The College of Charleston Libraries has been awarded a $150,000 grant from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation’s (GDDF) “Broadening Narratives” initiative in support of the new Lowcountry Oral History Initiative (LOHI).

To deepen understanding of the Lowcountry’s rich history and culture, LOHI gathers and makes available recorded memories from the region’s residents. By capturing these stories, LOHI seeks to collectively illustrate communities of color, LGBTQ+ perspectives, working-class narratives, small community experiences as well as other underrepresented groups and viewpoints.

LOHI is organized around three main objectives:

  • Program staff and their associates conduct interviews to promote the study of the region. The resulting recordings and transcriptions are then made available to the public.
  • Through regular course offerings and independent research projects, LOHI provides opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to experience the challenges and rewards of conducting and preserving oral history interviews.
  • In the interest of promoting best practices in oral history research, LOHI offers training through community workshops and consultations.

LOHI is unique by serving as both a platform for sharing oral histories online through the Lowcountry Digital Library, as well as empowering CofC students, faculty and community members with the tools and expertise to conduct interviews themselves. In this way, LOHI encourages participants to take ownership of their histories – to tell their stories in their own words.

“There are many groups who have always been at the backbone of our histories, struggles and triumphs – labor organizations, Native American tribes, faith communities and more – whose stories have previously been overlooked or told by people outside the communities, often incompletely or inaccurately,” says Ellen Placey Wadey, program director at GDDF. Through LOHI, “The College of Charleston’s Lowcountry Digital Library has created a platform to not only document these narratives but to have them told by the communities from which they come. We all want to hear our voices telling our own experiences and histories.”

A prominent component of LOHI will include “oral history backpacks,” kits available for check-out from Addlestone Library that include all the necessary technology for LOHI participants to record interviews in the field.

“Technology can be daunting for many,” says Placey Wadey. “By assembling these oral history backpacks that can be checked out for projects, the technology barrier – and all the associated elements of recording oral histories – becomes accessible, practical and user-friendly. And the community choosing to conduct an oral history project will have agency to tell their own stories in their own way.”

The College Libraries were early believers in the power of oral histories. Since its founding in 1995, the Libraries’ Jewish Heritage Collection has recorded 600 oral histories documenting Southern Jewish American experiences across South Carolina. The Libraries’ SC LGBTQ Archives, launched in 2017, and the Avery Research Center’s Documenting the Arc program, launched in 2020, continue this tradition of outreach to underrepresented Lowcountry communities. Both SC LGBTQ Archives and Documenting the Arc received generous support from GDDF.

“The College Libraries could not ask for a more committed partner than GDDF,” says John White, dean of libraries. “Their dedication to enriching the tapestry of Lowcountry history is long-standing and, with their support of LOHI, unwavering as we work together bringing to public attention these pivotal stories often overlooked or nearly forgotten. The preservation of the region’s history and culture, especially that of under-represented communities, owes much to the generosity of the GDDF team and their belief in the power and importance of these materials and stories.”

GDDF – which supports land conservation, artistic vitality and regional collections for the people of the Lowcountry region of South Carolina and the Chicago metro area – awarded grants to 12 recipients as part of its “Broadening Narratives” initiative. The five Lowcountry-based organizations include:

  • The College of Charleston Libraries
  • Atlantic Beach
  • Williams Rush Museum of African American Arts & Culture
  • Open Space Institute
  • South Carolina Humanities Council

Additionally, GDDF renewed its $25,000 grants to each of the five Broadening Narratives advisory groups that assisted with the formation of the Broadening Narratives funding initiative and have continued to provide counsel, including the College’s Lowcountry Digital Library.

“The LOHI and the oral history backpacks will open up so many opportunities to hear these important voices, and to listen and learn from communities previously overlooked or excluded,” adds Placey Wadey. “We will all be the richer for it.”