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'Stories worth capturing': Oral history an interest for Creighton students, staff, faculty

The first drafts of history, it is said, are found in the newspapers.

But there’s only so much a newspaper can print.

Whole tomes of history reside inside people who were present at the creation, who took part in small or profound adjustments to the social fabric, who simply saw or heard or witnessed or remembered.

“Finding what’s missing from the historical record has become of greater interest to historians over the years,” said Heather Fryer, PhD, Creighton University’s Fr. Henry W. Casper, SJ, Professor of History. “The things that don’t show up in the official histories are often of great consequence for understanding major social currents. Those are stories worth capturing.”

To that end, on Oct. 29, Fryer, in her role as Casper Professor, hosted Creighton’s third annual Oral History Workshop with Mary Kay Quinlan, PhD, a professor in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications, and an expert in the collection of oral histories. The event drew eight people from Creighton and the wider community to talk about their interests in sometimes little-known but interesting corners of history.

Jessi Maynard, an American Studies major and senior administrative assistant in the Creighton College of Arts and Sciences, was at the workshop to help refine and learn about the next steps in her project, an oral history of traveling circus sideshows.

“The workshop made me feel a lot better about the entire process,” Maynard said. “Knowing that you don’t have to be the one to tell the whole story — that you can work with the people who were there and help them tell their own story, that was very beneficial for me. It also helped me to realize that I am open to any direction this project might take.”

Maynard’s project on sideshow performers stems from a larger interest in disability studies. She said she hopes, through her research and in collecting interviews with the performers — including those who might have a genetic syndrome like hypertrichosis (excessive body hair) or ectrodactyly (the fusing together of fingers and toes) that landed them particular notoriety in the sideshow world — to create a narrative laying out the fundamental humanity of people society may have labeled “freaks.”

“Some people assume that, especially if a person looks very different from them, or have drastically different experiences, then they are very different at the core,” Maynard said. “The thing I take from oral history, from sitting down with people and hearing their stories, you’re able to see how similar we all are, even though we might have different stories to reflect that. These individuals have spent their entire lives living great stories and with oral history, we can see who they are as people — not just performers.”

Fryer, who in October traveled to Hilo, Hawaii, to conduct research and interviews with survivors of two deadly tsunamis there in 1946 and 1960, said oral history can also lead into unexpected channels for exploration. The goal of Fryer’s study is to better understand how the sudden displacement of climate refugees affects both the displaced and the communities they move into.

While interviewing residents of a town that was washed away by the wave, Fryer said she assumed that event would understandably have the greatest resonance for them.

“But what I learned was that the period of devastation, while significant, was only a part of a much larger story they wanted to tell,” she said. “Several people were much more interested in talking about how the world changed for Hawaii in World War II. The preparation for war certainly changed things, but it was living with curfews, a prohibition on radios, and armed soldiers patrolling the neighborhood that really shook their worlds. There was also the interning of many Hawaiians of Japanese descent, and relations with the mainland have always been of interest. Oral history gives us an opportunity to straighten out the places where historians have concretized portions of time and given a narrative rooted in what historians assume to be a pivotal event.”

Maynard is in the midst of researching and planning a trip to Gibsonton, Florida, which has historically served as a retirement destination and sanctuary for many sideshow performers. This summer, she also ventured to a county fair in Ohio to see a sideshow called World of Wonders and speak with some of the performers. She’s also kept her eye on a website dedicated to providing historical resources on traveling circuses and their movements in the U.S., along with documents like newspaper advertisements and reviews about various traveling shows.

Her vision, Maynard said, is to be able to have her project find a home on such a website and serve a wider purpose for people interested in the performers, their lives and culture.

“I want to make some kind of a contribution,” she said. “This work is interesting to me and I feel it’s important. No matter what, I feel I’ve learned a lot and will continue to learn more about this history.”

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