Samford University The BelltowerSeptember 2003

Students Help Preserve Historic Valley

"They’ve captured some essence of life in rural Alabama–a life that’s passing."

When Samford University history Professor Marlene Hunt Rikard’s Oral History: Tradition and Techniques course returned this spring after a decade-long hiatus, students who enrolled in the course became active participants in preserving Alabama’s past and documenting its present.

Rikard said she had always loved the time-intensive course and thought it important, but had set it aside for the 10 years she served as director of Samford’s London Programs. After stepping down from that position, she was free to take up the oral history course again, but found she needed to connect to new practices and scholarship and identify new areas in which student research might be helpful. Previously, her own research had provided the contacts needed for entree into the mining communities she wanted her students to document. Her current research didn’t offer such obvious contacts, but a chance encounter with Samford alumna Judy Prince ’66 led to a unique partnership between alumna, professor and students.

Prince, a clinical social worker in private practice in Birmingham, grew up in the Paint Rock Valley region of Jackson County in northeast Alabama and saw in the valley “a way of life there that was disappearing,” Rikard said. At the time Rikard met Prince, Prince already had secured grants to help her document life in the valley, protect it from urban sprawl and attract national recognition of its historical, cultural and environmental significance. Prince needed more trained interviewers to collect oral histories, especially those of the valley’s elders. So, Rikard asked her students to research the Paint Rock Valley, write traditional research papers and document life in the valley through oral histories and photography.

Rikard said it took a significant commitment on the part of her students to make the multiple, four-hour roundtrip drives their projects demanded. She said most students exceeded the required two trips and went back for further research, making a total of three or four visits to the valley. “They were pretty good sports” about the time involved, she said. Although they found the course challenging, “they liked the fact that it was a different kind of learning and a different process.”

Senior history student Megan Mullins said some of her peers were surprised by the ease with which they communicated with the elders of the valley. “When we stopped to visit some of the homes and meet people, students became so engrossed in their conversations that they didn't want to leave and had to be herded back into the van,” she said. Mullins, who documented a wildflower nursery and interviewed a former NASA engineer who retired to the valley, said she brought home a strong sense of the project’s value. “We were able to help people preserve their own history,” she said.

As their work began to inform other studies and help attract the national attention Prince sought for the valley, the students saw that their study was of immediate, practical benefit to the community in which they worked. Their photographs, interviews and research papers have value far beyond the Paint Rock Valley, however. Rikard said all of the materials collected by the students will be deposited in Samford’s Special Collection department for the use of historians and other researchers. “I think they were pretty proud of what they did,” Rikard said of her students. “They captured some essence of life in rural Alabama--a life that’s passing.”

More info about...

Jackson County, Alabama

Samford’s Department of History

Special Collection department of Samford’s University Library


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