Oral Histories Inform New Documentary Film
The recent announcement that the Presbyterian Community Center in Louisville’s historic Smoketown neighborhood is closing its doors at the end of the month due to financial problems sent me back to the voices of former residents of another Smoketown institution—the now demolished Sheppard Square public housing complex.
I was honored to interview 16 former Sheppard Square residents in 2012 for an oral history project that I completed as part of the requirements for a graduate certificate in public history at U of L. The narrators’ experiences span the 65 years between 1947 and 2012. For the most part, they relate childhood memories of life in a densely populated, close-knit African American community, how it impacted their adult lives, and the changes that they observed through the decades.
Time and time again the narrators described a close connection between Sheppard Square residents and the staff at the community center. Many of the former residents were children who recalled the center as a safe haven where, along with meals and extracurricular activities, adult mentors instilled a sense of self esteem and stability.
One of those narrators, Lavel White, has taken the oral histories a step further by directing and producing a new film on the housing project, “More than Bricks and Mortar: The Sheppard Square Story.” The film premiers this Thursday, August 22, from 6 to 8 p.m., at the Presbyterian Community Center, 701 South Hancock Street. The event is free and open to the public. Both the film and the oral history project were sponsored by the Louisville Metro Housing Authority (LMHA), as part of a revitalization project. LMHA is now building a mixed-income housing complex that will bring new life to the Smoketown neighborhood.
White, who studied communications and Pan African studies at U of L, was one my early interviews. His story played a prominent role in the research paper I wrote after completing the interviews. While interviewing White, he asked a question that I didn’t explore in my research but has haunted me since. How would the community, the subject of my interviews, connect with the oral histories? Placing them in the U of L’s Oral History Center made them publically accessible, but would Smoketown residents know about them? Or even that someone had taken the time to record the history of their community history? What would former residents of Sheppard Square gain from my efforts?
Thankfully, the LMHA recruited White to produce a documentary film, and the oral history project assisted him in his work. White used many of the interview questions, the list of narrators, and my research paper. Coupled with his intimate knowledge of the neighborhood, these resources helped him produce a film that provides an insider’s view of a rich and vibrant community that played an important role in Louisville’s history. The film will also serve to connect the community to its history.
I encourage you to come to the film’s preview, which is sure to attract interest from former residents of Sheppard Square and plenty of other Louisvillians too. It’ll be a great way to hear important stories and learn about a vital piece of local history. It’ll also provide a chance to think about how public history connects people to place and history to living communities. Too often, histories are written for other historians, and public interest is given little consideration. Fortunately, the Sheppard Square project has turned out differently. White’s film promises to reach a broad audience, and by making use of the oral histories on file at the Oral History Center, it’s already given my work greater impact than I ever expected.
— Mary Pace
Public History Certificate, December 2012