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Oral history project discovers everyday storytellers

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veryone has a story. And local historians are hoping to capture as many of them as they can.

They want to learn about experiences serving in the military, growing up in the Great Depression and suffering through discrimination in the 1950s.

Tales of vacations, friendly hangouts and holiday traditions within families will be digitally recorded and preserved as well.

Even simple stories about neighbors down the street or a memorable grocery store are worthy to be kept for posterity.


The Life Stories Project involves recording, sharing and preserving the true stories of everyday people. Residents have started signing up for hourlong sessions, and the opportunity will extend through the end of November.

Those stories and photographs will be placed online for family, friends, neighbors and anyone in the community to hear.

Through these stories, WFYI, the Indiana History Society and Storytelling Arts of Indiana hope to celebrate resident’s commonalities and differences to leave a legacy of stories for generations to come.

“We’re all storytellers, just not on a stage,” said Ellen Munds, executive director for Storytelling Arts of Indiana. “We want to demonstrate that our stories, whether on stage or at the dining room table, have value.”

Robert Jackson came to the third floor of the Madame Walker Theater Center ready to tell his story. The 87-year-old Indianapolis resident, dressed nattily in a gray suit and white hat, had been intrigued by the opportunity.

‘Don’t rise, don’t fall’

Sitting down with volunteer recorders Joe and Nancy McDonald, he started to meander through his life. Jackson described moving to Indiana from Uniontown, Ala., remembering riding on the train that brought them north.

“I don’t know what happened, but when I woke up, I was in a new world,” he said.

Jackson recalled nearly drowning in a tub used to feed farm animals, the sides too slimy for him to scramble out of the water.

A World War II veteran, he talked about signing up to work with airplanes, only to be assigned to the U.S. Army’s shipping and receiving unit in France and Germany.

Mostly, he remembered the people who had motivated him and impressed early on to work diligently and be focused on improving.

“My philosophy of life was to float along — don’t rise, don’t fall. Those people changed my life,” he said. “I’m 87 now, and I still remember their words, still remember their faces.”

Those are the details that the Life Stories Project are desperate to capture, Munds said.

The project was born from collaborations between public radio station WFYI, the Indiana Historical Society and Storytelling Arts of Indiana. All three groups came together in 2005 to produce “Stories from the Heartland,” an oral history compilation.

Every year, Storytelling Arts of Indiana and the Indiana Historical Society bring local and national storytellers to Indianapolis to perform, while WFYI sponsors the program.

‘More vibrant community’

The Life Stories Project was intended to help accentuate the common experiences people from all neighborhoods and all backgrounds have, Munds said.

“Through these stories, we hope to celebrate our commonalities and differences to create a stronger, more vibrant community as well as leaving a legacy of stories for generations to come,” she said.

The program is open to all Indiana residents. Munds has planned a series of recording days, when volunteers will be on hand to interview people and record their words. Participants give their consent to have their photographs taken, as well as allowing a portion of their story to be put on a special Life Stories Project website.

Everybody who takes part will receive a copy of their recording. The original recordings will go in the oral history collection at the Indiana Historical Society, Munds said.

“Stories tell you a lot of the values and things that were important during specific time periods. All of these people who we’re interviewing will share stories within the 21st century,” she said. “Researchers can go in and learn what was going on in central Indiana and what the values were.”

Celestine Bloomfield, an Indianapolis resident and longtime storyteller, was one of the first people to sit down for a recording session.

She related her experience with the Gary Public Schools, where she had grown up. Black students at the time were being integrated from their neighborhood school to another junior high.

Bloomfield can still pinpoint when she discovered the integration program wasn’t working. She relayed a story about her school literary group, the Inkspots, that would read a book then meet at a student’s house after school for discussion.

When it was Bloomfield’s turn to host, no one showed up.

“I made homemade tacos, carnitas, had the homemade salad bars. Out of the whole group, the school sponsor didn’t come, and only two of my friends came,” she said. “That was the end of my participation in the Inkspots. I really believe I have marks and scars from attending that school.”

Johnson County project

A similar project has been attempted locally. The Johnson County Museum of History has had an oral history committee, which sits down with local residents willing to put their lives on tape, executive director Brenna Cundiff said.

Nearly 150 people’s life stories are preserved in the museum’s genealogy department. The accounts capture details such as after-school hangouts, school traditions and neighborhood memories that others in the community can relate to.

Bob Gee spoke about working as a teenager at Camp Atterbury. He sold newspapers to the soldiers at the camp during the height of World War II then later had a job driving a truck, allowing him to interact with prisoners of war.

His family kept a victory garden, and he remembered the sacrifices people made at that time.

“I remember sugar rationing. That seemed to be the biggest thing. It was hard to get sugar,” he said in his recording.

Franklin native Mary Rynerson Gillot was born in 1933, and attended P.W. Payne School as a child. She recalled lining up for immunization shots at the beginning of the school year, and her teacher bringing out a wooden block decorated like a cake whenever it was someone’s birthday.

“They brought it out and put a candle in it, and sang ‘Happy Birthday.’ After that, they’d pull the candle out and throw the old wooden cake back in there,” she said in her recording.

Gillot’s family owned a house in downtown Franklin, and during World War II, her mother rented out rooms for soldiers and their families for $2 per week. She remembered a constant stream of people being at their house.

“We had our living room full, usually, with a lot of people there talking. They would come down and play cards with us. We had a piano, and my mother played piano,” she said. “They must have made it their own home too.”

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