Women Create Tapestry of Black American Tales

Oral-history projects burgeon as researchers record the long-neglected stories of educators, activists, writers

Walk into Radcliffe College's Schlesinger Library, put on a pair of headphones, and you can hear stories from African-American women who have made a difference in the world.

Take Lucy Mitchell, who has devoted more than 50 years to teaching and improving child care in this country. Her great-grandmother recalled being a slave on a plantation and seeing a man go off to "take care of the United States" - and his name was George Washington.

Then there's Christia Adair, a civil rights activist who worked to abolish segregation. She talks of how her husband was a brakeman on a train during Warren Harding's presidential campaign. When the train stopped just outside of Houston, she recalls how Harding reached over the heads of the black schoolchildren to shake hands with the white schoolchildren. Ms. Adair declared that if this is the way Republicans behaved, she was going to become a Democrat.

Such stories - part of a collection of recordings known as the Black Women History Project - are a fascinating window on the history of black women in the United States.

Since 1984, the photo exhibit - with brief biographical sketches - has traveled to 52 sites in 22 states.

Now, after more than a decade of touring, "Women of Courage" has returned home.

The collection is not only a symbol of the civil rights and women's movements, but also a trendsetter for other likeminded oral-history projects.

Preserving past conversations

The idea for the project was sparked in 1972. Letitia Woods Brown, professor of history at George Washington University in Washington and a member of the Advisory Committee of the Schlesinger Library in Cambridge, Mass., suggested that the memoirs of older African-American women who bettered their communities and the nation be recorded and preserved.

From 1976 to 1981, some 72 women across the country were interviewed under the careful coordination of Ruth Hill, an archivist and oral historian at Radcliffe.

They were educators, lawyers, physicians, social workers, civil rights activists, business women, and writers. Their stories range from the historic (how Boston students called on Melnea Cass, a Boston civil rights activist, during a sit-in) to the touching (how as a little girl, Alfreda Duster would get on a step stool and comb the hair of her mother, activist Ida B. Wells).

In 1980, the project took a visual turn. Photographer Judith Sedwick approached Ms. Hill and offered to visually portray the women, resulting in the highly celebrated exhibit "Women of Courage." "This made the project public," Hill recalls.

It also spurred interest in further such projects. "The whole field of oral history has just burgeoned," says Sherna Gluck, professor of history and women's studies at California State University, Long Beach. "It helps all of us to understand how we're all part of the historical process."

Oral history, which today can include video- as well as audio-taped interviews, has been vital in documenting the history of people whose stories might not otherwise have been told.

This is particularly poignant for black women, including those in the "Women of Courage" exhibit, many of whom were born before the turn of the century.

The layers of evidence

"Oral history is another layer of evidence. It is a conversation that springs from past conversations," explains Richard Candida-Smith, professor of history at the University of Michigan. Oral history is growing more important, he says, because of technology: "We don't have the same kind of records about how people feel about their experiences.... By recording exactly what people are saying we tap the most important aspect of historical record."

Oral history can also yield telling details, such as how author Dorothy West began to write at age 7 and how her parents expected her to win every literary contest she entered.

While no central registry of oral history projects exists, there are projects going on all over the world, historians say. And the number keeps growing.

Many graduate students are doing theses and dissertations with oral history. Take, for example, continuing work focusing on African-American women. Regina Akens, a student at Howard University in Washington and a reference archivist with the Operational Archives branch of the Naval Historical Center, is conducting an oral history project on the black WAVEs who served during World War II. (WAVEs were Women Appointed for Voluntary Emergency Service, the women's branch of the US Navy.)

"I look at it as entering someone's life through a door," Ms. Akens says. "They've got to open it. You've got to respect their story, their time, and the way they tell it." Oral history is not only a way to substantiate, but to illuminate meanings, reasonings, and perspective, she says. "It's a wonderful means of filling in empty spaces."

Sherrie Tucker, a former journalist now studying at the University of California at Santa Cruz, is conducting oral histories of women who were in all-female jazz bands during the 1940s. "Oral history is so often the only way to get at histories that were neglected or not considered important," explains Ms. Tucker.

According to Mary Marshall Clark, director of Columbia University's Oral History Research Office in New York, the oral-history movement in general is "growing like wildfire. We have such a strong international movement," she says. A recent oral-history conference attracted 400 people from 40 countries.

The interest in the field has shifted from academia and archives to more community-based projects, she notes.

Hill has witnessed the surge of interest firsthand during her lecture tours. "There is this hunger to preserve your own history whether it's your family, church, or community," she says.

She recalls thinking how important it was for schoolchildren to know about the women in the Black Women Oral History Project.

"The generation that came of age in the 1970s thinking the civil rights movement was 'it' needed to know about the steps that were taken in the '30s, '40s, and '50s," she says.

"What oral history tells us is what things meant to people - not just the facts, but the subtle nuances and texture." Ms. Gluck reiterates. "The process is very empowering to the interviewer as well as for the people who participate."

* 'Women of Courage' will be on view at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College through April 25.

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