Oral History Project
This project, supported by grants from the West Virginia Humanities Council and the Albert LePage Center for History in the Public Interest, employs the tools of oral history to capture a region’s experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, an event of worldwide historic importance.
The Pandemic in the Eastern Panhandle
The Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, which includes Jefferson, Berkeley, and Morgan counties, played an important part in the history of the pandemic. West Virginia was the last state to record a case of COVID-19, and not until March 16, 2020 was the first case confirmed, in Shepherdstown. That case, as well as the state’s initial mishandling of it, made international news.
After that, life in the Panhandle changed dramatically. Shepherd University announced that it would remain closed after spring break, and the local public school system suspended classes for the rest of the school year. The governor placed the Eastern Panhandle under lockdown, with residents ordered to shelter in place. Businesses deemed non-essential closed, their future uncertain. Those parents who had not lost their jobs suddenly found themselves both coordinating their children’s distance education and working from home, many for the first time. Common household items were suddenly scarce or completely unavailable. Older, more vulnerable people were stuck at home, and many residents feared for their livelihoods, or even their lives. As cases multiplied in surrounding areas, life in the region had become a sleepless period of watching and waiting, a time of intense uncertainty. From that spring until now, the Eastern Panhandle has continued to contend with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our project captures these experiences for future humanities scholars, while also addressing the needs of students who have lost jobs and/or are seeing their graduation plans endangered due to lost internship opportunities. This initiative has allowed our students to gain valuable oral history interview skills, and collect and present interviews documenting the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the residents of West Virginia.
Oral history captures historical events in ways that other sources do not. It can document and probe emotions, attitudes, and mindsets. Oral history also focuses on gathering the experiences of individuals who may not otherwise leave behind a historical record. Finally, while in some ways the COVID-19 crisis is being exceptionally well documented on social media, the extent to which this documentation will be preserved for future historians is completely unknown. Printed oral history transcripts placed in archival and library collections represent a tried and tested method for preserving a historical record well into the future.
For all its advantages, oral history is also very labor intensive, with many hours required to prepare for interviews, keep track of deeds of gift and other legal documents, and to transcribe and otherwise make the interviews available to the community. In order to make this project manageable, our efforts focus on the three counties in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. Our project will capture the community’s memories and current impressions of this unprecedented crisis while they are still fresh, as well as document experiences as the region reopens.
Our interviewees have diverse backgrounds and perspectives: including local K-12 teachers and students, business owners, farmers, university students, faculty, and administrators, and local government officials. In addition to gathering brief life histories, interviewers posed questions such as the following: At what point did the emergency truly hit home for you? How has it impacted your daily life? What do you do to cope with the stress? What does your daily routine look like now as compared to before the emergency? What do you think about how the emergency has been handled at the local, state, and national level? What are you most afraid will happen? Are there any good things you think might happen as a result? What are you doing to protect yourself and your community from infection? What are you doing to stay socially active? What is the role of technology in maintaining your social contacts? Have your views towards your community changed in the course of the pandemic? Have you or someone you know lost their job as a result of the pandemic? How has the pandemic impacted your business? How has the pandemic changed your plans for the future?
History faculty Dr. Keith Alexander and Dr. Julia Sandy are directing the project. Dr. Alexander previously headed the Robert C. Byrd Oral History Project and has collaborated with the Historic Shepherdstown Commission on several oral histories. Dr. Sandy has trained students in collecting oral histories at both Shepherd University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
With the permission of the interviewees, audio and video from the interviews are now available online. To access the interviews, click here, or click on the Interviews button on the left menu.