A hearty thanks to everyone who attended our anniversary kick-off event in October! Over a lively five-course meal at the pictureseque Fasig-Tipton Farm in Lexington, Nunn Center partners and supporters from around the state gathered to celebrate five decades of oral history leadership, memories, and milestones.
Special guest speakers, including award-winning Kentucky chef Ouita Michel, UK President Eli Capilouto, and Lexington Vice Mayor Dan Wu, helped commemorate and honor the many industries, institutions, communities, and individuals who have made the Nunn Center’s journey possible.
For more ways to show your support, consider a gift to the Terry L. Birdwhistell Endowment Fund, established in honor of the Nunn Center’s Founding Director and Kentucky’s keeper of stories. Your support enables the Nunn Center to continue its mission of preserving Kentucky's story one oral history interview at a time.
UK President Eli Capilouto and Nunn Center Director Doug Boyd.
Oral History Processing Archivist Jesse Nau, Oral History Librarian Jennifer Bartlett, Doug Boyd, former Oral History Librarian Judy Sackett, and Oral History Archivist Kopana Terry.
Doug Boyd and Lexington Vice Mayor Dan Wu.
Over the last 50 years, the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History has grown from a small grant and a dream into a world-renowned leader in the collection and preservation of oral histories. Along the way, the Nunn Center has empowered countless students, researchers, and community groups to discover the remarkable individuals, moments, and stories that make up the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
The Nunn Center’s 18,000 oral history interviews celebrate the incredible diversity that can be found in every corner of the state, from Civil Rights leaders and LGBTQ* Kentuckians to quilters, teachers, entrepreneurs, veterans, writers, coal miners, immigrants, and farmers. With continual improvements in interview quality and coverage, new stories are added to the collection daily.
None of this is possible without the active engagement of community and campus partners. The Nunn Center proudly partners with industries, institutions, and communities across Kentucky to collect the oral histories of bourbon distillers, horse trainers, returned Peace Corps volunteers, and bluegrass musicians. Collaborations with on-campus partners provide students with high-impact learning experiences, and growing faculty and student engagement has led to the increased use of Nunn Center resources and collections in learning environments. In its commitment to deep collaboration practices, the Nunn Center offers training in interview structure and technique and provides professional-quality interview equipment and studio space to its partners, empowering students and researchers to pilot their own projects.
A leader in the collection of oral histories, the Nunn Center has also been a pioneer in their access and preservation. The Oral History Metadata Synchronizer – a free, open source digital tool developed by the Nunn Center that improves user experience with online oral history by connecting word-level searches to precise moments within an interview – is now used by oral history repositories in 67 countries around the world and counting. Most importantly, OHMS has boosted usage of the Nunn Center’s archived interviews from 200 interviews accessed in 2008 to over 230,000 interviews accessed by researchers around the world in 2022.
With over 50 ongoing interviewing projects and a dedicated team of oral history experts, the Nunn Center’s impact across campus and throughout the Commonwealth grows greater every day. With your support, the Nunn Center can continue to pursue its mission of engaging and empowering communities, creating connections and life-changing learning experiences, increasing access to oral histories the world over, and collecting and preserving Kentucky’s story.
To celebrate the Nunn Center’s 50th Anniversary, we'll be sharing some of our most treasured moments, milestones, and oral history interviews from our world-class collection. Like all good parents, we hate playing favorites, and if 18,000 posts didn’t seem like a little much, we’d happily share them all.
To let our oral history librarians get a little sleep, we’ll be bringing you one highlight per week throughout the year. See some highlights that we’ve missed? Post your own favorites on your social media channels using #NunnCenter50 to join the fun.
In our busy world, with our busy lives, it can be hard to keep up with friends. In the case of lifelong civil rights activist James Embry, the Nunn Center hasn’t had that problem. Embry has been interviewed by the Nunn Center in every decade from the 1970s to the 2020s – in August and November, 1978; 1987; 1993; June 19 and June 29, 2006; 2018; January and October 2021; and 2023 – telling stories about his participation in the March on Frankfort alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1964, uprisings on UK’s campus in the late 1960s and 70s, the development of UK’s Black Student Union, and a career that would see him engaging in community education, food justice and sustainability, and emerging leadership programs in Kentucky and Detroit, Michigan. Across those ten interviews, spanning nearly 50 years of a life spent in pursuit of justice, we have the privilege of hearing a constancy of vision and purpose refracted through historical change and historical stasis. We’re excited to learn even more in the decades to come.
Oh, Mother of Exiles! The American Dream is bittersweet. The 31 interviews of the Appalachia: Immigrants in the Coal Fields Oral History Project detail the lives of immigrant coal miners and their families in Eastern Kentucky and provide incredible insights into the rhythms and structures of mine work and mining towns in the first half of the 20th century. Conducted in the late 1980s, these interviews tell difficult stories of discrimination and prejudice, moonshine, mine bosses, and safety hazards, while celebrating the role of women, schools, and the social, political, and union activities that held communities together. When Lady Liberty lifts her lamp beside the golden door, it is lit with true grit – and no thanks to US Steel!
A pioneering woman journalist, Betty Tevis Eckdahl was the first woman Sports Editor of the Kentucky Kernel and the first woman to sit at the press table at Madison Square Garden while covering a UK men’s basketball game there in the 1940s. In this interview conducted in 1989, Eckdahl shares stories of press conferences with the legendary men’s basketball coach Adolph Rupp, the atmosphere of the UK campus during World War II, and the challenges of breaking through the “good old boy” structures that she encountered throughout her professional life. For more about this trailblazing sports writer, check out the Nunn Center’s Saving Stories episode on Eckdahl.
Produced through a partnership between the Nunn Center and UK’s Office of LGBTQ* Resources, the OutSouth: LGBTQ+ Oral History Project documents the lives of Southern LGBTQ+ individuals who have fostered and grown LGBTQ+ communities locally, regionally, and nationally. These 55 interviews share stories that span decades of LGBTQ+ history, from trailblazing community members and the AIDS epidemic to contemporary activism and the enshrinement of legal rights. They also capture deeply personal moments of coming out to friends and family, finding the warmth of community and safe spaces, falling in love, and persevering through the difficult journey from self-discovery to self-acceptance and self-realization.
Kentucky’s most recognizable Colonel, Harlan Sanders smiles down from the signs of over 25,000 KFC restaurants in 145 countries around the world. He’s been portrayed by the likes of Norm Macdonald, Jason Alexander, Mario Lopez, and Reba McEntire – but we know you’re itching for the deep-fried, finger-lickin’ truth. That’s why we’re highlighting this 1977 interview with the Colonel in which he discusses his trademark white suit and string tie, his life as a celebrity, and the delectably crunchy history of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Sanders Cafe, the birthplace of the KFC secret recipe, is still serving up tenders today in North Corbin, Kentucky.
Ah, history! That nightmare from which we are all trying to awaken. Luckily for us, no one in Kentucky has done history quite like Thomas D. Clark. Named the Historian Laureate of the Commonwealth for life in 1990, the long-time chair of UK’s History Department also helped start the UK Libraries newspaper microfilm program, wrote a whopping 37 books, and in his off time managed to save a large portion of Kentucky’s printed history from falling into the waste bin (materials that would one day become the core of the Special Collections Research Center). Across 27 interviews in the Thomas D. Clark Oral History Project, Clark describes in historian’s detail his 70-year-long enterprise of cataloging, organizing, rescuing, and preserving Kentucky's history.
In honor of the profound legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this week, we are excited to share one of the true treasures of the Nunn Center’s collections: Robert Penn Warren’s 1964 interview with the world-changing civil rights leader. In the interview, Dr. King defends his philosophy of nonviolence, considers the next phases of the civil rights movement, and discusses how his accessibility to white Americans affects his leadership and provokes resistance among other civil rights activists. The interview is one of 43 conducted by Warren with civil rights leaders, activists, artists, and intellectuals as research for his book, Who Speaks for the Negro?, all contained in the Robert Penn Warren Civil Rights Oral History Project.
In 1983, students at Henderson County North Middle School, under the direction of teacher Roy Pullam, began conducting videotaped interviews with prominent people in Kentucky. 20 years later, Bonnet Productions: North Middle School, Henderson County (KY) Oral History Project had grown to nearly 800 total interviews. Spanning high-achieving Kentuckians of every stripe, from governors, musicians, writers, and athletes to journalists, lawyers, and medical professionals, it seems like just about everybody who’s anybody in the Commonwealth has talked to a North Middle School Cadet. When we were in middle school – well, that was a long time ago. We’d rather not talk about it.
Don’t look now, but are our thumbs – turning green? And is that an acre of perfectly ripe corn we see? It must be because we’ve been listening to the Farm & Farmstead Oral History Project. Part of the extensive Family Farms of Kentucky series, the project provides an intimate look at the social and spatial organization of agricultural life in the Commonwealth. In these 46 interviews from the early 1990s, Kentucky farmers along Cane Creek in Powell County share a wealth of farming and cultural knowledge as they tell their life stories and lead interviewers through their homes and around their farms.
To all you home distillers out there: did you know that if you cleave the alpha-1,4 linkages in your starch, you’ll have a much more efficient mashing process? We didn’t either! There’s a lot we can all learn from Elmer Lucille Allen, who in 1966 became the first Black chemist at the Brown-Forman Company, the manufacturers of Jack Daniels and Woodford Reserve and one of the largest spirits companies in the world. In these interviews from 2021 – part of the Women in Bourbon Oral History Project – Allen shares experiences growing up in a segregated neighborhood in Louisville, working as senior analytical chemist for Brown-Forman, and her long and accomplished career as a ceramicist, fiber artist, and community arts advocate.
In 1939, John Lair built a big barn in Renfro Valley, Kentucky, and the state’s Country Music Capital was born. For over 80 years the barn has played home to the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, a country music stage and radio show. Broadcast across the country in the 1940s-50s, the show launched country music legends like Red Foley and the “Hillbilly Shakespeare” Hank Williams. In this interview from 1970, John Lair reflects on his career, his doubters, and the growth and success of the Barn Dance. With 1,000 fans packed in on a Saturday night, that barn is a square-dancin’ good time. Around your partner do-si-do!
Fought from 1914-1918, World War I was one of the deadliest wars in history, claiming the lives of millions of soldiers and civilians. The last living WWI veteran passed away in 2010, but the Nunn Center has preserved the oral histories of three Kentuckians who served during the conflict. Their stories describe the horrors of life in the trenches – sleeping among trench rats under the constant threat of poison gas attacks – and trace their lives following the war. In their 80s and 90s when interviewed, these veterans have whole lifetimes of wisdom to share.
What is a Commonwealth without a Gov’na? Mere anarchy! we say. Luckily the institution is mostly sound in this here state, and the Nunn Center has done its due diligence in recording the history of the office and its illustrious officeholders. Over its five decade history, the Nunn Center has conducted a whopping 363 interviews with 14 former Kentucky governors, including Wendell H. Ford, Paul Patton, Steven L. Beshear, and John Y. Brown, Jr. (also known as the fella that bought Kentucky Fried Chicken from Colonel Sanders). Keep getting Bs in civics classes, and you too can be on this list one day.
Call us Old Fashioned, but there’s just something about sour corn mash aged in a charred white oak barrel. Whether you like your bourbon neat or on the rocks, you can learn all about the characters and history of this quintessential Kentucky industry from the Nunn Center’s many bourbon oral history projects, including Kentucky Bourbon Tales and Women in Bourbon. For stories that go down like Manhattans, try straight-from-the-barrel interviews with father and son Jim Beam master distillers Frederick Booker "Booker" Noe, II and Frederick Booker "Fred" Noe, III. Fred? Booker. Booker? Fred. We can’t keep it straight either. But we promise: this Kentucky Derby mint julep cup is purely decorative. Er, usually.
We know – we couldn’t put down The Poisonwood Bible either. And don’t even get us started on Demon Copperhead! But you’d best believe that all the books by Kentucky treasure Barbara Kingsolver will be even better when paired with this marvelous interview. Catch your breath between chapters and take a listen as Kingsolver discusses her writing process, publishing history, and early novels, along with childhood experiences growing up in Carlisle, Kentucky and living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The recent Pulitzer Prize winner was interviewed on April 17, 1993 by Linda LaPinta as part of the Kentucky Writers Oral HIstory Project.
One of the most important figures in the history of Kentucky education, civil rights activist Lyman T. Johnson was the first Black student to attend the University of Kentucky. Across 35 incredible interviews in the Nunn Center’s collections, Johnson shares his life story, his experiences in segregated Louisville, and the landmark court case that led to the integration of the UK in 1949 and opened the door for thousands of Black students to follow. A long-time Louisville high school teacher, Johnson fought to end unequal pay for Black teachers and led struggles to integrate neighborhoods, public accommodations, and public housing across the state, while also heading the Louisville chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Take a listen – and celebrate the strength it takes to pave the way.
You dream, I dream, we all dream of world peace! Meet the inspiring and intrepid peaceniks who have traveled the globe to empower communities and build cross-cultural bridges in the Nunn Center’s 1000+ interviews with Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs). These interviews document the Peace Corps from its inception and span five different oral history projects, chronicling the experiences of RPCVs from across the United States and all around Kentucky. Interviews from the latter project were used as the basis for the book Voices from the Peace Corps: Fifty Years of Kentucky Volunteers by Angene and Jack Wilson, published by the University Press of Kentucky in 2011.
On August 17, 1978, the Nunn Center interviewed Zirl A. Palmer, the first African American pharmacist in Lexington, as part of the Black People in Lexington Oral History Project. In the interview, Dr. Palmer discusses the roadblocks he encountered while establishing his pharmacy in a segregated Lexington and the discrimination he faced while operating his business, culminating in the bombing of his store on September 4, 1968. Ever undaunted, Dr. Palmer continued to break barriers, becoming the first African American member of the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees in 1972.
Haint tales! Coal mines! Moonshine! Oh my! One of the Nunn Center’s most treasured collections, the 212 interviews in the Frontier Nursing Service (FNS) Oral History Project document the organization begun in 1925 by Mary Breckinridge to bring primary health care to remote areas of Eastern Kentucky, often delivering services by horseback. These incredible slices of Appalachian life – from nurses, doctors, and residents – cover everything from quilting, canning, corn hoeing, and local feuds to home remedies, clinics, hospitals, and the FNS’s specialty: midwifery.
Unlike veterans of other wars, Vietnam veterans did not return home to cheers and ceremonies. Most Americans wanted to forget the trauma of the war, which left many veterans feeling isolated from family and friends. The Nunn Center interviewed Vietnam veterans in Kentucky in 1985 and produced the documentary “Long Road Back: Vietnam Remembered,” which aired on KET. Find video and audio interviews with detailed stories of these veterans’ war experiences – and the difficulties many encountered returning home – in the American Veterans: Vietnam War Oral History Project.
The devastating earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010 divided time into “before” and “after.” Over 150,000 people lost their lives and 1.5 million were displaced. In the months after the disaster, historian Claire Antone Payton recorded 118 interviews as part of her Haiti Memory Project. Interviewees tell stories of their lives in post-disaster homeless camps and provide remarkable and intimate details of their resilience in the aftermath of a life-changing event. The Nunn Center partnered with Payton in 2011 to add her interviews to its collections.
Repeat after me: I am a purely benevolent being, the Earth is a heavenly realm, I am the jewel in the lotus flower, I am one with my mind and soul! Now that you’re two steps closer to enlightenment, take a listen to this oral history interview with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso). Recorded in May 2013 in Louisville, KY and accessioned by the Nunn Center in 2021, the interview is part of a series conducted by Louisville filmmaker Morgan C. Atkinson for his documentary “The Many Storeys and Last Days of Thomas Merton.”
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