With BUIOH Support, St. Mary’s University (TX) Instructor Finds “Voice in the Whirlwind”

November 14, 2023

(WACO, Texas) -- Like many who spend time in Waco, Tyler Davis had heard the story: how a 1953 tornado that killed 114 people in downtown traced a path roughly the same as that of a lynch mob that murdered, mutilated, and burned the body of Jesse Washington in 1916. The long-asserted association between a cruel act of humanity and an ungovernable act of God led him to dive deeper into the story by conducting oral memoir interviews as part of his doctoral dissertation, a process he undertook with assistance from the Baylor University Institute for Oral History (BUIOH).

            Davis, a researcher at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, partnered with BUIOH’s Steven Sielaff (Senior Editor & Collections Manager and Senior Lecturer) and Stephen Sloan (Director of the Institute for Oral History, Executive Director of Oral History Association, and Professor of History). The institute provided support and training on necessary equipment, and, crucially, a repository for the recordings of the original interviews he conducted with Black Wacoans in 2022. Through his partnership with BUIOH, Davis was also able to take advantage of  a new automated speech-to-text technology called Whisper.

“OpenAI’s Whisper allows for raw automated transcript creation for our students to audit check and correct,” said Sielaff. “These raw transcripts are 98-99% accurate and come in handy for our partners so that they can begin working on their derivative projects as soon as we process their interviews. Combined with a certain amount of prioritization in our workflow, this can allow for quicker turnaround of auxiliary projects such as Tyler’s.”

Davis’s partnership with BUIOH is an example of one of several models for researchers seeking support as they conduct oral history interviews on their subject of interest. BUIOH offers remote skill-building workshops, in-person training, transcription assistance, and other opportunities aimed at creating more able practitioners.

            The interviews Davis conducted became part of his project called “God of the Whirlwind: An Archive of a Black Waco Oral Tradition,” hosted on the Spirit House website. It investigates the deeply-forged connections in Waco’s African American community between Jesse Washington’s 1916 lynching – an event so heinous it earned the nickname “the Waco Horror” – and the May 11, 1953 tornado that is on record as one of the deadliest in state history. Davis spoke to Black Wacoans from young adults to elders about their memories of the stories and how they are inextricably linked together.

“This important project gives vivid perspectives on the ways in which the Jesse Washington lynching has been and is a living and powerful memory in the African American community of Waco,” said Sloan.

For more information on Davis’s project, visit his Spirit House website. To learn more about the Baylor University Institute for Oral History, visit library.web.baylor.edu/oralhistory.