UWL project records oral histories from everyday people of La Crosse
It was months before the official unveiling of a La Crosse city mural when artist John Pugh gave alumna Tracy Littlejohn a preliminary peek at his masterpiece. As she moved under the tarp covering the brick wall of the Pump House Regional Art Center, she was awestruck.
At the center of the trompe l’oeil painting was one of her Ho Chunk relatives receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor for his relative who was a code talker in World War II. Littlejohn’s grandfather received the same award.
“I almost cried,” she says.
The mural reminds Littlejohn of everyone who lived in La Crosse — not just those within the last 100 years. She shares those feelings in a recording, one of many voices collected as part of a UW-La Crosse oral history project launched in April 2015 in downtown La Crosse.
UWL Associate History Professor Ariel Beaujot and students in her Public and Policy History Major/Minor classes did the research, editing, technical and communications work to make the “Hear, Here” oral history project a reality. They recorded community stories and edited others from UWL’s Oral History Program.
The project is easy to spot while strolling downtown. Orange-colored street signs have toll-free numbers allowing people to use their cellular phones to listen to recorded stories from everyday people who worked, lived and shopped the streets. Littlejohn’s voice, located at a sign near the Pump House, is one of 37 in La Crosse’s downtown. The system will remain intact until 2020.
The on-site system is accompanied by a website with an interactive map featuring the same community voices. Listeners can also record their own stories using the phone system or the website. If the stories fit Hear, Here objectives they are re-recorded and added to the program.
Since the project launched, it has received the Leadership in History Award from the American Association for State and Local History, the most prestigious national recognition for preservation and interpretation of state and local history. “Hear, Here” was the only project to receive an award in Wisconsin in 2016.
UWL classes continue to build on the project by recording more stories, as well as original poems for the collection. Beaujot will teach another Hear, Here class in spring 2018, which will study the project and put it into a wider context. The evening class will be open to community members and alumni.
Littlejohn says she was honored to be part of the project.
“I appreciate being able to record oral history. The Ho Chunk people were an oral society,” she says. “Being able to carry that tradition in a modern manner felt good.”
Much like the Pump House mural, the “Hear, Here” project offers a diverse picture of La Crosse’s history and people. The goal of the project is not to capture the classic tales of the city’s founder or the lumber barons. It aims to give a voice to everyday people from diverse groups who perhaps otherwise wouldn’t be part of recorded history. A third of the stories represented in the Hear, Here project come from historically underrepresented groups.
“They [diverse stories] need to be heard,” says Littlejohn. “Your neighbors are your neighbors whether you like or not. We need to accept and embrace that we come from so many diverse backgrounds.”
Beaujot says when she initially came up with the Hear, Here concept, she thought it would bring social history out of the university and into the streets for everyone to hear. But in developing and executing it, she’s realized it can do much more.
“It can help our community grapple with issues of segregation and diversity, gentrification and the built environment, and it can help us see where our community has been, where it is now, and where we might want it to go,” she says. “This larger mission is not something I had envisioned when the project began, but community interest and community reactions to the project have given it a larger meaning that I hope will result in active and careful change in the ways we live and interact in our city. As Hear, Here changes and develops it will help make our city a more ideal place for everyone to live, and not just the powerful few.”
Listen to the voices of Hear, Here
“Hear, Here” was completed in partnership with Archives at the La Crosse Public Library, Downtown Main Street Inc., The Heritage Preservation Commission—City of La Crosse and Murphy Library Special Collections, the UWL photography minor, and the UWL Oral History Program.