The Center for Oral History was founded at the University of Southern Mississippi in 1971. This unit, primarily staffed by history professors such as Neil R. McMillen and Kenneth McCarty, began by recording the life stories of individuals who had lived through and participated in the civil rights movement. This endeavor blossomed into a larger effort that included capturing the oral histories of a wide range of Mississippians, from the famous to ordinary citizens. Though its budget and staff remained small throughout its first two decades of existence, the center demonstrated its worth by capturing and archiving the stories of Mississippi’s most famous politicians, writers, and journalists as well as its unsung heroes and little-known citizens, thereby providing the public with unlimited access to these stories.
This public access has made the center the place of choice for those doing research on any number of topics related to Mississippi—the timber industry; quilt making; foodways; blues music; the lives of veterans of World Wars I and II, the Vietnam War, and both Gulf Wars and the Afghanistan War. By the early 1990s the center had evolved into a freestanding unit at the University of Southern Mississippi and changed its name to the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, reflecting its new vision and mission. Under the leadership of Mississippi native and Southern Miss graduate Charles Bolton, who arrived as director in 1990, the center embarked on a number of ambitious projects. One of the most successful of these projects has been the Mississippi Oral History Program (MOHP).
With funding from the Mississippi legislature, through the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and the Mississippi Humanities Council, the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage created the MOHP to record the voices of Mississippians from all walks of life and to encourage communities to document their local histories. This funding provided grants to the communities, offered staff time for technical assistance, and helped support the facility where those histories are preserved and made available to the public. The MOHP captured national attention in the spring of 2001, when National Public Radio came to Mississippi to do a retrospective on thirty years of change in the state and featured the program as a positive and creative state effort. MOHP projects have been featured in numerous books and popular and scholarly articles as well as incorporated into theatrical productions, museum exhibits, film documentaries, and K–12 curricula across the state.
The MOHP has conducted projects from Lee County and Starkville in Northeast Mississippi through the Delta region and all along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. The directors of these projects then put on public programs to demonstrate how these oral histories were essential to understanding the many changes and advances that had taken place in the state. Highlighting the lives of individuals such as John C. Robinson, a Gulfport resident and former head of the Haile Selassie’s Ethiopian Air Force who helped to train the Tuskegee Airmen, these projects became a staple of the center’s operation.
The Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage continued under the leadership and direction of historian Curtis Austin, a native of Yazoo City and a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi. With resources taken from the MOHP, Austin put together a CD-ROM and timeline, Ordinary People Living Extraordinary Lives: The Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, that teachers use to educate grade school students in the history of the movement. In 2003 Stephen Sloan arrived as assistant director and later codirector and helped create Mississippi Moments, a radio program that used MOHP interviews to tell the story of the Magnolia State through four-minute vignettes. The Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage was later led by Louis Kyriakoudes and then codirected by Kevin Greene and Heather Stur.
By 2016 the MOHP’s collection numbered in the thousands and included the Hurricane Katrina Project, Mississippi Nurses Association Project, Mississippi Supreme Court Oral History Project, John C. Stennis National Aeronautics and Space Center Project, Choctaw Band of Mississippi Indians Project, and Madison County Oral History Project. Today the MOHP serves as a national and international model of an oral history program that is responsive to a growing and constantly changing community.
- Mississippi Oral History Program, University of Southern Mississippi, website, www.usm.edu/msoralhistory/