Keep the Old with the New: Recording Oral Histories in 2017
A few months ago, two BKH staff members rediscovered a stack of old cassette tapes hiding in a storage area. With the help of a 2002 Volkswagen's cassette player, we were able to listen to the tapes and discover content left behind from the 1970s and 1980s. Here at the museum we often remember several people, now gone, who contributed a great deal to BKH. Leonard Huber. A bonafide bigwig in the New Orleans preservation world who brought his influence to BKH as administrator and chairman of the board of trustees for 17 years. Pendleton Hogan. Frances Parkinson Keyes's dear friend who watched the house in 1947 while she was away in Normandy writing the book that would bring her the French
Legion of Honor, and whom, years later, published a biography of her, Lunch with Mrs. Keyes. Alma Neal. The former House Director whose choices and taste shaped how our museum looks, and in many ways functions, today. Marion Chambon. Another former House Director who ran the house loyally and lovingly for 18 oft-financially challenging years, and saw to its re-opening after Hurricane Katrina by November 1st. Carole Fuller. Mrs. Keyes's longtime loyal butler, housekeeper, chauffeur, you name it. He came to BKH with Mrs. Keyes from Vermont and helped run the house as a museum for years after her death in 1970. We mention these names often; familiarly, fondly, but time continues to pass and fewer of our staff and volunteers are able to say that they knew them. Above: A portrait of young Pendleton Hogan housed at BKH. Also pictured are Lunch with Mrs. Keyes, and The Lawn, Hogan's history of the University of Virginia.
The cassette tapes served as a portal for our current staff members. A recorded conversation between Pendleton Hogan and Alma Neal contains stories about Mr. Hogan's experiences as one of FPK's close confidantes, but also as a journalist and soldier during WWII, and later a burgeoning author. Mr. Fuller gives a tour of the house as it was in 1974, highlighting his vast knowledge of the home and its pieces, as well as his personal warmth, which hides not far beneath his formal New England accent.
In the digital age, there has been a major surge of popularity surrounding the importance of recording personal stories as a method of preserving history. The National World War II Museum here in New Orleans notably uses video of veterans and others connected to the war to bring its visitors into their experiences personally and emotionally. Guests who, perhaps, never got around to asking their grandfathers and mothers about what that momentous time in American history was like are able to find out from the recorded stories shared at the museum. Those who did ask their grandparents, meanwhile, are able to expand their understanding by hearing personal stories from an outstanding array of perspectives and experiences. As these veterans and witnesses to history pass on, we are no longer left with only an abstract memory of their experiences. We are able to preserve their specific words, voices, and expressions through the collection and sharing of their oral histories. To read and hear more about the WWII Museum's oral histories: Visit here.
The New York Public Library is also undergoing an enormous Community Oral History Project by collecting stories from New Yorkers of all different neighborhoods, backgrounds and experiences. The illuminating project includes histories from a heartening variety of New York lives, including the "Chinatown Legacy Project", "A People's History of Harlem", "The New York City Veterans Oral History Project", and the "NYC Trans Oral History Project". The amount of content being collected helps create a larger picture of New York City's history, and also works to bridge the stories together into one larger history. For more on NYPL's work: Visit here.
At BKH, we are inspired by these ambitious projects. On Monday, we asked Captain Clarke "Doc" Hawley and Rosanna Giacona Shepherd to come by and record conversations with us, in order to document stories and experiences from their lives. Mr. Hawley is a longtime member of the Keyes Foundation Board, the only member to have known Frances Parkinson Keyes, in fact. Notably, Doc lived in an apartment at BKH in the early 1970s while working as a captain on the Steamboat Natchez. Doc's stories tell of a singular time and place in American history that was fading even as he was taking the helm as a young steamboat captain, an experience he says he would do again tomorrow, if he could. A Rhodes Scholar who graduated from UVA, the adventure of life on the river was perfectly suited for Doc, and it lead him to places and people that profoundly enriched his life. We look forward to sharing clips from Doc's oral history in the near future, but below is a short video in the meantime. Doc, a talented musician, frequently played the calliope for passengers on his steamboat trips around the country, and he treated us to one of his favorite tunes on Mrs. Keyes's 1850 Square Grand Piano!
Local videographer Joey Harmon captures Captain Hawley's piano playing during oral history filming 4/3/17. Above: Joey Harmon and Captain Hawley converse in FPK's atrium, surrounded by Spanish tiles.
In conjunction with our upcoming summer exhibit about the Giacona family and the Sicilian immigrant experience in the lower French Quarter, we are very excited to record oral histories of Giacona descendants and other Sicilian families who lived in and shaped our neighborhood in the early 1900s when it was Piccolo Palermo. On Monday, docent Rosanna fittingly started us off. Rosanna is an amazing storyteller (as anyone who has come by on a Thursday knows), and she told us of her experiences growing up in New Orleans as a member of a Sicilian family with profound pride of family and heritage. She tells of her father Aniello's unique childhood here at 1113 Chartres Street, and how, after prohibition challenged the Giacona wine business, the family would go visit her grandmother Rosena at her later home of 1808 Elysian Fields. Just as breadth of content strengthens the NYPL's oral history project, we aim to record a sampling of oral histories with descendants of Sicilian families. The recordings will be used to more fully understand the Sicilian experience in New Orleans, and some will be displayed during our exhibit for visitor engagement. For any suggestions or inquiries, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ms. Shepherd tells family stories on BKH's back gallery during oral history filming 4/3/17.