Echoed past: Baylor’s Institute for Oral History tells stories of lost souls

Baylor's Institute for Oral History, located in the Carroll Science Building, offers a time capsule of the history of Waco and Central Texas. Grace Everett | Photo Editor

By Lily Nussbaum | Staff Writer

Preserving the voices of the past, the Baylor Institute for Oral History contains a vast collection of interview recordings that detail the events and history of Waco, Central Texas and the nation.

“Together with our interviewees, we document memories representing the diversity of American society and encompassing varied topics of social and historical significance,” Adrienne Cain, the assistant director of the Institute for Oral History, said via email.

The institute houses interviews from notable alumni such as Robert Gilbert and Barbara Ann Walker — the first Black graduates from Baylor — in addition to accounts of notable Waco history like stories from the survivors and witnesses of the Waco tornado of 1953.

“Since oral history is a first-person account of someone’s experience, we can experience or understand an era of their lives that we ourselves may not have witnessed,” Cain said.

The institute’s online digital collection has more than 4,000 interviews separated into over 200 projects. The projects’ topics range from Texas Baptists to arts and culture.

In 2013, Amber Adamson, a lecturer in the journalism department, conducted interviews for her book, “The Last Alarm.” Her work focuses on the first responders of the West fertilizer plant explosion, and during her initial interviews, she said she realized the audio needed to be preserved and kept in a location other than her DropBox.

“Most of the work that I’ve done has been with just the words that people read, but as I was hearing people deliver these stories and the emotion that’s behind them and just the pauses and the way that people phrase things … you don’t get that in print,” Adamson said.

When there is a tragic event in which death occurs, Adamson said it is vital to tell the stories of the dead and their sacrifice, often so that their deaths were not in vain.

Through her interviews — some now kept in conjunction with other West accounts in the institute — Adamson said people got to tell their own stories as well as the stories of their deceased colleagues and loved ones.

“There’s something extremely important about being asked to tell your story and being listened to when you are telling your story,” Adamson said. “As they were recounting [their stories], they were going through the processing and the healing that is necessary when you’ve experienced a traumatic event like that.”

Adamson said support from the institute, from transcription service to audio equipment, helped her complete the project. Five years later, she said she received a grant from the institute to go back and interview her original sources. Grants are regularly offered to faculty and community partners to incorporate and create oral history projects.

“We as humans identify with one another through stories,” Adamson said. “To hear someone deliver their story is powerful.”