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'Best Gift Ever'

Five years after her father's death, a woman hears his voice again through a Duke online oral history

"I can't begin to tell you how powerful it was," said Madonna Chism Pinkard, a local television talk show host, of what it was like to hear her father's voice five years after he died. "If I closed my eyes I could have swore Daddy was sitting right next to me," she said. "It was such a powerful moment."

Seventeen years ago, Pinkard's father Tolbert Chism of Brinkley, Ark. contributed to an oral history project by Duke's Center for Documentary Studies. The project recorded stories told by older African-Americans who survived the Jim Crow South. It was later turned into a book, "Remembering Jim Crow."

In November Duke University Libraries posted 100 digitized versions of the oral histories online.

Tolbert Chism talks about voting in Arkansas

To hear all of the oral histories, click here.

When the university announced news of the digitized archive, Pinkard, the community relations director at an NBC affiliate in Youngstown, Ohio, received the announcement. 

"It shocked me," said Pinkard, who knew about the book but not the digitized archive. She said hearing her father's voice again was "unbelievable."

"My father has one remaining sister and she just turned 90. For her to hear that, you must understand ... how much it meant," said Pinkard, who shared her father's digitized oral history on the Chism family Facebook page. 

Chism shared many stories with his daughter about what life was like during Jim Crow. 

"As a child, we heard all of these stories about how important it is to go to school. He had to go to a school for colored students only. We always heard how important it was to receive an education and how hard it was for him to receive," Pinkard said.  

Chism family
Tolbert Chism and daughter Madonna Pinkard

Yet, she says her father did not tell her about his involvement with the oral history project, nor that he was included in "Remembering Jim Crow."

In 1995, Paul Ortiz, the graduate student who'd interviewed Chism, sent a box of complimentary copies of "Remembering Jim Crow" to the Chism home. 

Pinkard, who lived with her father at the time, thought the surprise box of books was a scam. She thought her father's credit card had been charged and chided Ortiz for taking advantage of senior citizens. He corrected her and explained the oral history project. Ortiz had conducted the interview during Chism's class reunion at the Fargo Agricultural School in Arkansas.

"I felt like this was a groundbreaking project," Pinkard said. "Jim Crow doesn't exist but his sons and daughters do. The book was very powerful."

It inspired Pinkard to continue exploring her family history. She can now trace her family back to the 1870s. 

"It gave me even more of a profound respect for Daddy. He would tell me about (historical moments like) the Trail of Tears and how our people were transplanted from the Mississippi Delta," said Pinkard.

Hearing her father's voice again, she said, was "the best Christmas gift ever."