundation. Let us build upon it.