Oral History Project Records Houston's Past

An ambitious project to capture some of Houston's most important history on tape is now online for the public to use. The oral history project captures the faces and voices of Houstonians who have helped shape the city over the years.

"I've never seen this kind of excitement with the study of history generated from the city, from a mayor, from concerned citizens outside of universities. It's a really healthy thing." 

Dr. Joe Pratt is a longtime history professor at the University of Houston and has seen about a quarter-century of the city's growth as a teacher. He's part of the Houston Oral History Project, an effort to videotape interviews with 100 well-known politicians, civic and business leaders and regular folks as too.

"When you turn on a tape recorder in front of someone, you never quite know what their life has to reveal to you and if you'll let them talk, quite often a story will go wherever it wants to go and more and better history results."  

The project was the brainchild of Mayor Bill White, who commissioned the 100 interviews. He'll be the last one.
Eighty-six interviews are "in the can" as they say and can now be viewed on a free website, www.houstonoralhistory.org.

"We're blessed in many ways to have many citizens still living who have lived more than half of the life of this city. Unfortunately, unless we do something to preserve their stories and their tales, things that were done informally, things that were done in front rooms and back rooms, unless we preserve that, it could be lost."
 
Another phase of the project is to digitize hundreds of old recorded interviews that have been stored in the basement of the old library downtown. Marie Wise works for the Houston Library System, a partner in the project.

"There's about 900 old recordings all together. Some of these are oral history interviews. Many of them date from the 60's and 70's. What we're doing, they're currently on cassette and reel-to-reel, which is a pretty fragile media and so we're digitizing them to preserve them and make them more accessible."  

David Goldstein managed the oral history project. He says this is a unique opportunity for Houston.

"I think Houston is such a young city that the stories are still valid. When you want to go back 50, 60, 70 years in a lot of cities, all you can get is current events. But when you go back 60 or 70 years in Houston, you get formative events. You get the kind of things that changed us, the kind of things that made us the city that we are today because all that happened really within the last, during that time period. So you can talk to the people who actually helped to create the city that we know of today."   

The recordings are free to watch and listen to, including conversations with former Mayor's Louie Welch, Bob Lanier, Kathy Whitmire and Lee Brown and local sports icons like Bum Phillips, A.J. Foyt and Larry Dierker.






This story first aired on September 29, 2009.
 

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Jack Williams

Director of News Programming

News Director Jack Williams has been with Houston Public Radio since August of 2000. He's also a reporter and anchor for Houston Public Radio's local All Things Considered segments...