Winter 2018 Issue

Hearing Voices

W&M's new oral historian is recording the past, one story at a time.

By Sara Piccini

Reflecting back on his student days at William & Mary, Earl Granger III ’92, M.Ed. ’98 spoke of the sense of responsibility he felt as president of the Black Student Organization at a time when African-Americans made up just a small fraction of the student body:

“I always felt like there was a calling for me in terms of being a voice, not just for African-American students but for other underrepresented populations on this campus. And I took that role very seriously.”
Hundreds of voices, along with Granger’s, are now being captured and preserved for future generations by William & Mary’s new oral historian, Carmen Bolt, who joined the W&M Libraries staff this past February.

The oral historian position, funded entirely by private support, was created in conjunction with two special anniversaries at William & Mary: the 50th anniversary of African-American students in residence, which is being celebrated this academic year, and the 100th anniversary of co-education to be celebrated in 2018-19. Bolt is conducting oral history projects for both anniversaries, gathering the stories of alumni and other members of the university family who shaped these milestones.

“Oral history as a discipline allows us to learn more about the perspectives of individuals who might not otherwise be visible in the historic record,” Bolt says. “The trials and triumphs and contributions of these individuals have not been recognized or publicized to the extent that they should have. These projects are working to address that omission.”

TELLING THEIR STORIES: Yvonne Smith-Jones M. A. Ed. ’97 and Millie West HON ’91, L.H.D. ’17 shared their stories with Carmen Bolt as part of the oral history project.

Long before the written word, people relied on oral histories passed down from generation to generation to preserve a record of the past. Today, digital technology has revolutionized the practice of oral history, enabling professionals like Bolt to permanently preserve both video and audio recordings in their original form and make them widely available to the public. Bolt is currently working with the library’s digital services team to develop a dedicated website for the oral history collection.

As Bolt notes, oral histories serve to round out our knowledge of the past so that we can better understand our present. “You can’t have any sense of the whole story of W&M without the stories of all the critical actors. And that’s what we’re trying to do with the 50th and 100th anniversaries.”

Living the Legacy At her first committee meeting for the 100th anniversary, Bolt received a list of 700 potential interviewees, and the roster for both anniversaries has been growing since. “Every story is significant, and my goal is to collect as many stories as possible,” she says. Bolt explains that she works to prioritize interviews based on a variety of factors, including the subject’s age and location.

In preparing questions for each interview, Bolt conducts eight to 10 hours of research, consulting archival materials such as the Flat Hat, Colonial Echo and the Alumni Magazine. “I try to get the pulse of what was happening at the time the individual was a student — what were the controversies, the big ticket events, what was being talked about in letters to the editors. I also research what was happening in the world more broadly to establish the context in which the person lived their life.”

Bolt’s inaugural interview, with current Board of Visitors member Warren Buck III M.S. ’70, Ph.D. ’76, remains one of her most memorable. An activist on campus while earning his graduate degrees in physics, Buck was founding president of the Black Student Organization. “It was very impactful when he was discussing his interactions with President [Davis] Paschall, and they were not positive ones during the time he was here. He tells a story of having a reconciliation years later. Seeing that arc was so profound.”

For Earl Granger, now associate vice president for development at W&M, the experience of participating in the oral history project provided an opportunity to remember and reflect. “I was actually surprised by how many details I remembered about my college experience,” he says. “I think I’ve taken a lot for granted — William & Mary was a very strong influence in my life and professional career path.”

Both Buck and Granger are featured in the exhibit “Living the Legacy” highlighting the 50th anniversary oral history project (on display in Swem Library until Jan. 15, 2018).

“I think the project has sensitized some members of our community to better understand some of the challenges that were present years ago,” Granger says. “History is not always pretty, but it helps to frame the context and has the powerful ability to inform our future.”

Activists and Advocates In addition to mining the past, Bolt is also training the next generation of oral historians through the library’s new Mosaic Internship program. Azana Carr ’20 worked alongside Bolt this summer in the first class of interns, and played a major role in selecting quotes for the “Living the Legacy” exhibit.

“She was my mentor and taught me so much, but we always did things as a team. It really made my internship.” Carr adds that the internship has helped shape her self-designed major in digital storytelling. “Coming in I wanted to do journalism, but I discovered it wasn’t media per se, it was the story of people that I was attracted to.”

Beyond learning the technical aspects of the job, Carr absorbed important lessons about conducting oral histories from her mentor. “What I’ve learned from her is that it takes an amount of practice and patience to work with people. Sometimes they’re not comfortable, but if your heart is there, people will see that and will be more open to sharing their experiences.”

Bolt also shared vital important “dos and don’ts” that professional oral historians follow in order to ensure the integrity of each interview. “With few exceptions, I do not send out questions before the interview. We’re trying to get the most candid, conversational discussion, and I want the answers to be spontaneous,” Bolt says. “I also try not to have any expectations of the interview or the participant. This is their story, after all, and I don’t ever want to ask leading questions.”

Since beginning the oral history projects, Bolt has found every person’s story to be awe-inspiring in its own way. “These are individuals who are activists and advocates, dreamers and doers. Now they’re opening up and telling their stories — whether just to get it on record, or to contribute to this growing history, or to try and make William & Mary a better place, perhaps much better than it actually was when they attended here.”

“It’s incredibly humbling for me, and I’m so thankful and happy to have this job.”