UWA has, over the past few years, overseen one of the largest studies of the people that make up the culturally distinct Black Belt region of Alabama, of which Livingston is situated on the far west side of.
This is The Black Belt Oral History Project.
The projects’ launch reception, marking the availability of the collection to the public, will be held on Feb. 25 at 2:30 p.m. at UWA’s own Kelley Land Hall. Like the collection itself, the gathering will be open to everyone.
Through the combined contributions of several diligent people, a total of 287 recordings were compiled and catalogued – stretching from the far west to the east of Alabama’s Black Belt, and each one a case study of another individual’s perspectives and life. The collection features Alabama’s long toiling sharecroppers, its business owners, politicians, civil rights activists, foresters, musicians, and virtually all other walks of life.
The project’s real significance lies in preserving the voices of those whose insights would otherwise be scattered or lost. While history is, by necessity, often taught second hand, it’s easy to see the value in having the explanations and stories of those who experienced the march from Selma to Montgomery, the advent of electricity to the common man, or even the hard work of harvesting cotton by hand, and having it all in recording with every bit of inflection, tone, and tenor that can’t be captured by writing it down.
Vanessa Ricaurte has worked as the interviewer on the project since August 2012. Like the interviewers before her, Graham Neeley and Zachary Robinson, she came to serve under the Americorp Vista program – which is best explained as a kind of domestic Peace Corps. They’ve all worked under UWA’s Dr. Valerie Burns toward the building of the project. Vanessa conducted the lion’s share of the 287 interviews; she also worked tirelessly to create logs and other supplementary material for every one of them. Vanessa pursued the project with an intensity that often seemed to go beyond the academic and into the personal.
“The project has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life,” she says.
“It’s been an honor to sit across from the people of the Black Belt and learn their stories first hand.”
At time of launch, all 287 corresponding interview logs will be available. The initial release will have 25 audios with the remaining ones awaiting a staggered release.
Full Disclosure: this article’s author was involved in transcribing logs for many of the collection’s interviews.