200319ind oakhill

When the Oak Hill Tavern in North Kingstown closed for business to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in March 2020, it was one of the first signs locally that the pandemic would upend life in Southern Rhode Island. Now, a year and a half later, SK resident Sophie Richter is hoping to preserve the oral histories of those who lived through it locally.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Sophie Richter wants people to remember the struggles of those living through the COVID pandemic.

Rather than have these individual stories of people’s lives lost to history, she is collecting from people in South County audio-recorded retelling of their thoughts, feeling and experiences.

“I think there is something empathetic, and healing about creating a space for someone to be heard,” said the 25-year-old who has received grants from the Rhode Island Historical Society and Providence Public Library for this oral history project.

The recorded interviews will be submitted to the Rhode Island Covid-19 Archive (ricovidarchive.org). It is a public digital archive created and maintained by the Providence Public Library and the Rhode Island Historical Society in response to the COVID-19 public health crisis.

Documenting COVID Experiences

The project serves to document and share the lived experiences of Rhode Islanders from all walks of life during the pandemic and encourages all Rhode Islanders to document their experiences during this historic moment and to contribute those items to this public archive.

Erica Luke, executive director of the South County History Center, noted that oral histories are “excellent tools for historians and those trying to understand local history because they help us understand a person’s real-life experiences beyond the information captured in documentary materials.”

She said that in early 2020 historians and social scientists began looking to the 1918 pandemic for clues about the unfolding COVID pandemic, which proved more difficult than expected.

Personal stories from the 1918 pandemic were not well documented in the historical record or in literature, and this has driven a more focused effort to record contemporaneous accounts now, she added.

“To understand this phenomenon (COVID-19), consider the most important and consequential experiences of your life and what kind of documentary record is left of those events. If a historian looked at that record, would they understand the event happened or why exactly it was important?” Luke explained.

Richter, who majored in economics at Alma College and graduated in 2019, said she has a fascination with oral history and is currently also working on another project as well.

“The idea for the COVID collection came when I was looking at the achieve and saw that everything was mostly centered around northern Rhode Island and there was very little from the south,” she said.

This inspired her, she said, to start collecting stories from people in South County. So far, she has interviewed about 12 people who range in age from 23 to 79 years old.

What She Has Found

The majority right now have been older women, but also a few older men and Narragansett native Americans and one young person, she said. These people come from South Kingstown, North Kingstown, Narragansett, Rockville, Charlestown and Richmond, Richter added.

The 2014 South Kingstown High School graduate said that she’s looking for more interview subjects and each person gets a copy of the recorded interview.

“The stories are deeply emotional and, for instance, a person will tell about themselves or someone close who had COVID, and then they will start crying and that colors the rest of the interview,” she said.

“It is very much a malleable, human and messy creative,” added Richter. For her, a number of take-away insights are surfacing already.

One deals with how the media has shaped people’s understanding of an invisible disease to the naked eye, yet brings such invasive devastation to people’s lives, she said.

“I believe COVID cannot be understood without understanding that discourse,” she added.

Another point that has arisen focuses on the loss of community people have felt, she said.

“People who were volunteers and play an active role in their communities are optimistic about where we are going now. Those who are not engaged are more pessimistic,” Richter said.

Race in another factor, she added, noting that “it’s so embedded, whether it’s about the disease or just the racial tensions that occurred at the same time. You can’t really talk about COVID without that coming up.”

It’s also had a personal impact on her.

“I’ve always been interested in how stories can bring people together. An oral history project about COVID has put me down a path that is my whole life right now,” said Richter whose other oral history project work – in between a part-time waitress job to make ends meet – involves collecting stories about commercial fishermen.

She said she’s unsure about the number of stories she wants to collect, but it will be more than the dozen so far.

“COVID is still continuing. Who would have thought a year ago we would still be thinking about it,” she added.

Anyone interested in exploring an interview with Richter can email her at sophir96@gmail.com to learn more about the project.

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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