From the tales of the Native Americans who once roamed the barren plains to the modern-day memories of the Murrah Building bombing, the Sooner State carries a precious past that the words in history books can’t always adequately cover.
It’s for this reason Clifford Kuhn, executive director of the Oral History Association (OHA), believes it’s the duty of Oklahomans to preserve every bit of this state’s history, all from a first-person narrative.
“The Oral History Association is a national organization of people who engage in oral history interviews, recording people about their firsthand experiences of the past,” Kuhn said. “We try to improve the standards and upgrade the practices of recording oral history, elevating what people are supposed to do when they do interviews, from the equipment you need, the questions you ask, how you present the material and what you do with it. In other words, it’s not as simple as ‘Tell us about the good old days, Grandpa.’” The OHA holds an annual meeting and offers workshops designed to help and guide oral history enthusiasts, from the novice to the seasoned. The event includes presentations on the importance of oral history in the digital age, folk music as oral history and a special public event by Edward T. Linenthal, author of The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory, at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum.
In addition to recording memories of the Murrah Building tragedy, Kuhn said many local oral historians captured “very gripping” stories about the recent spate of natural disasters the state has suffered through.
Personally, however, Kuhn is most excited to come to Oklahoma to celebrate the centennial of one of his own inspirations, renowned author Ralph Ellison.
“His story is interesting because, in the 1930s, he worked for the Federal Writers Project and conducted interviews and gathered the life stories of Americans from all walks of life,” Kuhn said.
“One of the people Ellison interviewed was a fruit and vegetable vendor in Harlem who would sing songs about his produce. When Ellison wrote his famous novel Invisible Man, there’s a fruit vendor in Harlem who is based on this character that he interviewed.”
Kuhn also praised the oral history research program at Oklahoma State University and their projects that included recording the accounts of pioneer women, Dust Bowl survivors and even a circus community in Hugo.
He added that with the technology available today, anyone can record oral history and the OHA’s workshops will help strengthen these skills with professional techniques that will continue this Oklahoma tradition for years to come.
“Everybody has stories in their own family, older relatives, neighbors or coworkers that they are curious about interviewing.
We want to advance what’s going in this community and foster and advance oral history practices in Oklahoma. There’s a great deal of local work that’s been done recording the stories of Oklahomans, and there’s a great deal more to come.”