Providing future generations with accurate, nuanced historical evidence is one of the primary missions of The Historic New Orleans Collection. History is not simply names and dates; it is, at its core, complex emotion and conflicting perspective. And oral history is perhaps the most effective methodology for the documentation of emotion and perspective.

The New Orleans Oral History Initiative was created to produce, through oral narrative projects, in-depth documentation of important contemporary events in our community and to strengthen the historical record of 20th-century New Orleans.

The Initiative’s focus has been and continues to be The New Orleans Life Story Project, which seeks to add depth and perspective to our understanding of 20th-century New Orleans through in-depth life story interviews. In addition, Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill inspired the execution of two important crisis oral history projects: the Through Hell and High Water Katrina First Responders Project documented the experience of local, state, and federal first responders during the troubled days, weeks, and months following Katrina; and the All Things Great and Small Oral History Project recorded narratives of those involved in the animal rescue operation following the spill. Other projects include the Sugar Bowl Memory Project and the Burt Harter Oral History Project.

Featured Audio Clip

Photo of Sugar Bowl half time.

The linked audio file is an excerpt of interview with Bonnie Miller Gunsaulus, daughter of Warren V. Miller one of the founders of the Sugar Bowl.  She is talking about her participation as a child in the halftime activities during the first Sugar Bowl, held New Year's Day 1935.
streaming audio 1:12 minutes

For more information about the Initiative or for information about usage and access please contact Mark Cave at 504-598-7132.

The New Orleans Life Story Project

Photo of Mark Cave interviewing Harry Connick Sr.

Every individual has a unique life story: a personal history that shapes his or her values and determines how he or she interacts with the community at large. To understand the history of a place, it is not enough to know the details of events; it is essential that we understand the motivations and emotions of those involved. Through in-depth life story interviews The New Orleans Life Story Project seeks to document a diversity of perspectives that speak to many of the important issues in contemporary New Orleans history. A life story interview, by definition, covers the entirety of an individual’s life from birth through the present. The process of telling a life story helps bring order and meaning to the life of the narrator. For researchers it provides insight into “what makes people tick” and helps build a more textured understanding of events. Interviewees to date include:

  • Mary Lou Christovich

  • Harry Connick Sr.

  • Dave Dixon

  • Mignon Faget

Through Hell and High Water Katrina First Responders Oral History Project

Photo of Mark Cave interviewing Gov. Blanco

Hurricane Katrina was a watershed event in the history of New Orleans, and the long process of rebuilding the city will be a theme of collecting and research for decades to come. As we move forward, however, it is important that we remember the events that took place in the immediate aftermath of the storm, when chaos prevented formal recordkeeping. First responders, who in order to help others need to analyze a crisis situation in its entirety, provide an important group of witnesses in the aftermath of a disaster. In October of 2005, The Historic New Orleans Collection began to collaborate with local, state, and federal agencies involved in the Katrina response to interview their personnel. The resulting interviews provide a strong framework for further research in Katrina studies. Agencies that participated in the project include:

All Things Great and Small Oral History Project

photo of pelicans being cleaned

In Louisiana, the pelican has long been a symbol of regional identity. As a result, images of oiled pelicans during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill provoked a powerful response. Animal rescue soon became an emotional core to the crisis. Using a similar methodology to that used in the Initiative’s Katrina project, The Historic New Orleans Collection partnered with agencies involved in wildlife rescue operations in Louisiana. The resulting interviews not only document the creation and functioning of these rescue operations, but also explore the motivations of those involved. Agencies that participated in the project include the Louisiana Animal Response Team (LART), which provided many of the volunteer workers engaged in bird rescue operations; the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, which was the lead agency in the response; and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Sugar Bowl Memory Project

Photo of Bobby Grier in Sugarbowl

Born in the Great Depression as a means of nurturing the tourism industry in New Orleans, the Sugar Bowl has been an important annual ritual in the city since 1935. In the minds of most, the Sugar Bowl is simply a college football game, part of the Bowl Championship Series—but it was initially billed as a “Carnival of Sports” that hosted a wide range of events, including a college basketball tournament, track and field meets, boxing matches, and a regatta. These events have been organized since the start by a group of volunteers collectively known as the Sugar Bowl Committee or “Sugar Bowlers.” In 2007 the committee donated its records and memorabilia to The Historic New Orleans Collection. The Sugar Bowl Collection is rich in photographs, programs, and ephemera—but the interviews that comprise the Sugar Bowl Memory Project add vital context, helping to explain what makes this annual event such an important thread in the fabric of our community. Interviewees include:

  • Henry Bodenheimer

  • Sam Corenswet

  • Pete Finney

  • Charles Glueck

  • Bonnie Gunsaulus

  • Clifford Kern

  • Ronnie Kole

The Burt Harter Oral History Project

Detail of self-portrait of John Burton Harter

Made possible by a grant from the J. B. Harter Trust, the intent of the project is to document the life and milieu of New Orleans artist and curator John Burton Harter. In 2002 Harter was found murdered in his home in New Orleans. The crime has never been solved. Harter was well known in the art community in New Orleans. The interviews, with friends and professional colleagues, provide details about the artist’s life and insights into the history of the local gay community, but they also reveal how an unresolved act of violence can affect an extended community of friends. Interviewees include:

  • Stewart Butler

  • Deena Bedigian

  • Dorothy Burandt

  • Katherine Guiden

  • Michael Guiden

  • Elizabeth Haselden

  • George Jordan

  • Claudia Kheel

  • Richard Magill

  • John Sullivan

  • Mary White