"What people say is history. What we used to think was history - kings and queens, treaties, inventions, big battles, beheadings, Caesar, Napoleon, Pontius Pilate, Columbus, William Jennings Bryan - is only formal history and largely false. I'll put down the informal history of the short-sleeved multitude - what they had to say about their jobs, love affairs, vittles, sprees, scrapes, and sorrows - or I'll perish in the attempt." -- Joe Gould (quoted by Joseph Mitchell, "Professor Sea Gull," The New Yorker, December 12, 1942)
In reconstructing the past, historians have traditionally relied on written sources such as official documents, personal correspondence, journals, diaries, and newspapers. But written sources can only tell us part of the story.
The modern craft of oral history was pioneered during and immediately after World War II, but it did not emerge as an academic discipline until many years later. As portable recording technologies emerged in the 1960s and '70s and historians began trying to reconstruct the lives of non-elites—the kind of people who did not keep written diaries, correspond with others, or give interviews to newspaper reporters—they turned to the method of oral history to record additional sources of information. An oral history interview is a recorded dialogue between an interviewer and an eyewitness to an historical event about the eyewitness’s perspectives on and memories of that event.
The UNT Oral History Program holds one of the nation's largest and oldest collections of oral histories, and adds new interviews to the collection all the time. Nearly all of our interviews are transcribed and edited; UNT archives the transcripts and recordings and makes them available to the community. Academics have used the collection to research and write books on subjects as diverse as the Texas State Legislature, World War II prisoners of war, and Texas environmental history, to name just three. Non-academics have used the collection to learn more about their family history, deepen their connection with their corner of Texas, or simply learn more about a subject that interests them.
History of the Program
According to our own oral tradition, one evening in the late 1930s Dr. Sam B. McAlister, chairman of the North Texas State Teachers College (now University of North Texas) political science department, had an extensive conversation with the former Texas Governor Miriam A. ("Ma") Ferguson. The first elected woman governor in the United States spoke long and frankly that night about her tumultuous political career.
Several years later, one of McAlister's colleagues, Dr. H. W. Kamp, heard about the conversation and was disheartened that nobody had been there to record it. Since Mrs. Ferguson had died in 1961, scholars lost forever her personal reminiscences from the colorful political era of which she was a central part.
Kamp could not forget this lost opportunity, especially after having heard about the creation of the Oral History Research Office at Columbia University, where scholars were conducting taped interviews with leading national figures concerning their roles in historic events. He wrote Columbia and received information concerning the organization, policies, and procedures of its program. Finally, in February 1964, he called the initial meeting to lay the groundwork for establishing an oral history program at UNT.
Dr. Ronald E. Marcello led the program from 1968 to 2005, establishing it as an internationally-recognized institution with one of the largest collections of oral history interviews in the United States. Under his direction the program's collections built strengths in World War II history, New Deal history, and Texas political history, among other areas. Dr. J. Todd Moye took over as program director in 2005. In addition to building on the collection's traditional strengths, he, UNT faculty, and UNT graduate students have built collections in the areas of civil rights history, Mexican American history, immigration history, and LGBT history, among others.
The general purpose of the Oral History Program is to preserve, through recorded interviews, the memoirs of Texans who have been eyewitnesses to or participants in historic events. During its formative years the program was oriented almost exclusively toward Texas politics, politicians, and business leaders. The interviewers gathered the experiences of the elite, people who had occupied positions in decision-making power or who had been instrumental in setting taste or opinion. Since that time, however, the Oral History Program has broadened its base and now collects the memoirs of Texans from a much wider background.
The Program provides source material for scholars writing books, articles, and monographs dealing with Texas history and government; lends technical assistance to members of the North Texas faculty and provides a platform for their research; trains graduate students and selected undergraduates in the theory and methods of oral history; and contributes toward the preservation of our state and national heritage.
J. Todd Moye, a scholar of the American civil rights movement, is the Director of the UNT Oral History Program and an Associate Professor of History. He has been at UNT since 2005. Amy Hedrick, the Program's Administrative Assistant, is also a graduate student in the UNT Department of History, where she studies the history of women in the American military. Our work is made possible by many UNT faculty and graduate student collaborators and partners in the community.
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