It was Winston Churchill who said history is written by the victors. Not on this Island and not under the watch of oral historian Linsey Lee.
“One of my goals in doing oral histories on the Vineyard is to give a voice to the voiceless,” Ms. Lee said Saturday during a workshop on the practices of oral history. “Too often, history is from the famous people, people on the high, but in the everyday people there is such an incredible knowledge, a wealth of knowledge. And, it’s a more real knowledge.”
Ms. Lee did not always consider herself a historian. She began as a listener. As a child, she spent her summers on the Island and moved here year-round in her early twenties. She supported herself with the go-to Island jobs — shucking oysters at Poole’s, standing behind the counter at the Scottish Bakehouse, gardening. Always, she kept her ears open. “The people I met while doing my different jobs helped me see the Vineyard so much better,” she said Saturday to a group of six writers, historians and interested Islanders. “I thought, someone has to collect these stories. They are priceless.”
And so it was that Ms. Lee began asking more questions and listening more intently to their answers. Her first question concerned skunks and the identity of the man responsible for bringing them to Martha’s Vineyard. Rumor had it that Craig Kingsbury, the notorious Tisbury selectman, rum runner and farmer, was the one. Ms. Lee spoke with his friends, his family and his detractors. Each story was different, each answer unique. “When you’re collecting oral history on Martha’s Vineyard, you realize there’s no such thing as factual events,” she said. “The answers you get are infinite.”
At last, she met with Mr. Kingsbury himself. She knew him, of course, from her days at the Bakehouse. He farmed land across the street and would often walk into the food shop, a sheep stomach in each hand for the cook to use in haggis. The day of the interview, one of his pigs went into labor. “What skunks?” he asked her skeptically from across his pig pen. “I didn’t bring any skunks to the Island, sweetie.”
That was in 1978. Since then, Ms. Lee has spent hours listening — to Dorothy West share her stories of those New York summer people, to Ruthie Stiller who could cut a pound of cheese on the dot, to Gratia Harrington think back to the gale of 1928.
In 1993, she helped to found the Oral History Center at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. The collection includes interviews with over 475 Islanders and more than 2,000 hours of tape. “The collection at the center goes back over 40 years, with memories that go back to the 1850s,” she said.
Ms. Lee tends to interview the elderly, whose stories and memories recall a time when the Vineyard was smaller, closer, tighter. “It is important to get a sense of the Island when people lived in a community and depended on each other,” she said. “What we collect when we collect oral histories are reminders of a way of life on Martha’s Vineyard. When we collect everyday details of life, I think we help history come alive.”
When Ms. Lee began her work, she heard stories from Vineyarders who stood on the shore to watch their grandparents return from whaling ships. She entered the homes of Islanders who never went to high school, and listened, captivated by the stories she heard. “I would come in there with my college education and my ‘ums’ and ‘likes’ and they could just sit there and tell a story,” she said. “There was a window of history then. That window is closing. The skill of storytelling is becoming a thing of the past.”
And so, Ms. Lee ploughs on, listening to history and recording it. “I love the way listening to something makes you create images. It makes you work just a little harder,” she said. This winter, she hopes to begin interviewing members of the Brazilian community, continue her ongoing film project, and work on organizing and indexing the museum collection at the museum.
On Saturday, Ms. Lee shared some of her stories, gave interviewing tips — such as always arrive on time, do your research before you go and never ask yes or no questions — and demonstrated various recording devices in the hopes that others will lend an ear and start listening too.