By Melanie Abrams
Barbara Carpenter, executive director of the Mississippi Humanities Council, is quick to counter the assumption that Mississippi is not ethnically diverse. "People have traditionally thought of Mississippi as a black and white state," says Carpenter. "We have Italians and Chinese who were originally brought in to replace the field hands after the Civil War; Slovenians and Cajun French who were once competitors in the fishing trade; a Jewish population who came up the river as peddlers; Lebanese; Mexicans; Vietnamese; Choctaw."
Carpenter contends they all have stories to tell. It was this realization that led to her to edit the book Ethnic Heritage in Mississippi and to found a statewide oral history project. The project, a joint venture between the Mississippi Humanities Council, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and Southern Mississippi University, works to preserve the history and culture of the state. "I realized there were people telling these stories, doing oral histories on any old tape from Eckerd's and forgetting them in drawers," says Carpenter.
In 1998 Carpenter held a meeting with a group of interested people, including members of the Mississippi Legislature, hoping to stimulate interest in the project. While looking over a bibliography of civil rights oral histories, State Senator Dick Hall noticed his father's name on the list. "His father was dead, and he hadn't heard his voice for twenty years," says Carpenter. "He managed to get ahold of the tape and was very moved." Hall encouraged Carpenter to apply for $150,000 in funding from the Legislature through Mississippi's Department of Archives and History. She did, and the project continues to be funded by the state. Several hundred interviews later, the project is going strong.
The project includes interviews with people who might not otherwise be interviewed, those described by Carpenter as "people who participated in the pulpwood or catfish industry, civil rights participants who took part in sit-ins or went to jail, the unofficial leaders. Folks who just lived their lives and don't realize they participated in major events in the state."
Professional staff members from the University of Southern Mississippi help train local groups to gather oral histories. Once the interviews are completed, the histories are transcribed and stored both at USM and online (www.usm.edu/msoralhistory). The Mississippi Humanities Council has given more than eighty grants to nonprofit organizations for their own oral history projects, many of which have parlayed this seed money into bigger contributions and taken the project in unexpected directions. "One class of schoolchildren in the itty bitty town of Water Valley interviewed the local veterans," Carpenter remembers. "The project was so well received, the class received money from local industry and published a book." In September, the council will host a conference for school teachers on how to use oral histories in the classroom.
Carpenter became interested in the range of human experience while growing up in the small town of Amite, Louisiana, north of New Orleans. From there, she went on to receive her B.A. and M.A. in English, and her PhD in modern British and American literature from Tulane University. She taught English for fifteen years before becoming the assistant director of the MHC in 1986, and the executive director in 1996.
Carpenter is working now on a dual-language reading program for families (inspired by Louisiana's Primetime Family Reading Time) and co-authoring a book with her husband comparing the Louisiana and Mississippi mental health system. Although her duties usually keep her behind the scenes, Carpenter is also a speaker for the council's Public Speakers Bureau. Her presentation "Kiss Me, I'm Italian . . . and Irish, French, African, Chinese, Choctaw . . . and So Are You: Ethnic Heritage in Mississippi" brings her enthusiasm for diversity to new audiences throughout the state.