As 2023 comes to a close, Louisiana community shares oral histories with national project

LAFAYETTE, Louisiana — It’s important to preserve oral histories accurately.

Perhaps few people or entities know that better than StoryCorps, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to recording meaningful conversations tied to American history. While many people are grabbing up last-minute holiday gifts or meditating on the principles of Kwanzaa, the StoryCorps mobile stops program is making its last stop of the year in Lafayette, Louisiana, a city of flavorful food, dance halls, and people of Creole and Cajun descent.

StoryCorps believes that everyone has a story to tell, and everyone’s story is important,” Franchesca Peña, Mobile Tour sites manager, told Black News & Views. “The Mobile Tour represents an effort to democratize oral history and let more people, coast to coast, participate,” she said.

Maison Creole, the first Black history museum in Lafayette, Louisiana, has been instrumental in making sure the community’s oral history is shared with StoryCorps, the national nonprofit that collects Americans’ accounts of life. Photo credit: Quinn Foster, NABJ Black News & Views

The final stop in Lafayette is one of 10 locations that StoryCorps made this year around the country. The recordings are stored in an online archive and at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in Washington. And the people of Lafayette are ensuring that while their stop is last, it is not least. The community has banded together to make sure the project is a success.

Southwest Louisiana has a unique and rich Creole culture, history, and families that are often misunderstood. Through StoryCorp’s mobile stop, community members and organizations have had an opportunity to reclaim their stories, raise awareness, and cut confusion.

StoryCorps partnered with a local Lafayette radio station KRVS 88.7FM — a National Public Radio (NPR) member station — to record, preserve, and collect stories from residents about the region and their lives. The stories will air on KRVS and NPR.

“StoryCorps visits a location [and] it partners with the local public radio station on many fronts,” KRVS General Manager Cheryl Devall told Black News & Views. “Stations secure a month’s housing for the mobile tour team, assist with outreach to local organizations, and help promote the opportunity to record interviews and how to sign up,” she said.

In Lafayette, the StoryCorps recording booth is located behind Maison Creole de Freetown, Lafayette’s first Black history museum.

The StoryCorps mobile stop behind Maison Creole, the first Black history museum in Lafayette, Louisiana. Photo credit: Quinn Foster, NABJ Black News & Views
The StoryCorps mobile stop behind Maison Creole, the first Black history museum in Lafayette, Louisiana. Photo credit: Quinn Foster, NABJ Black News & Views

In decades past, the collection of oral histories was white male-dominated, in spite of the great contributions of anthropologists such as late writer Zora Neale Hurston, late choreographer Katherine Dunham, and Yale University Prof. Elijah Anderson. The stories of Black Americans, Afro-Creoles, and Indigenous people were historically recorded and shared by white male anthropologists and sociologists from a Eurocentric perspective.

But communities like Lafayette are banding together with organizations like StoryCorps to make sure their history becomes as much a part of the public space as that of any other group. 

A year ago, Maison Freetown established Freetown Sound Lab, an oral storytelling initiative. Museum founder Erica Melancon-Fox reached out to StoryCorps last year, but things did not go as planned. The stars aligned a year later, and now the timeless stories of Southwest Louisiana are being shared.

“Maison Creole de Freetown keeps the authenticity of Southwest Louisiana culture by honoring the people, traditions, stories, and practices of this rich, resilient community,” Melancon-Fox said. “We work tirelessly [to] give patrons first-hand exposure to the people who have lived these experiences.”

The collaboration with the radio station helped the project along, Melancon-Fox said.

“Collaboration and community organizing has been the cornerstone of the Black

experience,” she told Black News & Views. “We are a communal people historically and to an extent, the idea of community work, or ‘the village,’ or banding together is in our DNA. Therefore, collaboration is second nature to us whether we realize it or not,” she said.

The community embraced the collaboration concept too.

Milton Arceneaux, co-founder and COO of online clothing company Louisiana Creole Culture, donated time to sign up community members for the project and helped organize the mobile stop. 

“We feel an obligation to document today for those who will be present in the near future and those who will come later,” Arceneaux said.

StoryCorps will send participants a copy of their audio recording and archive and share their stories for the world to hear. Their goal is to create an archive that displays an accurate and full representation of the experiences of people living in the United States.

When asked what her hopes for the project are, Fox said, “I hope people will simply share their conversations, no matter how big or small. We all have something to say and it’s so beautiful to listen and gain perspective directly from the person. Hearing the tonal inflections, the voice cracking, or perhaps a ‘choked up’ moment brings the listener into their world.”

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