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Marshall University librarian works on oral history project

January 13, 2019

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — Typically, librarians are surrounded by stories fully formed, bound and ready to be checked out and consumed.

But one local librarian has checked herself out for a sabbatical that has her on a quest this semester to go out into Huntington to see what stories bubble up, and to capture what she hears in audio form.

Marshall University Assistant Professor and Librarian II Kelli Johnson is on sabbatical for the spring semester diving into an oral history preservation project for Huntington’s Fairfield neighborhood that she and a handful of students began last summer.

Johnson, who has her undergrad and master’s degrees from Marshall, and an additional masters in Library Science from Texas Women’s College, said the idea that sparked the oral history project came when two well-respected leaders in the community - long-time city council woman Sandra Clements and retired Marshall professor Delores Johnson - turned over their pictorial history project to her for it to be included into Marshall Special Collections.

“When Sandra and Delores turned over their ‘baby’ to me, we had all of these pictures and I wanted to take them out and share their pictures and so it grew from there,” Johnson said. “Our thought was this isn’t just one dimensional. We could see what it was like growing up here in the 1940s but I wanted to take it further and put stories and voices to these photos and to the names.”

With the help of some colleagues, Johnson secured a West Virginia Humanities grant for the project, which began last summer with students interviewing and recording select elders in the Fairfield neighborhood, Huntington’s historically African-American neighborhood.

“We thought the coolest way to collect these oral histories was to work with some of the younger folks. To awaken some interest in history and give kids a chance to unplug from their phones and to sit down and have a conversation, which is something we don’t do enough of,” Johnson said.

Over the summer they were able to collect nine interviews, which will be in Marshall Special Collections as audio, as transcripts that accompany these photographs.

Folks who were interviewed include: Doris Atkinson, Janelle Coleman, Pastor Reginald Hill, Gina Johnson, Carolyn Nix, Marie Redd, Joe and Shirley Williams and Carol Woolfolk.

Special Collections has also helped build a landing page for a research guide. They have already loaded up the transcripts where all of the oral histories will also be. That address is: https://libguides.marshall.edu/AAH.

Johnson said starting the project last summer lit a fire in her to keep the project in motion for both profession and personal reasons. A San Francisco native with many family members in Huntington, Johnson said when she moved here to go to Marshall in the late 1990s, she had many family members still living but now some of those people and their stories are gone.

“When I moved here 21 years ago I have a lot of family here and I loved to sit around listening to my aunts and uncles and talk to them about growing up in this area. I kept saying to myself, ‘You need to record these,’ and I drug my feet and a lot of these people are passing away. Not only are they taking their amazing selves with them, they are taking their amazing stories with them,” Johnson said.

With half a century or more having passed since the height of the Civil Rights movement, Johnson said there’s a need to preserve those stories now of what it was like then in Huntington.

“There is definitely an urgency ... I taught a class about the Freedom Riders and students didn’t know who the Freedom Riders were. And it is not just some kids - it is kind of all of us,” Johnson said. “We need to capture this history and this past. There is an urgency. They aren’t going to be around forever.”

This past Friday, Johnson walked the neighborhood with one of its storytellers, David Harris, who has lived, worked and volunteered in Huntington his whole life. Johnson worked for INCO for 20 years and then founded Basic Supply Company in Huntington. He also worked at Marshall University and is known around the region for volunteering for youth baseball.

“He is one of the people that tries to keep track of the history in the neighborhood,” Johnson said. “He was able to go around and point out specific locations. It really is amazing to hear about something in someone’s words. There is something about the words they choose and how they say them that is really powerful.”

While Johnson has some people in mind that she wants to interview, she is hoping that more people step forward to be interviewed. She can be contacted at Kelli.johnson@marshall.edu.

“Everybody’s story is important. Anyone who would like to sit down and talk, if you maybe have pictures that you want to share of the Fairfield neighborhood, I hope that people will contact me and we will figure out how you want to participate,” Johnson said. “It is only going to get better with the more people we get involved.”

To help Huntingtonians gather more history before it is lost, Johnson is teaming up with the Cabell County Public Library to host an African American Genealogy event on Feb. 23 that will help folks learn how to collect their own family history. That program will take place at the main library, 455 9th St., Huntington.

“We want to show people how to collect your family history, preserve it for everyone to see, appreciate, enjoy and learn from,” Johnson said.

That can range from doing interviews to also preserving photos, letters and notable artifacts.

“We look at things and they don’t seem important to us but if we can save material objects like photos and the letters, the church bulletins and the handbills, we get that piece of history,” Johnson said. “We just need to save that.”

Although Johnson goes back to work at Marshall on July 1, she said she is determined to make sure the project will continue on. She is working on another grant to zero in on Civil Rights history, and she is hoping to get more students involved again to help with the project.

Johnson has also talked to Marshall professor David Trowbridge, creator of the history walking tour app theclio.com, about adding clips of some of the interviews to sites featured in Huntington, and is working close with Special Collections to ensure the work is preserved.

“We would love to put the oral history audio snippets so when you go to some of the historical sites you can not only end about it but hear about it,” Johnson said of working with Clio. “I am also hoping too that younger people get excited about it. Ultimately, it is about younger people saving their heritage.”

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Information from: The Herald-Dispatch, http://www.herald-dispatch.com

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