Campus News

Mayfield Tornado Oral History Project commemorates loss, celebrates resilience of Western Kentucky community

Streets of Mayfield, KY as rebuilding continues
Tornado damage of a local church
Local Mayfield church after repairs
Inside a local Mayfield church

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Dec. 11, 2023) On the evening of Dec. 10, 2021, a catastrophic EF4 tornado churned through Tennessee and Western Kentucky, carving a 165-mile path across 11 counties and claiming the lives of 74 people. 

Damage concentrated in the city of Mayfield, Kentucky, where more than 4,000 structures were impacted. A candle factory was flattened, killing nine workers, and many historic downtown buildings were destroyed, including the Graves County courthouse and eight historic churches, among which were two Black churches built shortly after the Civil War. 

Six months after the disaster, Rebecca Freihaut, Ph.D., a risk and crisis communications expert who works at the University of Central Florida and UK alumna, partnered with University of Kentucky Libraries Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History to speak with Mayfield residents about their experiences. Freihaut spoke with 22 residents in June and July 2022, then returned a year later to follow up with 18 interviewees.

The result is the Mayfield, Kentucky 2021 Oral History Project, a harrowing but hopeful collection of interviews that commemorates a tragic loss of life while also capturing stories of survival, resilience and regrowth. 

A native Kentuckian and UK alumna, Freihaut said she immediately felt a deep sense of kinship with the residents of Mayfield.

“In the weeks after the disaster, I followed the news from Mayfield and wondered what would happen after the news cameras left and they were left to pick up the pieces, both literally and figuratively,” Freihaut said. “It was at that point I decided to try to help in some way.”

In her academic work, Freihaut studies the way that narrative can lift up the voices of underserved communities and vulnerable populations in the wake of disasters. In Mayfield, she found a community close to home in which she could put her expertise into practice. 

Familiar with the Nunn Center after graduating from UK with a master’s degree in library and information science in 2014, Freihaut contacted Nunn Center Director Doug Boyd and Oral History Archivist Kopana Terry to discuss a potential oral history project. 

“When I reached out to members of the Mayfield community, I was welcomed with open arms,” said Friehaut. “That first summer, I met with 22 residents from all walks of life and heard incredible stories of survival: stories of successes and challenges, rebuilding and memorializing, and resilience and grief.”

She met participants in the Graves County Public Library, where a well-used box of Kleenex testified to the pain and heartache harbored by the community. 

“Oral history is more than a traditional interview,” said Freihaut. “It is a chance for a person to release their story. During those first interviews, nearly every participant cried, some sobbing to the point of needing to pause the interview so they could compose themselves before starting again.”

Freihaut was surprised to learn that many of the residents she interviewed had not shared their story with anyone before.

“Their tears marked the release of six months of grief, stress and loss,” she said. “But their tears were equally the tears of a proud and resilient people who were summoning the strength needed to do what had to be done to rebuild and move forward past this tragedy.”

By the time Freihaut returned about a year later, the Kleenex box sat mostly unused.

“Most participants joked that this time around the box of Kleenex was needed more for seasonal allergies than for crying,” said Friehaut. “I am hopeful that the residents of Mayfield will do as they have done for generations: pull themselves up by their bootstraps, march forward together, along with the many organizations and volunteers who have supported them, and rebuild Mayfield — not by forgetting the stories of the past, but by writing a new and beautiful chapter in their story.” 

What started as a service project resulted in a lifelong connection with the wonderful people of Mayfield, who Freihaut now considers friends.

“It is an honor to carry their stories with me,” she said.

The stories collected over those two summers have now been archived and indexed in the Nunn Center’s oral history repository, where they are accessible to the public and will be preserved for future generations both to commemorate and to learn from Mayfield’s tragedy.

Located in the Special Collections Research Center, the Nunn Center is crucial to furthering UK Libraries’ mission of preserving the history and culture of the Commonwealth in all of its dimensions.

“The work of the Nunn Center is unparalleled in its ability to capture history as it’s happening,” said Deirdre Scaggs, associate dean of research and discovery. “We are proud of our ability to facilitate projects like these, which are vital for both our partnering communities and for present and future generations of Kentuckians. They enable us to process events and remember the voices, stories, and spirit of communities across the state, and are invaluable additions to the historical record.”

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the Nunn Center is internationally recognized for its work in collecting and preserving oral histories. With over 18,000 oral history interviews, Nunn Center collections span an incredible breadth of topics and provide an invaluable resource to researchers across Kentucky and around the world. 

Find out more about the Nunn Center’s collections and collaborations, or learn how to support the Nunn Center as it pursues its mission of engaging communities, creating connections and life-changing learning experiences, increasing access to oral histories the world over, and collecting and preserving Kentucky’s story.

As the premier research library in the Commonwealth, UK Libraries empowers lifelong learners to discover, create and connect by providing ever-expanding access to quality information and collaborating with academic and creative communities worldwide to advance knowledge, enhance scholarship, and preserve the history and culture of the Commonwealth. More information about UK Libraries can be found on its website.

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.