Share Your Stories of Life in Montgomery County; Oral History Project Kicks Off in Blacksburg

Apr 9, 2019

A Virginia Tech history professor is holding an oral history day next week to record people’s accounts of their lives in southwestern Virginia’s Montgomery county. And you’re invited. 

Undergraduate VT students in Jessica Taylor's public history class interview a senior citizen together

Assistant professor of history, Jessica Taylor, had just moved to Blacksburg and, like newcomers everywhere, she went to a garage sale looking for some chairs for her new place.

“And the mayor's friend was actually at the garage sale.  I overheard him and a friend talking about another friend that had just died and they were so sad that they hadn't gotten her stories, and 'wouldn’t it be really great if we did an oral history project.' That's my whole background so I just said, ‘Hi I'm a new oral historian here and I would love to help you.' ”

Serendipity is the mother of invention.

“They were pumped, so that's how we got started. I expected it to be a smaller project and it turned out, they gave me a list of something like eighty names, so it's going to be probably many, many years before we get through all of this.”

She and her students will transcribe the recordings and catalogue the audio. It’s one thing to have written accounts of the past, but  quite another to hear the voices, the expressions, the humanity from people recounting events of their lives.

Bob Miller's Brunswick stew story is a case in point: “Mom used to make Brunswick stew and that’s an old Virginia tradition….”

Miller grew up near Christiansburg. His family came here on the Great Wagon Road around the turn of the 18th century.

Miller recalls, “So my dad would go hunting and he would bring home a brace of squirrels and he would dress them out and bring them to the house and ask mom to make Brunswick stew. So, she would put the squirrels in the freezer and then when dad went out the next time, she would make Brunswick stew. She made it with pork chops and chicken breasts, and she would take the squirrels and feed them to the dogs and because, she said, ‘I’m not eating rodents.’ So, my dad always said, that the reason my mom’s Brunswick stew was so delicious; because of the squirrels, (laughter.)”   

Taylor points out, that if we had only a written record of Brunswick stew recipe, we’d be missing the nuances of what’s going on between the lines. “We would never know what his mother was actually putting in the stew.  We would just assume that people created a meal based just on the recipe card, but it turns out that secret family recipes and traditions like this, are actually very flexible.  We don't get to see that if we just look at the written record. We need the oral history to understand how people actually took these traditions and made them work for them.”  We also see, she says, “how taste changes over, time what’s acceptable for us to eat.”

So far, in Taylor’s oral history collection, there are stories about people’s first dates, old and mostly forgotten marriage rituals, life as a student at Virginia Tech and  what the area used to look like, literally and figuratively.

Debbie Sherman Lee was from Wake Forest Virginia and grew up Christiansburg. She went to Friends Elementary School and later taught at Montgomery County Public Schools.

“They had a movie theatre called ‘The Palace,’ downtown so, on Saturdays we could pop our own popcorn in those Kroger bags and take a Kroger bag of popcorn and walk downtown to the movie theatre and go watch movies and just have fun. Now, because we were black, we had to go up in the balcony. And, what they didn't realize was, that was the best part, because you were up high and you could see everything, you didn't have any obstructions or anything so we really liked it.”

Taylor says, what is interesting about Lee’s story, is that Taylor never asked about segregation, but that was the what came up in their conversation. “We’re used to thinking about segregation and racism as these big dramatic confrontations that we see in movies and it's like a storyline where everybody comes away ‘learning something’ or people ‘come away changed in some way’.But, the sad and darker truth is that it's something that you just have to consider all the time if you grew up this way, if you grew up during segregation. It's just a very ordinary and kind of sad part of your life and the really amazing thing about this is ,that she still found a ‘good’ in this. And she basically says, that the white folks that are sitting in the floor of theater actually didn’t realize that they were giving up the best seats in the house by being racist.

Taylor is coordinating a recording day event April 16th at Blacksburg’s Alexander Black House. Audio and transcripts will be housed in Newman Library’s Special Collections department and made available online for researchers and the public." 

If you would like to be interviewed on Tuesday or afterward contact Jessica Taylor.