“This big book is the autobiography of an illiterate man.” So begins All God’s Dangers, the award-winning autobiography by Theodore Rosengarten, a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient and long-time resident of McClellanville, South Carolina.
Rosengarten is among an eclectic mix of artisans, laborers, writers and retirees who call the town of McClellanville home. Rosengarten and his neighbors added “interviewee” to their resumes, as they relayed stories about their lives, and the history of their town, to a group of UNC Charlotte honors students.
The 14 students, their instructor, Robert Arnold, and University Honors Program (UHP) Director Connie Rothwell, descended on the tiny fishing village (population 400) as part of a project designed to capture the rich oral history of the town, and to fulfill a community service requirement mandated by the UNC Charlotte University Honors Program.
With funding from private donations, the students were transported to McClellanville, housed and fed for the weekend. Upon arrival, the students toured town and enjoyed dinner with the residents. The next day, the students paired off in teams of two and conducted the interviews. After collecting the material the students returned to campus where they transcribed the interviews and are compiling them as a collection to be sent to The Village Museum at McClellanville.
Though the students received interviewing and equipment training from Assistant University Librarian for Special Collections Katie McCormick, some harbored fears of being met with silence by the interviewees. It turns out their fears were unfounded.
“The problem we had was getting people to stop talking so the students could get to the next interview,” Arnold said.
Sam Watson, UNC Charlotte professor emeritus of English, helped coordinate the project. A resident of McClellanville, Watson said, “Here, once people get cranked up they don’t want to shut up.”
Since the advent of the printing press the art of oral story telling has been eclipsed by the written word, but oral historical accounts have distinct value apart from the written record.
Buried in the memories of the townspeople are the reminiscences of events and personal interactions that form the foundation of a community’s collective identity. Oral histories uncover and preserve these reminiscences; and sometimes they even help level the historical playing field.
“You are probably familiar with the old adage ‘History is written by the winners.’ In a very basic sense, sharing one’s story and having a voice is an exercise in power; it is a way of adding one’s version of events to complement and compete with the stories of others,” Arnold said.
Click here for more information about the UNC Charlotte University Honors Program.