After Saigon fell in 1975, thousands of Vietnamese were brought by churches to the United States. Many found a new home along the Gulf Coast of Texas, unnoticed by most state residents, because it had an environment that reminded them of home.
The Victoria College/University of Houston-Victoria Library set out to record the story of these immigrants in their own words. This oral history project, “Never Far From the Sea: The Vietnamese of the Texas Gulf Coast,” has earned the Mary Faye Barnes Award for Excellence for Community History Projects for Sara Massey, the principal investigator on the project.
The Texas Oral History Association initiated the award in 1999 to bring recognition to oral history projects exemplifying distinguished preservation of community history. The award is named for longtime community historian and twice TOHA president Mary Faye Williams-Barnes of Lockhart.
“This was an exemplary project, and I’m glad to see it get such prestigious recognition,” said Massey, a retired researcher who lives in Austwell and once worked for the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio.
Massey interviewed 48 Vietnamese who settled in Palacios, Port Lavaca, Seadrift and Rockport/Fulton. Their stories were transcribed and placed in notebooks that include photographs of the interviewees. The collection is available for viewing and research in print and audio form at the VC/UHV Library and the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin.
Massey first learned of the Vietnamese people’s story when producing books about Texas immigrants at the Institute of Texas Cultures and knew their untold stories were an important part of the cultural history of Texas.
After she retired and bought a beach house in Austwell, she approached the UHV/VC Library about doing the oral history project. The library helped her secure funding from several area foundations for the project.
In doing the interviews, she began to notice common elements in many of the stories.
Some of the older refugees came to the U.S. after immigrating from the north to the south of Vietnam after the defeat of the French colonial government.
“For some of these people, coming to the United States was the second time they were a refugee,” she said.
Most of the men had served time in the military in one capacity or another, and several had been wounded, she noted.
From camps scattered across the U.S., they began working menial jobs and learning to speak English. A large number found their way to Texas as they tried to reunite with families and friends.
In Texas, they found the weather similar to the humid jungle conditions of Vietnam, and the water drew many to the Texas Gulf Coast, she said.
“Many had been shrimpers and fishermen in Vietnam,” she said. “Many are shrimpers now.”
The project was paid for by grants from Trull Foundation of Palacios, the Kathryn O’Connor Foundation and the Albert E. & Myrtle Gunn Trust, both of Victoria.
“The migration of so many Vietnamese to the Texas Gulf Coast is an important part of our history worth preserving,” said Joe Dahlstrom, director of libraries for VC and UHV. “Dr. Massey did an excellent job doing just that. I hope many scholars and students of history will take advantage of this unique resource we now have available.”
Dahlstrom nominated Massey for the prize.
“The award is well deserved for all her hard work and excellence on this project,” he said.