Voices of Virginia tells Virginia’s story for all to hear
July 2, 2020
The University Libraries’ Open Education Faculty Initiative Grant program recently released Voices of Virginia: An Auditory Primary Source Reader in VTechWorks, Virginia Tech’s online repository.
Voices of Virginia is a freely available collection of first-person stories of Virginians who witnessed and changed U.S. history, as told by Virginians and recorded over the past 70 years. This pilot project was designed by Jessica Taylor, an assistant professor in the Department of History, with the help of Emily Stewart, a history graduate student. Taylor proposed the project to provide expanded access to first-person accounts relevant to Virginia history. Project funding was provided by the University Libraries’ Open Education Initiative Faculty grant.
Virginians from all different backgrounds have brought attention to and chipped away at racial oppression and economic and gender inequality. Fighting to create a more inclusive commonwealth, Virginians found ways around segregationist policies and demanded better access to public institutions. Inside these stories, readers hear first-person accounts of strategies employed in an effort to make a better Virginia and how others responded to those efforts.
Taylor and Stewart went to work compiling voices for the collection.
“Archivists and historians from over 20 institutions took the time to find and donate selections of oral histories,” said Taylor. “It’s designed to be a supplement to the U.S. history textbook, and we also aligned it to the Virginia Standards of Learning with lesson plans so that public middle school and high school teachers will find it useful.” The lesson plans were designed by Virginia Tech students in the Social Studies Education class taught by David Hicks, a professor in the School of Education.
Voices of Virginia pulls together oral histories from across decades and archives in an all-audio source companion for Virginia’s high school and college students. It features stories about race in Virginia history in around one-third of the items in the collection. The complete album contains dozens of short oral histories from eyewitnesses to key moments in American history from the Civil War to the present. By telling the larger national story with narratives from across the commonwealth, Voices of Virginia grounds students in how history guides and is guided by everyday people and their experiences.
“We tried to bring together a few different democratizing forces in academia: open access work, which makes knowledge readily available to more people; oral history, which allows people of all walks of life to tell their own stories; and place-based education, which engages students in the place where they live so that they can be good citizens,” said Taylor.
The collection includes more than 60 first-person stories of Virginians of color, including Black, Native American, and others with distinct racial identities. Five of the six lesson plans included in the guide are on topics relevant to the Black Lives Matter movement, aiding students as they explore topics like segregation and busing.
“These stories about segregation and violence are very old and often repeated. They should not surprise anyone but they do,” said Taylor. “In oral history like in written history, people justify, diminish, and lie all the time. We’ve also chosen to include the stories from or about people who looked the other way and declined to risk their status or privilege for justice, because a lot of us need to learn how to respond to those voices.”
Several of the interviews had not been listened to in a long time, so Taylor and Stewart had some cleaning up to do. “It was fun,” Taylor said. “Some came in weird formats, like microcassettes. In others, you could hear the cluck of someone’s chickens on their porch or a 1960s vintage car horn in the background.”
These stories are very personal and connect place, history, and peoples’ experiences in particular places of Virginia.
“Listening to them is a bit like overhearing front porch stories of older relatives as they reflect on their life experiences but contextualized in history and in locations close to home for Virginians,” said Anita Walz, administrator of the Open Education Faculty Initiative Grant. “The recordings are all as different as the people telling their stories — personalities, accents, and dispositions. There is singing and piano playing, social conflict, injustice, fear, family stories and everyday life realities, and laughter. These are stories about things we consider to be historical, told by the people who experienced them first as part of their daily lives.”
Reading straight from the playbooks of Civil Rights Movement workers, second wave feminists, and labor organizers shows us that there are different paths toward restorative justice that a person can take.
“Some of the best audio is from teachers and students who were in the classroom, or locked out of the classroom, trying to figure out integration together with very human emotions from guilt to loneliness and despair to confusion,” said Taylor. “I think their stories might resonate with students and teachers at home right now.”
The people who were interviewed were present for iconic moments, not even realizing that they were about to become witness to history. Taylor’s advice for those who are watching today’s events unfold is, “Show up, so that you can tell an oral historian about it later. Witnessing and retelling keeps these moments with us.”
For the open access component of the project, Taylor sought the help of Walz, who is also assistant director of open education and scholarly communications librarian for the University Libraries at Virginia Tech.
Walz assists researchers, teachers, and students in navigating copyright and open licensing in service of teaching and learning. “I have worked with many people developing openly licensed resources and publishing in novel formats, so partnering on this innovative project was a really good fit,” said Walz.
Part of their collaboration involved obtaining permission to openly license the materials, identifying hosting solutions for various file types generated by the project, and creating a document that would be easy for Virginia high school instructors to use. Walz is working with a library student worker to upload the lesson plans to the GoOpenVA platform, the open education resource platform for K12 educators in Virginia at the request of the Virginia Department of Education.
Walz said that documenting interviewee agreements to allow release under Creative Commons licenses would make it much easier to create shareable meaningful collections of resources that illustrate important historical periods.
“My goals are always to amplify others’ interesting work and to make information freely available and accessible to broader audiences through the Open Education Initiative,” said Walz. “The public good argument for such open educational resources is a strong motivator.”
Walz and Taylor believe strongly that knowledge of our shared history should be accessible to all. Because of this project, all parts of the collection are now free, downloadable, accessible by smartphone, and accompanied by a transcript. “Many students are already stretched thin by financial obligations, especially right now, and making free online resources available on multiple platforms can make a dent,” said Taylor.
“It is a really special collection,” said Walz. “If you like to listen to other peoples’ stories from other historical periods, this collection is for you. If you want to learn about Virginia history, listen, read the background history, and discuss the questions. For high school teachers, this is a wonderful collection of stories that relate to Virginia realities and are aligned with Virginia Standards. We hope that this collection contributes to enlivening Virginia history for students, teachers, and the general public.”
Project participants are grateful to the Virginians who allowed their stories to be recorded, and to over 20 archives that contributed recordings to this project. Feedback regarding this collection is welcome at the Voices of Virginia website.
Written by Elise Monsour Puckett