Tuesday, April 30, 2019

NEARA Starts Oral History Project

Photo Courtesy of NEARA
Behind the building of Northeast Arkansas Regional Archives (NEARA) in Powhatan stands an old and gnarly tree, still leafless in early April. Steven Saunders, a local historian and retired park interpreter, thinks this is the tree from which a man was lynched in 1887.

Saunders, an avid researcher and a connoisseur of local history, is the first person to be interviewed as part of a new oral history project, called “Gathering Oral Histories Project.” The project kicked off April 5 as a long-term endeavor to record interviews with community members and to make audio recordings and transcripts available to researchers. The project captures the stories and voices of local residents.

It was during his interview on April 5 that Saunders shared details with Fatme Myuhtar-May, the NEARA archival manager, about Andrew Springer. Saunders showed Myuhtar-May the tree where he thinks Springer was lynched in May of 1887, after Springer was accused of rape. There is a document at NEARA that attests to Springer’s arrest for rape and confinement at the Powhatan Jailhouse. 

Because of the lynching, many assumed Springer was a black man, but Vesta Smith, a former archival assistant at NEARA, found a newspaper article identifying him as white. The article described Springer as a “white tramp,” or a white vagabond.

Steven Saunders shows
NEARA staff a tree he thinks
was used in a lynching in 1887
As Saunders tells the story, Springer raped a woman after he snatched and threw her infant to the ground. It was on the testimony of the victim that Springer was arrested and jailed. The crime so enraged the community that the victim’s husband and several other men broke into the jail, dragged Springer from his cell and took him a quarter of a mile uphill to a tree, where they hanged and shot him. The story is one of many NEARA staff hope to preserve in digital recordings that disseminate the research of others. 

The interview with Saunders brought the Springer case back to life, said Myuhtar-May, who spearheads the project. “The added value of oral history interviews, such as the one already recorded with Steven Saunders, is that stories like Andrew Springer’s    only surviving in snippets of archival documents –  gets fleshed out and are made tangible to people in the present,” she said.

Saunders, along with Smith and Jeanette Darris, are among several local residents who have become part of the budding “Gathering Oral Histories Project.” The community is excited about the project because it is designed to record local stories for the benefit of future generations. Oral histories are important because they convey the living memory and gathered wisdom of community members, preserve the voices of loved ones and capture the work of diligent researchers, Myuhtar-May said.
The project is a community effort, she said, and everyone can contribute.

To help participants, NEARA has two digital voice recorders and two small microphones available for use at NEARA. Participants also can use their own equipment, such as cell phones, if the device is capable of delivering a clear sound quality in digital format.

Any oral histories about Northeast Arkansas and that meet a certain quality standards can be donated to the project. NEARA staff are happy to instruct participants on proper collection of oral histories, including obtaining written consent, and formulating questions. To donate recordings or to get more information on the project, contact Myuhtar-May at 870-878-6521 or fatme.myuhtar.may@arkansas.gov.