College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Oral History Project Gives Students Unique Perspective

For many students, history is just something you read in a book. When students become involved with an oral history project, history comes alive.

“It’s very hands-on when you’re sitting right in front of someone and she’s telling her story,” said Marie Baker, a history graduate from Oxford who interviewed three women for a groundbreaking oral history project. “They want to tell their stories and be heard. It’s exciting to be a part of collecting history that is still here and very much alive.”

Baker and 14 other undergraduate students conducted interviews as part of an extensive research project spearheaded by Professor of History Elizabeth Payne. The research focuses on women in northeast Mississippi who came of age during the Depression and World War II era. Subjects recounted their experiences with the sharecropping system, race relations, the effects of the Great Depression and industrialization. “Preserving nearby history from the perspective of women is a way to communicate the university’s research mission to ordinary [Mississippians] in a way that is relevant to their lives,” Payne said. “As it turns out, this is a major collection of women’s history in the United States.”

Women interviewed for the project come from all economic backgrounds and are black and white, Payne said. Of course, the stories told by black women were far different than those of their white counterparts.

“Their lives were rougher,” Baker said. “Interviewing African-American women, I heard a lot more about farming and church. But one thing that was really inspiring was how they seemed to have maintained a sense of hopefulness throughout it all.”

Payne began the project during the spring 2005 semester with doctoral student Wendy Smith of Pontotoc. The two were later joined by fellow doctoral students Dave Ray of Winona, Dionne Bailey of Rome, Ga., Tom Copeland of Nashville, Ark., and Andrew Tillman of Ft. Worth, Texas.

Last spring, Payne’s doctoral students helped her teach a seminar in which Baker and other undergrads conducted and transcribed more than 80 interviews.

“This is an outstanding project that deserves the national attention it has been receiving,” said Robert Haws, former chair of history. “I am proud of the achievements made and fully support Dr. Payne and her students.”

“The significance of this project is that it exists,” Smith said. “There is now a record of how women in Northeast Mississippi, particularly Union County, experienced life and change. This will give us a complete picture, rather than just one side.”

To see interviews and read transcripts, visit www.outreach.olemiss.edu/media/documentary/women_history.