Completing the puzzle
As Oxford prepares for 175 years, local historian brings its past 100 years to light
Erik Blackburn Oliver, Oxford artist, historian and author, saw a void in his town’s history. Oxford, on the eve of its 175th birthday, had no documentation of its past 100 years.
In fact, Oxford’s documented history stunted at the year 1919, when Emory College moved from Oxford to Atlanta to become Emory University. Many people know that the city of Oxford was established in tandem with the school, and that for many years Oxford prospered. But what happened to the community after Emory College moved?
That is exactly where Oliver’s “Oxford” begins its documentation.
“If you look through the book, you can see that the history of Emory has been told many times,” Oliver said. “Nothing had really been written about the community of Oxford itself, particularly about the twentieth century. So I wanted to focus my attention on the twentieth century, specifically after Emory went to Atlanta, because it’s a wonderful story of perseverance and resilience.”
Oliver began by reaching out to the families and individuals with deep Oxford connections, to see if they would be able to share from their private collections. He knew that he would not be able to find as much from the Emory archives or state archives to write a community history, so he began his search with private homes.
“Unlike writing a standard history, where it’s more about the narrative and I would follow chronology, in this kind of format you have to go out first and see what you can find,” Oliver said of the process he used to compose “Oxford.” “Once you have those historic pictures, you have to try to organize them in some way that makes sense and tells a story. And that [way] kind of defies chronological order.”
When he had gathered more than 200 photos, he began to look for themes to tell his story. Oliver used each of those themes to come up with each chapter in his book.
Oliver grew up in Oxford. He already knows many of the families whose photos and stories he collected
for more than five months for his book published by Arcadia, which publishes a series of local pictorial history books for many towns across the nation.
After authoring “Cornerstone and Grove: A Portrait in Architecture and Landscape of Emory’s Birthplace in Oxford, Georgia” in 2009, Oliver was approached by friend and colleague Ken Thomas, who had previously worked with Arcadia.
“I always said if I had another opportunity to do another book, I would do a history of Oxford,” Oliver said.
Oliver is president of the Oxford Historical Society, who lovingly refer to themselves as “Keepers of the Old Church.” Local residents joined to form the society in 1974 with the goal of restoring and up-keeping the old Methodist church on Oxford campus’s grounds.
His parents were founding members of the historical society, and following in his father’s footsteps, Oliver became president. He gained both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in history from Emory. And from the beginning, documenting the stories of his community and school has been Oliver’s passion.
“It’s sort of like when you’ve been working on a jig-saw puzzle for a long time,” Oliver said of his book. “And you find those missing pieces you really needed to complete that part of the picture. The more you find out, the more you want to find out. I don’t see this as the end of a project, but more like a first chapter of continual research.”
“Oxford,” written by local historian Erik Blackburn Oliver, is a pictorial history of Oxford’s twentieth century and contains more than 200 photos.