History faculty assist Smoky Mountain students in recording oral histories locally, presenting nationally

From left, Smoky Mountain High School students Lucy McRae, Sydney Rice, Natalie Parris, Michael Todd, Anna Morgan and Lee Macaulay are shown with the poster presentation of “Mountain People, Mountain Lives.”

With assistance from Western Carolina University faculty, the life experiences of some Jackson County residents have been captured, in their own words, for an oral history project conducted by students at Smoky Mountain High School that was five years in the making.

“Mountain People, Mountain Lives” is a collection of 75 individuals’ stories as recorded by 50 students and presented Oct. 16-19 at the Oral History Association annual meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“There, they explained what the oral histories had taught them about their community — a shared value in all kinds of work done by men and women who were loggers, preachers, teachers, farmers, educators, store owners, bear hunters, child-care providers and fly fishermen,” said Elizabeth McRae, WCU associate professor of history and project co-director.

Alex Macaulay, WCU associate professor of history and project co-director, said the interviewees shared the broad experiences of Appalachian women and men “who fought in world wars, danced at Woodstock and struggled through hard times. They revealed that Appalachian lives are both rooted in their place and shaped by national and international experiences.”

Six SMHS students made the trip for the presentation, thanks to funding from the Sylva Rotary Club and WCU’s College of Arts and Sciences, College of Education and Allied Professions, History Department and Office of the Provost.

“It was encouraging that the scholars of oral history were coming up to us and complimenting our interest in the field they have dedicated their lives to,” SMHS student Natalie Parris said of her experience, which included meeting Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson, author of “The Warmth of Other Suns.” That book is about the migration of African Americans from Southern states to the north or west, as told through personal stories of people who lived it.

“She gave me a better understanding of people around the world, and I was able to compare my interview with Sam Bryant (a white woman who integrated the teaching staff at West Charlotte High School) to her findings about the ‘Great Migration,’” Parris said. “She even stated that she doesn’t call her interviews ‘interviews,’ but rather just conversations. Plus, it was a pleasure to spend time with my peers and teachers, as well as getting to see our hard work pay off in the poster session.”

In addition to Parris, SMHS students attending the meeting were Sydney Rice, Anna Morgan, Lucy McRae, Lee Macaulay and Michael Todd.

The oral histories are available online through WCU’s Hunter Library webpage HERE.

The next round of recording oral histories will begin in January. Anyone interested in participating or recommending someone to be interviewed should contact McRae at mcrae@wcu.edu or Macaulay at macaulay@wcu.edu.