Texas’ oral history comes alive

Johnnie Elizabeth Bables has a lot to say about the old days — the days when she farmed her own food (“used every part of the pig,” she says), walked into town for special treats such as sugar and coffee, didn’t ache all over from arthritis, and lived just around the corner from the Texas State Fair.

Though she wants to talk about it, these days every word is a struggle. Every question posed is difficult for her to hear or understand. For Bables, communication has become increasingly challenging, but through a recent Dallas Historical Society project, Bables’s stories about the state fair and the history surrounding it will live forever.

The Dallas Historical Society recently received a $15,000 grant from the Young Foundation — a London-based “centre for social innovation” — for an oral history video venture. The project involves students from the Woodrow Wilson High School Rotary “Interact” club and the Lincoln High School “Turner 12” club who interviewed longtime Dallas residents about the Texas State Fair from the time of the 1936 Centennial through the 1960s.

The state fair is the perfect centerpiece for all sorts of interesting information about Texas’ rich history, says Dealey Campbell, who oversees both the society’s education department and this project.

“A lot of people have such valuable historical information in their memories that they might have never even told it to anyone,” Campbell says. “It is important, now that we have the technology, to document and preserve their memories.”

It was an eye-opening experience for recent Woodrow graduate Adam Hernandez, president of Interact, a high school service club that is an extension of the Dallas Rotary Club. Hernandez was one of two Woodrow students to interview three people who remember visiting the state fair as early as the 1930s, and now live at the Juliette Fowler Home for the elderly in our neighborhood.

“We asked them questions about what the fair was like then, what the prices were like, and also questions about where they went to high school and where they grew up,” Hernandez says. “I was surprised to learn what a big deal the fair was back then, and about the famous people who came to the fair during the early years, like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Elvis Presley.”

Bables told the students about African-American day at the fair, about riding in the state fair parade representing the Dallas Housewives Association, and about being a member of the Black Chamber of Commerce. Other interviewees recounted anecdotes about working booths at the fair, or sneaking in under a fence.

Answers to the students’ questions about the state fair often rendered residual information about events of national importance, such as the John F. Kennedy assassination, segregation, and difficulties the black community faced, especially when it came to education, Hernandez says.

These sorts of history lessons are invaluable, Campbell says.

“By learning directly from the older generations, students start to connect to their neighborhood. Then they will want to invest in it.”

Hernandez agrees that the interviews’ impact is profound.

“It is one thing to learn about it in a text book, but to hear about it from someone who was actually there, that’s what really hits your soul,” he says.

Students also were schooled on interview and filming techniques. The grant money funded training for the historians, so the historical society tapped a Sixth Floor Museum documentarian to teach students the significance of oral history, as well as the ins-and-outs of lighting a scene, forming interview questions and safely storing the recordings, to name a few.

Those involved closely with the Texas State Fair oral history project hope it is just one of many to come. Elizabeth Dry, schoolteacher and founder of the Promise of Peace photography organization, was instrumental in gathering students to participate in the oral history project. She became interested in the Rotary Club’s Interact and mentoring programs after students from Woodrow began mentoring members of her third-grade class at Larry Smith Elementary.

Oral history projects can be a vital component to improving the community as a whole, she says.

“When you expose young people to culture and they realize the history they have in common with families from neighborhoods all over Dallas, then they will see the greatness in this city and in each other,” Dry says. “Then, they become inspired to contribute their gifts and be more likely to have a positive, productive life.”

She feels strongly that by connecting young people to culture and history, we can prevent some of the social ills that plague some parts of the community.

Dry with Promise of Peace and the Dallas Historical Society are now partnering to expand the society’s oral history undertakings, and she ultimately plans to build a Promise of Peace community center  (see “Shooting for Unity” below).

Several organizations are working collaboratively to not only preserve history, but also to bring kids and culture together.

“It takes a significant amount of cooperation to make a significant difference,” Dry says, “and, hopefully, that is what is happening.”

Editors Note: Johnnie Bables died on July 3, at the age of 99.

Shooting for Unity

The State Fair oral history project is a collaborative effort aimed not only at preserving history through the eyes of those who lived it, but also at bringing a community closer together by bridging gaps between generations, cultures and socioeconomic boundaries. Promise of Peace photography founder Elizabeth Dry has been working tirelessly to strengthen this unity within East Dallas, first by teaching photography to children, and now by announcing plans to create a Promise of Peace community center southwest of White Rock Lake.

The first step in the long-range multifaceted plan involves building a community garden on the plot of land on East Grand alongside the Coronado Apartments. Soon afterward, she hopes to raise enough money to build an adjacent community center. The landowner has donated use of the land to Promise of Peace, which is in the process of becoming a non-profit organization. The organization’s purpose will be, specifically, to “provide simple solutions that will address alarming statistics in order to decrease crime, decrease the drop out rate at Woodrow Wilson High School, and decrease the teenage pregnancy rate and gang involvement in the area,” Dry says.

Promise of Peace organizers hope to break ground on the community garden, which could hold up to 40 10- by 15-foot plots, this month. The group also will participate in a second oral history project this month — the collaborative effort among Woodrow Wilson’s Interact Club, The Dallas Historical Society and Dallas’ House of Blues will document history as it revolves around blues music in the early 1900s.

“There are a lot of different things going on right now, but somehow it is falling into place,” Dry says. “I am not really driving this idea. It’s more like it is leading me along.”

To learn more about Promise of Peace, visit promiseofpeace.ws.

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