Curtis Austin became the Assistant Director of the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage in 2000, before assuming the Directorship one year later. During his seven year tenure, the Center would expand its Civil Rights Documentation Project, becoming the definitive resource for researchers, teachers and museums seeking answers on the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi.
In this episode, Austin recalls growing in Yazoo City, Mississippi, the son of sharecroppers. He recounts his education and early career. His first oral history interview after becoming assistant director of the Center was of 104 year old King Evans. He remembers how it changed the way he thought about voting rights. As director of the oral history program at USM, Austin interviewed some key players in the Civil Rights Movement. He expresses pride in the Center’s work and discusses its importance.
Austin also discusses the Roots Reunion, a live Americana music program presented annually by the Center during the 1990s and 2000s. He describes the program’s impact.
The Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage has always relied on grant funding for special programs and projects. Austin expresses disappointment in the university’s unwillingness to assist the Center financially during lean years and questions their level of support for this “hidden gem” during previous administrations.
Dr. Shana Walton began working with the Mississippi Oral History Program in 1992. As an anthropologist, Walton worked to expand the MOHP’s mission to include preserving the state’s cultural heritage. She and Director Chuck Bolton assembled a team that included not just historians, but also political science majors, anthropologists, and folklorists. During that transformative decade, the MOHP became the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, a prominent name in the preservation of Civil Rights history. In this episode, Walton recalls conducting oral history workshops for local communities interested in preserving their memories.
It was during this period that Walton met, hired, and befriended a legend in the Civil Rights Movement, Worth Long. The son of an AME preacher, Long rose to prominence in 1963, when he became leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Selma, Alabama. By the time Long began working with the COHCH in the 1990s, he was suffering from a degenerative eye condition that was slowly robbing him of his sight, but that did not slow him down in the least.
Worth Long traveled around Mississippi by bus conducting oral history interviews even though he was legally blind, relying on the kindness of strangers to help him reach his destination. Shana Walton remembers how Long used his blindness as an opportunity to make friends and preserve stories. As a civil rights activist, Worth Long heeded his father’s advice on how to set aside anger and see the good in people. Walton marvels at how her friend’s love for humanity would overcome the emotions of the moment.
Oseola McCarty received national acclaim for donating the bulk of her life’s savings to the University of Southern Mississippi. Shana Walton discusses recording McCarty’s oral history and the impact of her gift.
PHOTO: Alabama Department of Archives and History
During the yearlong celebration of our 50th Anniversary, the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage has been interviewing former directors and staffers to preserve our own history. This week, we share the memories of Dr. Charles Bolton.
In 1990, Chuck Bolton became the fourth director of the Mississippi Oral History Program at USM. A Picayune native, Bolton had graduated from USM with a bachelor’s degree in history and moved to Durham, North Carolina to attend graduate school at Duke University. In this episode, he remembers his oral history professor and mentor Larry Goodwin and how being from Mississippi lead to a unique first interview.,
After receiving his Ph.D. in History, Bolton returned to USM to accept a teaching position in the History Department and the Directorship of the MOHP. He recalls the legacy of the Mississippi Oral History Program’s first director, Dr. Orley Caudill and how they were able to build on those early successes.
The Stennis Space Center Oral History Project was launched in 1991 by the Mississippi Oral History Program. Bolton discusses the roots of that fourteen year project and the opportunities it created. In 1992 Shana Walton was hired to be Assistant Director of the Mississippi Oral History Program. Bolton explains how her background in Linguistic Anthropology allowed the Program to evolve into the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage.
PHOTO: Ellisville Blues legend, Tommie T-Bone Pruitt performs at an early Roots Reunion show, an annual Cultural Heritage program put on by the Center during the 1990s and early 2000s.
This week, for our 50th Anniversary, we begin to document the story of us with a short series of episodes based on interviews conducted this spring of former directors and staffers. Unfortunately, our first director, Dr. Orley B. Caudill, Sr., passed away in 2015 at the age of 97. But luckily for us, his son, Brandt Caudill was willing to share his memories of his father and he had plenty of good stories!
Orley Caudill was working as a grocery store manager in Wenatchee, Washington when WWII erupted and soon found himself in the Army, guarding the Pacific coastline from possible Japanese invasion. He transferred into the Army Air Corp and served in the Pacific Theater as a navigator, bombardier, and radar operator. Caudill saw plenty of action. On one mission, his crew’s B25 bomber limped home with 450 bullet holes!
After the war, Caudill remained in the Air Force and flew night bombing missions during the Korean War. On one mission, their pilot was awarded the medal of honor and Caudill a bronze star. Caudill became an Air Force Public Information Officer and was stationed at Holloman Air Force Base for several years. He then served in Paris, taking his young family with him. Later, he served in the Pentagon before a final tour of duty in Vietnam. All told, he flew 120 combat missions!
By the time Caudill retired from the Air Force after 27 years, he had earned a Ph. D. in Political Science and moved his family to Hattiesburg, Mississippi to teach at USM in 1968. In 1971, he became the first director of the newly formed Mississippi Oral History Program and kept a grueling pace of 100 interviews per year until he retired in 1986.
In this episode Brandt Caudill recounts his father’s 27 year career in the U. S. Air Force. He recalls his father’s decision to move to Hattiesburg and teach Political Science at USM. Caudill also remembers his father’s love for oral history and the famous Mississippians he interviewed. Finally, he reflects on his father’s natural curiosity and zest for life throughout his 97 years.