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Finding Untold Stories

Smithsonian project records African-American experience.

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When Stephen Thrasher and his mother visited the StoryCorps recording studio in the summer of 2006, they received a CD of their session. A few months later, Thrasher's mother passed away.

"It's an important thing for people to do for their own family history," said Thrasher, a StoryCorps staff member. "I'm really grateful I have it."

The StoryCorps Griot project, sponsored by the Smithsonian and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, arrived in Memphis November 1st as part of a 10-city tour. A griot is an African storyteller, and StoryCorps staffers will spend six weeks in Memphis recording conversations to capture the experiences of Memphis' black community.

John Franklin, a project manager with the Smithsonian, is helping establish the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

"This is a national museum to help all Americans understand the role that African Americans have played," Franklin said. "This will not just be a museum with African-American voices, because the voices of the entire community have to be represented to tell the story."

The GriotBooth, housed inside a trailer and currently parked at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, is a cozy recording studio. Visitors are encouraged to come in pairs, and at the end of each hour-long session, they are given a CD of their interview.

"People really open up when they come here," said Sarah Geis, one of the booth's staffers. "It's amazing when people who have known each other for years suddenly find out something new about each other."

GriotBooth staffers expect to gather nearly 1,800 recordings in their yearlong tour around the country. The project is the largest of its kind since 2,000 former slaves were interviewed for the Federal Writer's Project during the Great Depression.

The recordings will be archived at the Museum of African-American History, but some may be aired on National Public Radio or local station WKNO. A copy of all local interviews will also be given to the Memphis Public Library and Information Center.

The GriotBooth already has had a number of visitors, including the Rev. James Freeman of Humboldt, Tennessee. Freeman founded Memphis' Geeter Park Baptist Church in the early 1970s.

While Freeman was inside, Jo Ann Kern and a group of Freeman's close friends waited for the 92-year-old pastor to tell his story.

Kern admitted that, for many, segregation is painful to revisit. "We've done a good job suppressing it instead of expressing it," she said. "But we need to [express it] before we're gone."

Several minutes later, Freeman was greeted with smiles and handshakes as he emerged from the trailer. When asked if the interview was worth the 100-mile journey from Gibson County, he grinned.

"It was more than worth it."

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