Their voices will tell volumes.
Lonora Hayes remembers growing up in Lake Highlands on a farm, where her parents raised 100 acres of wheat and corn. Sally Grinsfelder remembers when Lake Highlands High School became integrated. And Grace Myers Kadane remembers a time when her house was the only one on the block, and Greenville Avenue was a two-lane brick road.
Collectively, these longtime Lake Highlands residents’ memories will become an oral history of the neighborhood.
“Our past always informs our present and our future,” Robin Woods Norcross says. The Lake Highlands mother and psychotherapist decided to start the project last year, after her search for information on the area’s history came up short. And although the project is still in its infancy, Norcross imagines a day when her brainchild becomes a valuable resource for the community. She knows the project will be a massive undertaking, and has slowly begun collecting information — everything from how to conduct oral history interviews to lists of residents willing to sit down and share their memories, all for the sake of posterity.
“This community is mid-life,” she says. “We need to ask those existential questions like :who are we? What makes Lake Highlands feel like a small town community?”
Norcross has several meetings planned with neighborhood groups in the coming months, meetings she hopes will lead to additional support for the project. In addition to tracking down volunteers to conduct interviews, funds to have professional tape transcriptions will be necessary, she says.
Lake Highlands’ history has always been a source of interest for Norcross. “When we moved back here, I was reminded of so many things about when I was growing up,” she says. “I would tell the kids stories.” “There’s a lot more historical significance in the buildings and the way growth happened here than I realized.”
She’s particularly interested in a part of Lake Highlands once known as Little Egypt — a historically black neighborhood that was founded by freed slaves and wiped out by development. Norcross already has gathered enough historical tidbits on her own to weave a few stories about some of the area’s oldest structures and how they tie to the pioneer families who first settled there.
Much of her interest, however, lies in the ties people have with the buildings and other landmarks of the neighborhood: “Can you imagine living in the same house for 60 years? There are people here who have,” she says, incredulously.
Many older residents have stories they’ve never shared about growing up in the post-World War II era when the Lake Highlands area began to bloom — and in many cases, Norcross has found, it’s simply because no one has ever asked the right questions. She recently sat down with her first interview subject, Mrs. Kadane. Norcross’ 11-year-old son, Jack, and Kelly Sellers, a senior at Lake Highlands High School, helped with the videography. After living in Lake Highlands for almost five decades, Mrs. Kadane can talk for hours about the Dallas neighborhood’s history firsthand.
“I had always seen her house, and it didn’t look that fancy,” 17-year-old Kelly says. “But it’s really nice inside.”
What most impressed the Lake Highlands senior was Mrs. Kadane herself: “I didn’t know about all she’d done in her life, all of her accomplishments, hobbies and talents.” she says.
Mrs. Kadane recounted her memories of buying her property — and of struggling through the years to keep the land from buyers eager to develop it. “It’s a nice family location,” says Mrs. Kadane from her 125-year-old house.
She added that she was excited to be a part of the history project, modestly saying that she wasn’t so sure her memories would be worth much: “It still feels like a small town, where everybody knows everybody.”
Another lifelong resident, Mrs. Hayes, says she might help add to Norcross’ project. “There wasn’t anything around when I was raised on my mother’s farm,” Mrs. Hayes says. “There were just a few houses.”
One day, Norcross imagines housing the tapes and transcripts at a repository available to the public, perhaps in the Audelia Road library or at the high school.
“We’re going to make this up as we go along,” she laughs. She hopes to find people from other communities who have embarked on similar missions, and talk to experts on how to go about conducting such a massive undertaking.
Oral history projects have become increasingly popular, according to one historian. “Oral history is a wonderful way to capture the life of a community or neighborhood,” says Rebecca Sharpless, director of the Institute for Oral History at Baylor University. “You can get a lot of important ideas that aren’t represented in a written record.”
How transportation worked, how buildings and landmarks looked and how people related to one another in daily activities are often things only available in people’s memories, she added. “It’s just about the only way to get at those things,”
Sharpless says. Norcross has had a few breakthroughs in her struggle to get the project off its feet. After speaking to a broadcast journalism class at Lake Highlands High School, Norcross left with a list of students excited to lend a hand to her project, including Kelly . The interviews will not only be good practice for many of the aspiring broadcast journalists in her class. The students will make the community their classroom, learning about its history through living links to the past — all while helping form a bond between residents and boosting civic pride.
Teacher Rhonda Russell says she plans to have her students start work on the project soon. “Many of them are interested in the different areas of the community they didn’t realize the significance of,” she says. “It’s fascinating — I’m a history buff anyway.”
And after a story about the project appeared in the Dallas Morning News in September, her phone rang off the hook with people interested in telling their stories and contributing to the project. One of the challenges, Norcross says, is that many older people want to help, but say they aren’t confident about their memories. But Ms. Sharpless says that common misconception about the validity of oral histories shouldn’t get in the way of a desire to document people’s memories.
“Long term memories are very sturdy,” she says. “Activities and things you saw every day — chances are, you can go to the bank with that.”
Of course, time also is a vital factor in the project’s success, Norcross says. She plans to make a “priority list” of people who should be interviewed first — according to their age. Norcross is also looking for support from organizations such as the Lake Highlands Women’s League to continue the project; many members have lived in Lake Highlands their whole lives, says Sally Grinsfelder, president of the Women’s League: “We have many past presidents of the PTA — a lot of history.”
Grinsfelder, who recalled growing up in Lake Highlands in the mid-1950s, says she thought the project would help promote civic pride.
“I remember when everyone knew everyone else, and it’s still very much so like that.”
You can contact Robin Norcross regarding Lake Highlands’ oral history project at 214-662-9133.
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