By Allison Tracy, KHS Oral History Administrator
The Kentucky Oral History Commission (KOHC) was founded in 1976, and its first effort was to collect oral histories of Kentuckians through the county libraries. Each library received recording equipment and was given the task of documenting the stories and memories of residents within that county.
Not only is the KOHC itself quite unique (it is the only commission of its kind in the United States), but the resulting collection from this inaugural program also stands apart in many ways. At KHS, we refer to the resulting interviews as the County Collection. It distinguishes itself both in sheer size and in content. Within and across counties, the stories people told cover a wide range of experiences, time periods and topics. The many facets of the County Collection make it a particularly brilliant gem in the KOHC oral history collection.
This October, we decided to take a look at the County Collection and see if we could dig up (pun intended) some stories that not only would send shivers down your spine, but also would highlight some unexpected aspects of these oral histories.
We selected two clips from an interview with Genevieve Wilson, by Robin Roy West. She conducted the interview in November 1978 as part of the Russell County Oral History Project. In clip one, Wilson tells the interviewer ghost stories her mother passed down to her. (There is a little girl’s voice present throughout the clips – likely a child or young sibling of Wilson.)
In clip two, Wilson tells the interviewer about a dream she had of her grandfather's death. Wilson is difficult to hear at the very end, but she is discussing how she wished she had grasped the meaning of the dream.
Through these clips, not only do we hear some chilling tales, but we also we learn about Wilson’s family; funerary traditions in the area; folklore passed down within the Wilson family; and personal beliefs around ghosts, clairvoyance and the afterlife. The nuance and depth of information in oral histories is what makes it such a good primary source, and what makes the County Collection such an interesting and valuable treasure.
(Editor’s Note: Find more about the collections from individual counties at passtheword.ky.gov. Specific interviews can be accessed at the Martin F. Schmidt Research Library at the Kentucky Historical Society. Please call ahead to do so: 502-564-1792. The Kentucky Oral History Commission commemorates its 40th year in 2016. The only commission of its kind in the United States dedicated to providing financial and technical assistance to oral history repositories and oral historians, KOHC has positioned Kentucky historical organizations, libraries and archives to lead the way in collecting and preserving oral histories, like these. The Kentucky Historical Society administers and houses KOHC.)