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African-American Oral Histories

The Project in Interpreting the Texas Past
The Project in Interpreting the Texas Past (ITP) at the University of Texas at Austin was created by Dr. Martha Norkunas to shed new light on the Texas and American past by researching, interpreting and presenting the histories of women and minority communities. Students have engaged in historical and cultural research and created innovative interpretive projects for historic sites and museums all over the state of Texas.  Another important part of ITP is conducting in-depth oral history interviews.  Beginning in 2004, graduate students enrolled in Dr. Norkunas’ course, “Oral Narrative as History” conducted oral history interviews with African Americans in Texas, particularly Austin.  The goal of the African American Texans Oral History Project is to come to a deeper appreciation of the important events, values, and intellectual perspectives in the lives of African Americans, and to examine the importance of race and racial identity in America.

ITP is an initiative of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium, created and directed by Dr. Richard Cherwitz (spaj737@uts.cc.utexas.edu) Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Texas Austin. The IE Consortium is committed to building interdisciplinary, collaborative, and sustainable ways for universities  to work with their communities to solve complex problems.  For more information, please see: https://webspace.utexas.edu/cherwitz/www/ie/

For more information about the Project in Interpretive the Texas Past, please contact Dr. Martha Norkunas, Head of the Project in Interpreting the Texas Past, Department of Anthropology C3200, EPS 1.130, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX  78727, m.norkunas@mail.utexas.edu

Major funding for the Project in Interpreting the Texas Past was provided by: University of Texas, College of Liberal Arts, Office of the Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement, College of Communications, College of Fine Arts, Information School, the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium, the Houston Endowment, and the Summerlee Foundation.

The African American Texans Oral History Project
In recognition of the anniversaries of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, students enrolled in my spring 2004 graduate seminar, “Oral Narrative as History,” began to conduct oral history interviews with African Americans in Texas, concentrating on the impact the Acts had on people’s lives and work.  The office of Community and School Relations was developing a web site on teaching Texas African American History and hoped to provide some of the oral history materials to teachers.  I had been teaching the seminar for three years, directing my students to collect oral histories with minority populations in various communities in Texas, often with African Americans.  The new focus of the seminar offered an opportunity to create a collection with a wide variety of people in and around Austin, as well as occasional interviews with selected people in other areas of Texas.

In the graduate seminar I train students to conduct life history interviews, process the audio and paper documents, and to prepare finding aid materials.  The class discusses oral history methodology, issues of memory and history, memory and sense of place, traumatic memory, class and gender issues associated with narrating the past, and oral narrative and racial memory.  Graduate students read oral histories with African Americans talking about slavery, labor issues, sharecropping, family, the effect of Jim Crow laws on their lives, and civil rights.

My students come from many different backgrounds:  Malaysian, Japanese, Vietnamese, Middle Eastern, Mexican, Nicaraguan, and Swedish. The majority is Euro-American.  Many of my students have never spent three hours talking with someone who is African American, and many were not comfortable asking questions about race, racial discrimination, and racial identity.  Most narrators, however, openly discussed racial topics, easing students’ concerns about how to approach race. The project revealed how difficult it is for Americans to talk about race, how we lack even a basic vocabulary to discuss race, and yet how critical it is to talk about race in order to begin to create a climate of mutual understanding.  Thus the process of interviewing became as important as the products created. It confirmed oral history as a quiet, but powerful tool to create a situation in which two people sit together and engage in meaningful talking and meaningful listening. If there is to be racial healing in American, maybe it begins with meaningful talking and listening.

I identified narrators through professional contacts, friends of friends, and community and church groups.  Some narrators were chosen because the person held or holds a public position.  Sometimes a student identified a narrator him or herself.  All of the people we asked to interview agreed.  The interviews ranged from forty-five minutes in length to more than six hours.  I encouraged students to think of the initial interview as an overview of the narrator’s life, and, with the narrator’s permission, to re-interview him or her.  Not surprisingly, the more often a student interviewed someone, the more comfortable narrator and interviewer became with each other.  As a result, the student could follow up on issues raised in earlier interviews, ask more sensitive questions, and raise a wider range of topics.  I urged students to develop their questions based on the individual experiences of their narrators, and to ask detailed follow-up questions.  Each week, over a period of four months, the class discussed themes that emerged from the interviews, and issues they found challenging.  After completing an interview, each student created an unedited transcript.  I read each transcript and suggested follow-up questions and new topics to pursue in future interviews.

Students created an abstract of each interview, short biographical notes about the narrator, transcription and editing notes, context notes describing their relationship with the narrator, and subject headings.  Students identified the most moving or significant portions of the transcript and created questions for teachers about those excerpts.  With additional funding from the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium, and the Office of Community Relations, Radio, Television and Film students edited audio to match the teacher questions and transcript answers.  Whenever possible, students obtained a photo of the narrator. I edited all students’ materials into a detailed finding aid to the collection.

All students asked the narrator if they would be willing to release their recording, photo, and transcripts to the public domain.  Nearly all narrators were willing to do so.  It was important to me that an archive or institution not own the materials, but that they should be open to all nonprofit educational uses free of charge. The narrators had freely donated their time and thoughts, my graduate students had given tremendous effort to thoughtfully and responsibly conduct the interviews, transcribe them and create associated documents, and I had spent hundreds of hours of my time organizing the interviews into a meaningful collection.  Much of the work to create the collection had been supported by The University of Texas, a public institution.  The narrators words, as they describe some of the most important issues in America, are there for all of us to learn from and to use in the service of teaching others about the history of race relations in the United States and the sea change in attitude needed to effect true racial and ethnic understanding.

After reading through the interviews my students collected in 2004, I realized how eloquent and powerful the narrators’ words were and decided to continue building the collection in subsequent semesters. Students enrolled in my “Oral Narrative as History” seminar in the spring of 2005, the spring of 2006, and the spring of 2007 collected additional interviews. New groups of graduate students will continue to do interviews in 2008.

The 2004 interviews focused on African Americans who held, or hold public positions. Among those interviewed were the President of the Texas NAACP, the editor of an African American newspaper in Austin, the editor of a progressive Austin newspaper, and the first African American Texas Secretary of State. In 2005 students interviewed a number of African American female teachers in Austin, as well as a female business owner, a librarian, and community activists.  In 2006 students interviewed a number of African American female artists, additional community activists, and people who hold professional positions as well as those who are part of the working class. In 2007 the interviews were wide ranging, from an arts organization director to a construction worker, to a bus drivers and union organizer to a jazz singer.

As a whole, the current collection begins to build a portrait of life in Texas for African Americans, but particularly life in Austin, Texas.  People speak of family, the church, locally owned Black businesses, the trauma of school desegregation for the Black community, the impact of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement on their lives, what segregation had meant to them in their daily lives, how their parents shielded them from it, and what it felt like. They also speak of the more subtle forms of racial discrimination—being stopped by the police, followed by security guards in a store, stared at, not “allowed” to buy a house in a White neighborhood, prevented from participating in high school clubs—the list is long and disturbing. There are many stories of how people felt they could move through the space of Austin, where they could go and where they could not go, what stores they could shop in and try on clothes, what stores would let them use the bathroom, and which nightclubs they could go to.  Many of the narrators spoke of their own efforts to achieve equality of opportunity for African Americans, either as lawyers, elected officials, activists, teachers, writers, or artists.  Through their work they raised issues, fought for causes, and often reframed controversial topics so that others could see them from a new perspective.  Many of the narratives are full of humor and moving stories of pivotal moments in the person’s life.  The stories may resonate for people of color when they listen to the audio or read the transcripts; for Anglo-Americans the stories will introduce them to a different way of experiencing the world and bring a new understanding of what it means to be an American of color.

A Note on Hearing Oral History Interviews versus Reading Transcripts
My students transcribed the full interview recordings, and other students audio edited the recordings which are to appear on the web (audio editing means listening to the audio and reading and correcting the transcript to make sure it exactly represents the words spoken on the recording).  I then audio edited the recordings which are to appear on the web.  All recordings that appear here have been audio edited four times to ensure that the transcripts are a faithful representation of the narrators’ words.  On occasion, when there was background noise or the narrator spoke very quickly or very softly, it was impossible to transcribe a word or phrase and that is indicated in the transcript.

I encourage you to listen to the audio while you read the transcript.  It is the audio that is the primary source document and the audio that is most moving.  Nothing replaces listening to a person tell his or her own story.  The text that accompanies the audio represents words that were spoken and is not meant to be read alone. It includes false starts. (False starts are the short phrases we say in conversation before we construct our final sentence. For example, in the sentence:  “I think he, well he was about to, okay, he was the person who was first elected,” the false starts are: “I think he, well he was about to, okay.”)  

Should someone wish to read text without listening to the audio, please read the lightly edited text, which eliminates false starts, repeated words, and subwords such as umm and ahh.  The lightly edited transcript is still meant to represent the narrator’s words but the editing makes it much easier to read.

Martha Norkunas, Ph.D
Head of the Project in Interpreting the Texas Past
Austin, Texas
October, 2007

Acknowledgments

Interviewers
Jeannette Bellemeur
Johanna Hartelius
Clare Croft
Erin Murphy
Amber Abbas
Naoko Kato
Thu Suong Nguyen
Amy Steiger
Heather Teague
Richard Taylor
Jodi Relyea

Special thanks to all the people who have been interviewed to date:  Dr. Charles E. Urdy, Tommy Wyatt, Volma Overton, Bernice Hart, Bernadette Phifer, Gerald Rowland, Gary L. Bledsoe, Clint Smith, Sam Biscoe, Myra McDaniel, Berl Handcox, Ethel Minor, Dr. Charles Akins, Akwasi Evans, Nelson Linder, Clarence McGowan, Joan Means Khabele, Dr. John Q. Taylor King, Sr., Dr. June Brewer, Lillian Gregg Kerley, Dorothy Charles Banks, Renette Bledsoe, Dorothy Jean McPhaul, Harrison David Eppright, Clifton Griffin, Dorothy Orebo, Ernestine Thompson, Ollie Hargis-Giles, Gloria Black, Deborah Roberts, Maurice McCloney, Carl Shelton, Audra Sneed, Rev. Freddie Dixon, Sr., Esther Jackson, Juliet Nious, Debbie Blue, Harold McMillan, Chandra Washington, Carla Nickerson, Lauren Anderson, Delores Alspaugh, Dominic Bailey, Lisa Byrd, John Fleming, Alysia Friday, Rev. Frank Garrett, Tresca Grannum, Pamela Hart, Steve Jackson, Beverly Kinney, Stephanie Lang, Josephine Mays, William McCloude, Arthur McDonald, Karen Riles, Kathryn Stone.

Special thanks to:
Dr. Richard Cherwitz, Dr. Richard LaRiviere, Dr. Richard Flores, Dr. Rod Hart, Dr. Gregory Vincent, Dr. Doug Dempster, Dr. Andrew Dillon, Karen Riles, Deb Duval, Joe Roberts, Kevin West, Mike DeLeon, Mike Heidenreich