Project aims to capture oral history of Charlestonians

F. BRIAN FERGUSON | Gazette
Nancy Ball, left, shares her oral history with Eric Douglas, right, as part of the FestavAll Oral History project. After her interview with Douglas, Ball talked about seeing hundreds of circuses at the civic center; escaping the 1977 Williamsburg Flood; and traveling to New Orleans to see her third-cousin, Blaze Starr, strip.

She’d talked about baton twirling, which led to talking about dancing, which led to talking about her third-cousin — Blaze Starr — which led to the story about the time she went to New Orleans to watch her cousin strip.

At another point during the interview, she’d talked about vacationing in Hawaii, which led to the 1977 Williamson flood, which led to the story of her running up the hill to escape the rising waters — carrying her daughter in her hands.

“I felt like my life had meant something, surely, somewhere down the line,” Nancy Ball said Tuesday, after her interview with Eric Douglas at Emmanuel Baptist Church on Charleston’s West Side.

Ball was the first participant in the FestivALL Oral History Project, which Douglas is facilitating. On Tuesday, she met with the local author and photographer and told him about the building of Capital High School, working as a tour guide at the state Capitol and the 211 circuses she’d seen as a Charleston Civic Center employee. As both Ball and Douglas said, you just don’t know where a conversation will lead.

“That’s one of the great things about this,” Douglas said, after interviewing Ball.

“The thrill of discovery — I don’t know what I’m gonna get.”

Douglas sat at a small table in one of the church’s parlors. In front of him was a Dell laptop computer, a silver microphone — which looked like a cross between Sputnik and a shuttlecock — and a stack of gold CDs.

After he interviews participants, he gives them a recording, burned to a CD.

“As older generations pass on,” Douglas said, “we lose institutional memory. This is something they can pass down to their family.”

Douglas will be interviewing about 30 people at various locations around Charleston. When he wraps up on Monday, he’ll be tasked with looking for themes within the transcripts. He plans to put together a documentary of some sort — something digital, perhaps, with some multimedia bells and whistles. The documentary will hopefully be done by FestivALL Fall, he said, adding that he will donate his recordings to the state archives.

“Charleston has a lot to offer,” Ball said, “but you have to look for it. And the state, but you have to get active with it.”

Ball — dressed in matching pink shorts and T-shirt and sporting a short, silver hairstyle — joked that she’d been sitting too long. Time to go exercise, she said.

Earlier, she’d told Douglas how dancing had led to baton twirling, which had made it possible for her to go to college. She twirled at the University of Southern Mississippi before a car accident brought her back to West Virginia. She eventually resumed twirling at Concord University, in Athens, where she graduated.

“I’ve had people ask me,” Ball said, “‘Do you have a gun?’ And I tell them: ‘No, but I’ve got a baton in every room.’”

In 1977, Ball had taken a trip to Hawaii. She returned to Williamsburg in April. A few days later, the flood hit. She lost everything, she said, including her mementos from Hawaii. She did manage, though, to hold onto her daughter and carry her to safety.

“This [oral history] is something I can leave my daughter and my granddaughter,” Ball said, adding that it was remarkable “how one thing brings up another.”

After her interview, after she’d traced back the conversation she’d just had to baton twirling, Ball paused. She held up her hands. She remembered where the conversation had really started.

“The doctor told me I’d beaten my fingers to death,” she said, as she flexed her fingers.

She’d developed arthritis.

Reach Wade Livingston at wade.livingston@wvgazette.com, 304-348-5100 or follow @WadeGLivingston on Twitter.

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