East Baton Rouge Parish Library Archivist Melissa Eastin collects recollections people have of major historic events and events in their own personal lives.
With a goal of documenting experiences of different generations, Eastin records oral histories of people with a connection to Baton Rouge for the project, “Where Were You?”
When Eastin was hired three years ago to man the River Center Branch’s Baton Rouge Room, there were already 61 oral history tapes with interviews conducted by members of the Junior League of Baton Rouge between 1976 and 1985.
Eastin, with assistance from reference librarian John Hansen, is adding interviews to the collection.
“We interview the people, make a CD, transcribe the interview, and then we make the tapes and transcripts available for circulation,” Eastin said.
The Junior League collection, which is also available for circulation, contains interviews with people from all walks of life including prominent businessmen, early preservationists, leaders in the black and white communities and homemakers.
Because these were done before 1985, many contain reminiscences of events that occurred at the beginning of the last century or stories told by family members decades before.
In one of the new interviews, Betty Toepfer describes how she and her sister were on a double date to the movies, when a theater usher announced that the United States had entered World War II.
“The usher said that all servicemen needed to report to their bases,” Eastin said.
In her interview, Toepfer also talks about the funeral of Carl Weiss, the alleged killer of Huey P. Long.
In another interview, Claude Smith describes how he and his wife walked through a park at the end of Cora Drive and through a cow field to pick out their lot in Broadmoor, which was just being developed.
An interview of Willie Smith tells of her experiences as one of the first graduates of the Southern University College of Business .
“She was recruited to work at Tuskegee University,” Eastin said. “She talks about meeting (W.E.B.) DuBois and the Tuskegee Airmen. She told how on weekends, she would fly to Atlanta with the airmen to hear music.”
In his interview, Amos Kent talks about living through the Great Depression in the North Highlands neighborhood.
“His family was better off than some,” Eastin said. “He tells how they fed people who came to their back door.”
“Leon Standifer basically interviewed himself,” Eastin said. Standifer is an author and LSU professor emeritus of horticulture.
“In one of my favorite stories, he tells how he was hired by the Firestone Co. to work on making their rubber plantations in Liberia more profitable,” Eastin said.
Firestone’s work in Liberia was done in a fabricated community designed to be self-sufficient.
“Here was someone who experienced such a real unique cultural moment in horticulture and history,” Eastin said.
Most of the oral histories are taped interviews, although occasionally the person being interviewed will provided pictures or memorabilia
“Sometimes people give us things they have written,” Eastin said. “This is so great.”
Charles Leblanc provided a picture of the ship he served on in the Korean Conflict, his honorable discharge from the Navy and a booklet he wrote about the toys he made when he was growing up.
Eastin is always on the lookout for people to give their oral histories. Pre-interview forms are available online and at the reference and circulation desks at all branches of the library.
If a person meets the library’s criteria to do an interview, Eastin conducts a second pre-interview and begins research to be prepared for the actual oral history interview.
Eastin reads newspapers from the era to understand events that might have affected a subject.
“I want to be able to ask the right questions,” Eastin said.
She tries to make the subjects feel as comfortable as possible.
“I use a very small recorder, about the size of a deck of cards,” she said. “I look on the interview as a visit, a visit with guided questions.”
Do you have some interesting stories to tell about Baton Rouge? Would you like to participate in the East Baton Rouge Parish oral history project? Pick up a pre-interview form at the reference and circulation desks at any library branch in the parish, get a form online at http://ebrpl.com or call (225) 389-4960.