The Transylvania Times -

Capturing Oral History: More Important Than Ever

Picturing The Past  


Last updated 1/7/2021 at 2:43pm

Lewis Smith (Courtesy of Kimberly S. Howell and Ian Sanders)

We cannot dismiss the value of the oral history that still fills these mountains, if we dare to ask, dare to listen. As my father, Keith Parker, and I wrote to "Stand on Solid Ground: A Civil War Novel Based on Real People and Events," we not only based the story on historical documents and records, but a wealth of the story's personal touches are reflections of oral history. Personal interactions and interviews with descendants of individuals whose ancestors founded and built this community helped paint a more vivid picture. Mary Galyon, now 93, whose genealogical research offered deep insight into facts, also added oral history tid-bits. She was adamant about the vivid red color of James Morris' hair, as she handed me the black and white picture of him. And her description of Cagle-Blue eyes is a tid-bit that a genealogical record does not readily reveal. The oral history does not stop short of personal descriptions, but helps paint physical pictures of the environment. She remembers hearing the whippoorwills at night and how the Old Neill place sat up on top of a hill, held back by a rock wall. On a drive Mary pointed out the very rock wall that still stands along Lambs Creek Road. What a delight for her to discover that the wall still stands, even if the house is long gone.

The importance of oral history did not only help us in building a vivid picture of our people and community, but it also helped affirm some choices we made. In particular, I struggled with the authenticity of my approach to the character, Pink, a young slave in the novel. Although I had done a lot of research and spoken with several descendants, I still worried if the way I portrayed Pink's personality was realistic or not. I wrote Pink's personality full of mischievousness, strength and brightness; someone who embraced the simple joy of life in spite of the hardships. My worries washed away when I saw the picture of Lewis Smith, Pink's son, in the fall of 2019 after the plot was written and finished. Hattie Sanders, Pinks' granddaughter, explained that this was a picture of her father and that he loved those shoes, always wore those shining shoes and he didn't want anyone standing on them or messing them up. She laughed at her own memory. What I love about this picture is the look on Lewis' face. His eyes are so mischievous and joyful. I very much felt that this picture and my time with Hattie Sanders before she passed away in August, at age 92, was an affirmation to me for writing Pink's personality the way I did.

Oral history, unfortunately, are gems that will be lost unless we ask those who hold those precious memories to share them. We must listen to those stories, maybe some have been shared over and over again and may feel "old-hat" to you. But remember, unless you record it, either in writing or tape it, that old story Grandpa or Grandma told a million times, will be a story lost forever.

Oral History offers glimpses into our past. If you or someone you know has oral history that has not been recorded yet, please consider writing it down or recording it for future generations.

James Morris (Courtesy of Mary Galyon)

(Photographs and information for this column are provided by the Rowell Bosse North Carolina Room, Transylvania County Library. For more information, comments, or suggestions contact NC Room staff at [email protected] or (828) 884-1820.)


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