Three-Century Project: Beaufort history is a collection of personal stories

July 26, 2010 

When the Beaufort Three-Century Project wraps up on Jan. 17, 2011, and we take time to reflect on the past three years of engaging the community in documenting our history in the lead-up to the city's tricentennial celebration, I believe one of the most memorable "projects of the project" will be the "300 Years, 300 Stories" oral history archive.

Each Friday and Saturday, I have the opportunity to meet with people who love this community, turn on a recorder and listen -- really listen -- to people talk about their lives in Beaufort. Sometimes I laugh. Sometimes I cry. I always go home at the end of the day feeling like I've been given the greatest gift possible. When volunteers conduct the interviews, I find myself surreptitiously listening from outside the makeshift recording booth.

In this day of visual overload, we have televisions flashing non-stop in restaurants, banks, doctor's offices and the backseats of cars. We work looking at text, pictures and pop-ups on computer screens. We tap virtual buttons at an ATM to get cash and then use digital directions on a parking kiosk to figure out how to put that cash somewhere else.

Don't get me wrong -- a powerful visual image can move me to tears, and I'm no Luddite.

But this project is about listening. When we capture these stories, it is merely a conversation between two people sitting in borrowed wicker chairs with a fan oscillating nearby and an Edward R. Murrow-era microphone propped up on a table. After being maneuvered though the minor mysteries of computer editing, the recordings are archived on CDs and posted on the website. That's when the magic begins.

I encourage you to try it. Go to www.beaufortthreecentury.org, select a name, sit back and listen, really listen.

We modeled this project a bit after StoryCorps, the national endeavor that broadcasts terrific and tender personal accounts on NPR every Friday morning. They started out with a booth in a subway and now have traveling Airstreams and temporary sites all over the U.S. collecting personal stories and archiving them in the Library of Congress. We had originally tried to host a booth in Beaufort, but when that proved unlikely, the folks at StoryCorps suggested we do it ourselves.

And they helped.

The program's staff gave us tips, sample questions and a reality check about editing. We listened to CDs of interviews and trained volunteers. They sent a box of StoryCorps slogan pins, and if you see me around town, I'm often wearing one-- "Ask now. Listen forever;" "Tell your story. Pass it on;" and my personal favorite, "Listening is an act of love."

Early on, we learned that doing this project carries responsibilities. The concept is to make these stories part of a public archive so anyone can log on to the website, clink on a link and hear others talk about this place we call home. We ask permission to do this before we turn on the recorder. People trust us to honor their stories and we strive to do that. In the coming weeks, if you see written excerpts in this newspaper, know that we ask permission before we do that, too.

We invite you to be part of this. If you are computer savvy, there's the do-it -yourself option directly through the website for short recordings of less than 10 minutes. We'd welcome having you come in to the office for a longer conversation.

We are seeking stories from all sorts of people. Some have been here as part of families that have been Beaufortonians for generations; others are newcomers. Some have name recognition and others are only known to their families and friends. Some are old and some are young and some are in between.

Consider it. Share your story. Pass it on.

Deborah S. Johnson is project coordinator of Beaufort Three-Century Project

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