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Listen in on History: Untold stories of African American experience in Austin preserved in oral history project

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Dorothy McPhaul comes from a long line of Austin antique dealers. Her grandfather, Simon Sidle, started the family business in 1918, and her mother and her aunt both continued it in a shop on Austin’s Red River Street, where the city’s antique dealers were once concentrated. McPhaul says as an African American, her grandfather had to be shrewd to get fine antiques in a segregated city.

The old houses near the Capitol and governor’s mansion were full of antiques for sale, but African Americans were not allowed inside. In order to get around that, McPhaul’s grandfather never showed up for a sale empty-handed. He’d bring along an item he knew the dealers inside couldn’t resist.

Martha Norkunas
Dr. Martha Norkunas, director of the Project in Interpreting the Texas Past, has been leading graduate students for four years in collecting oral histories of African Americans in East Austin.

“To keep him from coming in and buying stuff from in the house, they would set up a table outside,” McPhaul recalled in an interview with Amber Abbas in 2005. “But he would always carry something that he knew that they wanted, to get inside the house to buy something. So he would buy the stuff that they had outside, plus he would get something inside also.”

McPhaul’s story offers a glimpse into the history of culture and race in the Texas capital and is one of many collected and preserved in a unique oral history project developed by Dr. Martha Norkunas. For four years Norkunas, director of the Project in Interpreting the Texas Past and a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, has led graduate students from across campus in seeking and recording a history of East Austin.

What emerges in the interviews with more than 58 African Americans is the largely untold story of a city divided by geography and race, and a world that exists only a few miles removed from the university campus.

“Through the interviews you get to see how incredibly pervasive segregation was by law and by social custom,” Norkunas says. “I knew about segregation. But I didn't know it included riding a Ferris wheel, going to a state park, trying on clothes in a store, library books and even blood for transfusions. My students have been hearing stories that describe a past that many Americans have never heard about."

An initiative of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) Consortium sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts and the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, the oral history project fits IE’s philosophy of creating “citizen scholars.” It offers students the opportunity to do work that produces academic knowledge while simultaneously contributing to the community.

Dorothy McPhaul LISTEN to an audio clip of Dorothy McPhaul talking about Austin during segregation (7:14).

McPhaul was born in Austin in 1933 and has been engaged in her family’s antique business, started by her grandfather, since retiring from teaching.

Read transcript of interview excerpt with Dorothy McPhaul.

More than 180 hours of interviews have been recorded by students enrolled in the seminar “Oral Narrative as History.” They’ve sat down face-to-face with community leaders such as Awkasi Evans, publisher and editor of NOKOA: The Observer, a community newspaper, and Dr. Charles Urdy, former City Council member and mayor pro-tem. They’ve also talked to cultural figures, business owners and long-time East Austin residents.

It’s a perfect project for Norkunas, who has been doing oral histories herself since 1983. Norkunas is a public historian committed to working with people to help them think through what their stories mean. Since 2000 she and her students have been collecting stories in Texas and incorporating them into films and exhibits for historic sites. Most of their work has been with women and people of color.

Then the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act in 2004 prompted Norkunas to consider the history of African Americans in Austin.

“At that point I realized that the history of African Americans in Texas was invisible at almost every historic site we looked at,” she says. “So we began to concentrate on doing oral histories with African Americans in Texas, primarily in Austin. And as we collected more interviews, we began to create a really powerful historical documentary window.”

For Karen Riles, neighborhood liaison for the Austin History Center, the project was an opportunity to switch roles. She’s used to being a historical expert on the city, but now she was invited to offer her own narrative. She sat down with graduate student Snowden Becker to tell her story.

Karen Riles LISTEN to an audio clip of Karen Riles talking about awareness of a Jim Crow past (4:16).

Riles is neighborhood liaison at the Austin History Center and a preservationist who has worked to make sure the contributions of African Americans to Texas are recognized and recorded.

Read transcript of interview excerpt with Karen Riles.

Part of that story was moving to Texas as a girl from Arizona, where she lived close to the California border. Her community in Arizona had been desegregated before she was born, so she was unprepared for life in a recently desegregated Texas.

“But I remember that first day we were dropped off at the school,” she told Becker in February 2007. “I don’t know why my mom didn’t come in. I don’t know if she was at the other school, enrolling my other siblings, but we were dropped off at that office. And we went in, and we met racism dead in the face.”

The racism Riles encountered began in the front office of her school, where she and her sister were accused of “sassing” when asked about their former home. It continued onto the playground, and followed her through her childhood, including when she played basketball for her school. After a game, the athletes went to a restaurant in Dime Box, Texas. When they arrived, the restaurant owner wouldn’t let Riles and her sister enter the restaurant by the front door. The girls went back to the bus.

“And [the coach] says, ‘Why are you crying?’ And [my sister] told him that the lady wouldn’t allow us to eat with the other girls. We’d have to eat in the colored section,” Riles recalls. “So he went to the restaurant and told the girls to come out of that restaurant right now. And he made them get back on the bus, and we left.”

An oral history interview is something quite out of the ordinary because you are creating a historical document in those moments that you're sitting together. No paper documents exist to describe the world that we've now created through these narratives. Dr. Martha NorkunasRiles admits that when she was asked to participate in the project, she wondered if she would have anything to say. But as a historian, she recognizes that oral histories make an immeasurable contribution to the public record.

“They capture information you might not find anywhere else,” she says, “because it is that person’s experience. At the time it may seem insignificant, but in the larger context it becomes something very important, something very significant.”

Norkunas echoes that sentiment when she explains that an oral history is not just a series of stories.

“An oral history interview is something quite out of the ordinary because you are creating a historical document in those moments that you’re sitting together,” she says. “No paper documents exist to describe the world that we've now created through these narratives.

“Hearing about the lives of African Americans in Austin is critical to understanding the past. It also has great implications for contemporary race relations. These very personal stories make history come alive.”

History comes alive when Evans describes being suspended from school for marching with Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963. And it comes alive when Dr. John Q. Taylor King, former chancellor and president emeritus of Huston-Tillotson University, merges his family history with the history of African American colleges in America, explaining how his grandmother was in the first class at Fisk University when it opened in 1866.

History comes alive, too, when artist Deborah Roberts explains that when she was younger she knew the social status of African Americans in Austin by what their telephone exchange was. If a phone number started with 345, Roberts would know the people lived in West Austin instead of East Austin.

Gary Bledsoe LISTEN to an audio clip of Gary Bledsoe talking about segregation in schools (4:57).

Bledsoe is the president of the Texas NAACP. He also served as Texas’ assistant attorney general from 1979 to 1994.

Read transcript of interview excerpt with Gary Bledsoe.

“And the 345s were African Americans in Austin who had ‘made it,’” she says. “They weren’t the 926 because the 926 or the 929 were the East Austin people and the 345s were the doctors, dentists, landowners.

“It got to a point where people never wanted the 926 numbers because you would be considered in East Austin. So people would pay extra to have 474. That was my first introduction to the power base in Austin.”

Roberts was interviewed by Clare Croft, a graduate student in the Department of Theatre and Dance. Croft says her conversations with Roberts helped her understand the city in ways she was unlikely to as a student who moved to town for school.

“The fact that I was asked to leave campus and my insular grad student life and meet a person who had a very intimate relationship with the city was important,” Croft says. “It’s a great way to send students out from the small world we live in.”

Like most students who have participated in the project with Norkunas, Croft doesn’t intend to pursue a career in history. But learning to do oral histories helped her with her dissertation work, which involves interviewing dancers. And it’s taught her to be a better listener.

Norkunas believes the skill of deep listening benefits interviewers as students, scholars and teachers, and that it can also have a profound impact on them as individuals.

Volma Overton LISTEN to an audio clip of Volma Overton talking about the military (6:45).

Overton was one of Austin’s most revered civil rights leaders and a long-time president of the Austin NAACP. He died in 2005.

Read transcript of interview excerpt with Volma Overton.

“One of the first things I ask students is, ‘When was the last time anyone sat and listened to you uninterrupted for two hours?’ and ‘When was the last time you listened to someone?’” she says.

“That’s a really sobering thing. We learn to listen responsibly, to understand what it means to listen across culture or gender or race.”

And ultimately the archive this project creates is meant to be listened to. A sample of the oral histories has been put online already, and the archives are available to researchers. In addition, Norkunas and her students have created a toolkit for teachers based on the narratives.

For Norkunas, who’s been something of a secret at the university and whose courses fill by word of mouth, the project speaks to what she considers a core mandate of the university: to help preserve the community around it. Without these records, she says, we could walk around our whole lives and not know this history exists.

“I think that’s one of the most beautiful things the university can do for the community where it’s located,” Norkunas says. “It’s amazing that you can take these really alive and bright young intellectuals and bring them into the city and say, ‘Let’s do something meaningful.’”

By Vivé Griffith

Banner photo of Karen Riles and Dr. Norkunas
and inside photo of Dr. Norkunas: Christina Murrey

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