Tuesday, June 4

SFA's 3rd Oral History Workshop Recap

Oral History Workshop 2013. Photo by Sara Camp Arnold.
Last week, Amy Evans—the SFA’s lead oral historian—hosted the SFA’s third annual oral history workshop. The 13 participants included students, chefs, and documentarians who hailed from all over the country, bringing diverse perspectives to the workshop. As the SFA office intern, I, along with the SFA’s graduate assistant, Anna Hamilton, was invited to attend. I’m so glad I did.

I learned this week that oral history is an art. Amy taught us the practical aspects of the profession, such as working with equipment, software, editing audio clips, and photography. But at the end of the day, a good oral historian is one with an innate ability to connect to others.
Workshop participants conducting oral histories of each other. Photo by Amy Evans.
“What you give is what you get,” Amy encouraged us. After starting off with the basics of technique, theory, and an interview demonstration with SFA member and Louisville, Kentucky-based chef Edward Lee, we spent the second day of the workshop in the Mississippi Delta town of Greenwood.  Because of the friendships Amy has developed in that community over the past decade, we were able to witness first-hand the power of sharing stories.
Welcome to Greenwood, MS. Photo by Emilie Dayan.
The day started with a visit to Levee Run Farm where Leann Hines raises chickens, ducks, geese, turkey, and quail. Spooney Kenter, served us barbecue chicken wings for lunch in front of his Baptist Town home. Then, Sylvester Hoover took us on a tour of the neighborhood. Baptist Town was followed by a visit with Karen Pinkston of Lusco’s, then a Crystal Grill pie-picnic at Robert Johnson’s grave. Before returning to Oxford, we stopped at Bryant’s Grocery, a sobering reminder of Emmett Till and of Mississippi’s turbulent history. 

Through food and oral history, we shared a common table and explored stories—woven together into a history—that too often go untold. 
Leann Hines speaking to the group. Photo by Emilie Dayan.
Workshop participants with Spooney, after a delicious meal of barbecue chicken wings and tamales. Photo by Amy Evans.
Sylvester Hoover with Steve Johnson, Robert Johnson's grandson, on speaker phone, welcoming us to  Baptist Town. Photo by Emilie Dayan.
As a Mississippian, I left the Delta with more questions than I had upon arrival. That night, I watched Booker’s Place, a documentary about Booker Wright, an African American waiter at Lusco's who was murdered after speaking openly to NBC television about his treatment by customers. For the remainder of the week, we applied our new skills by conducting and producing oral history interviews with each other. (You can even see our oral histories on our Cowbird profile.) At the close of the workshop on Friday, many of us returned to the Delta that night for blues and dancing in Clarksdale.

Karen Pinkston of Lusco's telling the group about funny traditions at the restaurant, such as flipping butter patties onto the ceiling. Photo by Emilie Dayan.
Baptist Town. Photo by Emilie Dayan.

Rest in peace Robert Johnson. Photo by Emilie Dayan.
Oral history work requires heart and soul. It’s indeed an art. But perhaps the most important thing I learned at the workshop is that oral history is accessible. One isn’t required to be a scholar to document history in this way. Oral history is about relationships. Through our stories, we go forward together.