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"Race, Poverty and Oral History,"

by Alan H. Stein & Gene B. Preuss September/October 2006 issue of Poverty & Race

“Oral history” is a method of gathering and preserving historical information through recorded interviews with participants in past events and ways of life. It is both the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word, and one of the most modern, initiated with tape recorders in the 1940s.

African Beginnings

There is a long record of oral history as a significant tool of historical inquiry and documentation. Early historians like Herodotus in the 5th Century BCE relied on interviews and testimony, some of which was reported verbatim. Plutarch wrote biographies based on interviews and oral accounts. The idea of relying upon eyewitness testimony dates back to the beginnings of western history itself—Thucydides, writing 400 years BCE, interviewed participants when he wrote his history of the Peloponnesian War. More recently, the first large-scale oral history project in the United States occurred during the Great Depression. From 1936 to 1939, the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Project Administration employed reporters, historians and writers to interview thousands of elderly African Americans in 17 states who had been slaves before the Civil War. Once the project ended, the more than 2,000 interviews languished for nearly three decades in the Library of Congress archives, utilized by few historians.

The slave narratives are significant in what they reveal about oral history methodology and the beginnings of the movement itself. Historian Jerrold Hirsch contends that the modern oral history movement (circa 1948) really began with the WPA slave narratives– a decade before the formalization of the first university-housed oral history program at Columbia University (founded by historian Allan Nevins). Since then, oral history has become a tremendous method of expanding the process of documenting the past of groups that rarely leave written records of their lives.

A new methodology New Social Historians began employing emerged with tape recorders in the 1940s. Historians began adapting the techniques that folklorists used to capture the reminiscences of those who did not leave behind memoirs, diaries, reports, newspaper articles, nor the traditional archival materials historians had previously relied upon. Women’s social history, ethnic history and labor history (all seen to be more inclusive of the American experience) increased the use of oral history in both research and teaching.

The oral history movement’s coming of age parallels the growth and development of the Civil Rights Movement and birth/rebirth of the field of women’s history. As more and more historians emerged in the Civil Rights Era, they broadened the scope of their studies to encompass not only the great epics of American history, but also how these events affected “ordinary” people. American historians termed the studies that resulted from this desire to include “history from the bottom up” the New Social History. For example, in the 1970s—coinciding with the rise of the New Social History—renewed interest in the slave narrative collection resulted in the release of some 40 volumes of transcripts. Oral histories have allowed historians to apply the traditional methods of inquiry to new areas of research by recording personal histories that would have otherwise been lost to posterity. In many cases, these histories are more intimate and personal than written documents.

Like the historians of the European Annals school, American social historians began employing methods from other social sciences and adapting those skills to the study of history. The advent and availability of computers made it easier for historians to make use of statistical analyses of governmental Census records, public and personal ledgers and account books, and other quantifiable material—for example, to measure and evaluate how hard slaves were whipped when punished. Other historians preferred plain old-fashioned foot-work (i.e., digging in archives) to uncover quantifiable materials.


Oral historians have wrestled with the difficulties of evaluating oral testimony and personal narratives for many years. Indeed, researchers enjoying the increased access to the slave narratives in the 1980s began noticing the inconsistencies and historical inaccuracies to the point that some even called the value of the narratives into question.

One recent example demonstrates some of the myriad problems historians worried would occur. In late 1998, public demonstrations erupted against a history course in North Carolina’s Randolph Community College taught by local members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans society. Although the teachers admittedly taught the course with the intention of celebrating the Southern past, the use of the slave narratives caused the greatest uproar. While the course’s instructors were quick to condemn slavery as morally wrong, based on their readings of the slave narratives they concluded that most slaves were happy with their situation, loyal to the South, fearful of Northern whites and dissatisfied with the end of slavery. Indeed, many of the narratives seem to indicate that slavery was not so bad. Careful analysis has provided several explanations for the problems in relying upon oral testimony such as the slave narratives. Psychologists term the tendency for hostages to identify with their captors the “Stockholm Syndrome,” and interviews with former prisoners of war, kidnapping victims and torture survivors reveal that some victims do not assess any personal blame upon the perpetrators.

Author/folklorist/activist Stetson Kennedy provides personal hindsight relative to the slave narratives: “When the campaign to seek, find, and interview ex-slaves got under way in l936, Florida led the way in its ability to assign black staffers to conduct the bulk of the interviews on a black-on-black basis (Louisiana was the only other state to do likewise). Historians have since acclaimed the superiority of these Florida narratives for their relative lack of inhibition in detailing the most horrendous aspects of slavery. In those instances where whites interviewed blacks, the process was often a contest of wills, and the result shed as much light on the patronizing ‘plantation mentality’ of the interviewer as it did upon the life slaves lived on the plantation.”

Kennedy (who supervised the legendary Zora Neale Hurston on the Federal Writers’ Project in Florida) also observed that “far from being irrelevant to the ex-slave interviews, the system of laws, regulations, and customs governing interracial relations and attitudes had a very pronounced influence on them (as well as everything else the Writers’ Project produced).” In other words, Kennedy, as well as black writers and editors, was keenly aware that “Editor-in-Chief” Jim Crow was looking over their shoulder—and hence governed themselves accordingly.

From Slavery to Freedom Riders

Within the last decade, as the ranks of the Freedom Riders and Black Panthers have thinned, there has been a renewed effort by scholars and documentary filmmakers (like Constance Curry) to gather first-person oral testimony, for the most part drawing upon archival resources. Documentaries shown in the classroom, available on DVD or on the Web, elicit a discussion about race, poverty and oral history—in effect, a way of truth and reconciliation through media. (A dialogue about slave reparations, for example, can be included in a study guide, discussion list or Website.)

Quite obviously, the potential for using new technologies to increase access to oral histories is attracting interest among scholars and documentary producers, especially The History-Makers, based in Chicago, a national, non-profit institution committed to preserving, developing and providing easy access to an internationally recognized archival collection of thousands of African-American video oral histories ( They have recorded some 1,400 interviews to date. The purpose of this archive is to educate and to show the breadth and depth of this important American history as told by the first person; to highlight the accomplishments of individual African Americans across a variety of disciplines; to showcase those who have played a role in African-American-led movements and/or organizations; and to preserve this material for generations to come. The HistoryMakers is committed to creating and exposing its archival collection to the widest audience possible, using collaborations as well as the Internet, a digital archive and other new technologies. When assembled, The HistoryMakers will be the single largest archival project of its kind in the world. Its founder, Juliana Richardson, modeled it after the Federal Writers’ Project: “Not since the recording of former slaves during the WPA Movement of the 1930s has there been a methodic and wide-scale attempt to capture the testimonies of African Americans.”

Most recently, Hurricane Katrina uprooted lives, dispersed cultures, and exposed issues on race and poverty. It has proven to be an inexhaustible resource to oral historians. Two projects that got under way before there was even a Katrina aftermath include:

Katrina: Alive-in-Truth

“Alive-in-Truth: The New Orleans Disaster Oral History and Memory Project” ( began on September 4, 2005 outside the Austin Convention Center, which served as a shelter for 6,000 New Orleans residents. It is an all-volunteer effort (a family of interviewers, translators, therapists, donors and community members) and continues to collect oral history and to support displaced New Orleanians. A-i-T created a traveling exhibit this year presenting photos and text, in collaboration with The Austin History Center.

This oral history project is one of the first to utilize a “life history” approach to telling Katrina’s story, by focusing on the entire life of the interviewee, not only their storm-stories. This kind of “bottom-up” approach also helps evacuees find their voice. By interviewing residents from New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, the project documented individual lives in one of the most hard-hit areas. It helped the community to restore their bonds, uphold their voices, culture, rights and dignity.

Volunteers encountered people who did not have furniture, who were missing family members or just plain unaware of resources to help locate them. In many cases, the volunteers encountered survivors with untreated medical conditions who were not in contact with preliminary case management services. In 2005-06, as a direct service to Katrina clients, A-i-T Direct connected 42 displaced families with the appropriate social work case managers in the Austin area and follow-ups to make sure their needs were met. They transported a variety of beds, tables, chairs and kitchen supplies to 27 households. They were able to locate 16 long-term lost/missing family members for evacuees who could not read or write, via Internet searches.

The Oral History Association (OHA) encourages standards of excellence in the collection, preservation, dissemination and uses of oral testimony. Some OHA members expressed concern over this intervention by A-i-T volunteers-as-advocates because they directly compromised their own objectivity and that of their subject (informant). On the other hand, volunteers were very sensitive to the communities from which they collected the oral histories, which is an important standard of excellence.

Alive-in-Truth Project Director and former New Orleanian Abe Louise Young describes the importance of active oral history in shaping public policy by networking with other organizations—grassroots, non-profits, oral history, human rights, state and national, people of color-led groups—in order to connect with a broader social change movement:

    The story of Katrina is not one to be left in the hands of professional image-makers or public relations people or politicians. It is every-one’s story. And as such, I feel it’s a perfect opportunity for each of us to empower ourselves to be story-makers and story-keepers.

She also believes that the legacy of A-i-T will be in preserving “the archive of accounts that have achieved rapid dissemination, educating and informing various constituencies. This is evidence of the broad scope possible with multiple media liaisons, a vision of justice and belief in the speakers.”

The project has collected well over 100 interviews that are, on average, 1-2 hours long. The interviews are posted on the Web, are recorded on minidisk, and excerpts are placed into MP3 format (playable and accessible on the Web).

Katrina: In the Wake of the Hurricanes

In the Wake of the Hurricanes: A Coalition Effort to Collect Our Stories and Rebuild Our Culture () began in October 2005 as an effort of scholars and the public interested in documenting the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. This landmark cooperative effort provides a framework for comparing data collected from independently funded projects that center on core agreements among Coalition members. Those agreements include:

  • Standardizing information collected in oral histories, life stories and demographic surveys in order to compare data among project participants;
  • Protecting interviewees from exploitation by ensuring that all proper permission forms are signed and that people have access to their interviews, and that copies are provided free of charge;
  • Collecting demographic data that can be used in database form or to map movements of people and cultural traditions; and sharing all information with other scholars in the Coalition and the public.

A continuum of interviewers, ranging from folklorists, cultural anthropologists and historians to evacuees, community scholars and students, have conducted interviews. Many of the Coalition members have enthusiastically embraced the idea of training evacuees and other community scholars to do interviewing, thereby providing skills, training and remuneration to those who have lost income and jobs from this disaster. Like The HistoryMakers, this project was envisioned to echo the WPA projects of the 1930s.

While space does not permit us to review all of the projects and partners associated with the Coalition, one of the sites offers a social and environmental interpretation of events. It is entitled “Katrina Narratives of African-Americans in an Unprecedented Diaspora: A Social and Environmental Oral History Project,” coordinated by Dr. Dianne Glave from Tulane University’s Bioenvironmental Research Department (which relocated to Atlanta following Katrina). Glave’s proposal re-enforces the need for oral historians to expand on the news media’s impressionistic reporting. She believes oral history interviewers share responsibilities with the news media:

    In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the fragmented and harrowing pieces of many narratives of African Americans who were trapped in the Superdome, Convention Center and their flooded homes have emerged on television and the Internet. Some evacuated immediately while others were forced to wait many days to be rescued; most migrated to points across the United States; and many are now attempting to return to the Gulf region. As a result, the news media has opened an insightful dialogue across the United States and throughout the world concerning race, racism, and class. Scholars now have an opportunity to add to this exchange of ideas—not merely replicating the news—as a catalyst for analyzing the historical context for this natural disaster by looking at African influences, the Middle Passage, enslavement, freedom, migration, the Civil Rights movement and more. Out of this tragedy, I propose an oral history project that would give the Katrina narratives by African Americans scope, adding to what is in the news [by] emphasizing the social and environmental implications.

This year marks the 40th birthday of the Oral History Association. Its meeting (Oct. 25-29 in Little Rock - will be an occasion to examine the past, present and future of race, poverty and oral history. The call for papers for this year dealt with groups and individuals who promoted freedom and resisted repression. The overwhelming response has enabled the OHA Program Committee to focus thematically on the histories of civil rights activism and social justice and the consequences of telling one’s story during the Civil Rights Era. Together, these panels and the stories told in them make links between social movements of the past and the ongoing struggles against racism and poverty that are reflected in the narratives of the survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

Alan H. Stein was from 2004-05 Head of the Louisiana Div., City Archives & Special Collections at the New Orleans Public Library.
Gene B. Preuss is Associate Professor of History at the University of Houston Downtown.


They are co-authors of "Oral History, Folklore, and Katrina," in There Is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class and Hurricane Katrina, eds. Chester Hartman & Gregory D. Squires (Routledge, 2006).

The Stetson Kennedy Foundation and Tracy E. K'Meyer provided assistance in preparation of this article.


Oral History Association

Oral History Online

Oral History Society

Indiana University Center for the Study of History and Memory

Baylor University Institute for Oral History

Columbia University Oral History Research Office

Library of Congress American Memory StoryCorps Project

Library of Congress American Memory Project — "Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project 1936-1938"

Voices of Civil Rights

The History of Jim Crow includes recommendations on teaching with oral history.

Books & Films

All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw, by Theodore Rosengarten (Knopf, 1974). This is an acknowledged life-history classic about an articulate Black sharecropper’s life and times in poverty, as told to the author.

Bridges of Memory: Chicago’s First Wave of Black Migration, by Timuel Black (Northwestern University Press, 2003). The first of three promised volumes of oral history has been best described as "living history," with a moving introduction by John Hope Franklin. In putting together this book, Black, a lifetime Chicagoan, political activist and professor emeritus of social sciences at the City College of Chicago, sat down with some 40 men and women who either themselves migrated to Chicago over the course of the 20th century or were the children of those who migrated. Taken together, these stories form part of the tapestry of what historians refer to as the Great Migration. This migration took place in two waves, the first beginning in 1916 and the second commencing in the 1940s, when unprecedented numbers of Black Americans left the Southern states for Northern cities, seeking better jobs, better lives, and sometimes, simply, adventure. The decisions of these individuals to make new lives for themselves in industrial Chicago and Detroit dramatically reshaped the politics and social realities of the nation in ways that historians are still striving to understand.

Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement, by Lance Hill (University of North Carolina Press, 2004). Deacons for Defense and Justice was founded by a group of African-American men who were mostly veterans of World War II and the Korean War, organized in Jonesboro, Louisiana, on July 10, 1964. Their goal was to combat Ku Klux Klan violence against Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) volunteers who were participating in voter registration activities. Hill combines oral history interviews to construct the first major history of the era and the movement.

Everybody’s Grandmother and Nobody’s Fool: Frances Freeborn Pauley and the Struggle for Social Justice, by Kathryn Nasstrom (Cornell University Press, 2000) uses rich oral history material, recorded by herself and others, to present Frances Pauley in her own words. Pauley, a White woman who grew up in the segregated South, has devoted most of her 94 years to the battle against discrimination and prejudice. A champion of civil rights and racial justice and an advocate for the poor and disenfranchised, Pauley’s tenacity as an activist and the length of her career are remarkable. She is also a consummate storyteller. Pauley’s life has encompassed much of the last century of extraordinary social change in the South, a life touching and touched by famous figures from Southern politics and the Civil Rights Movement.

The Intolerable Burden, directed by Chea Price and produced by Constance Curry (New York: West Glen Films, 2002). Citizens of Drew, Mississippi, both Black and White, tell the story of the desegregation and resegregation of the local public schools. This documentary, by dispensing with the omniscient narrator and taking the story past the Movement years into the present, makes important contributions both to the use of oral history in film and to the scholarship on, and public policy discussions about, school desegregation and its impact on education.

Negroes with Guns: Black Power and the American South, by Sandra Dickson, Churchill Roberts, Cara Pilson, and Cindy Hill (2006). CN0178. This new documentary (distributed by California Newsreel) takes an electrifying look at Robert F. Williams, a historically erased leader, who was the forefather of the Black Power movement. The film provides a thought-provoking examination of Black radicalism and resistance and serves as a launching pad for the study of Black liberation philosophies. Included are interviews with historian Clayborne Carson, biographer Timothy Tyson, Julian Bond and a first-person account by Mabel Williams, Robert’s wife.

Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession, by Studs Terkel (The New Press, 1992). Any discussion of race and oral history would be incomplete without acknowledging the works of Studs Terkel, a champion of the working class.

Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery, Emancipation, edited and released by Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau and Steven Miller (The New Press, 1998). This series of tapes recorded by the Federal Writers’ Project on disc during the Depression were remastered for this project.

Roots, by Alex Haley, was a classic novel that spurred a growth in using oral history to document ethnic/family history based on oral sources.

Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement From the 1950s Through the 1980s (Bantam Books, 1990). As the authors graphically show, participating in civil rights marches, sit-ins and Freedom Rides took moral stamina and raw nerve. The heroines and heroes of the Movement receive a stirring tribute in this oral history, a tie-in to the TV series Eyes on the Prize, which Henry Hampton produced and Steve Fayer wrote. The book is organized in 31 chapters around key events, with demonstrators offering complementary perspectives. We hear from ordinary people along with well-known activists Ralph Abernathy, Rosa Parks, Jesse Jackson and Stokely Carmichael; public officials John Conyers and Nicholas Katzenbach; Black Panthers Huey Newton and Bobby Seale; Alex Haley, Coretta Scott King, Ossie Davis, Tom Hayden, Michael Harrington, Harry Belafonte. Collectively, the testimonies reveal how far America has progressed in the drive for equality and how far it still has to go.

White Men Challenging Racism: 35 Personal Stories (Duke University Press, 2003), by Cooper Thompson, Emmett Schaefer and Harry Brod ( is a collection of first-person narratives chronicling the compelling experiences of 35 white men whose efforts to combat racism and fight for social justice are central to their lives. While these men discuss their accomplishments with pride, they also talk about their mistakes and regrets, their shortcomings and strategic blunders.

Archival Collections

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture ( is a national research library devoted to collecting, preserving and providing access to resources documenting the history and experience of peoples of African descent throughout the world.

Civil Rights Oral History Bibliography ( Oral History Interviews on the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi was the first project of the Mississippi Civil Rights Documentation Project, a joint project by University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage and the Tougaloo College Archives.

The Amistad Research Center ( at Tulane University makes available to researchers over 600 manuscript collections and over 20,000 books, documenting the rich history of African Americans and other ethnic groups. Within these collections, researchers will find a range of primary documents, such as family photographs, personal letters, oral histories, organizational records and more. The Center’s civil rights holdings are unique in breadth and scope. The Center has a solid reputation among researchers for being a starting point for matters related to African American civil rights and the collections contain invaluable information obtained from civil rights organizations, activists, politicians and scholars who were deeply committed to the Movement.


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