Part 3 concludes this blog series on conducting oral history research through the story of the Getting Word project. If you want to know more about the project and the historians, you can find it on the Getting Word web pages and in the books and online publications of the historians profiled in this part.
In addition, you will find a treasure trove of guidance and reflections on the “how to’s” of oral history research from these experienced researchers.
Part 3 – Getting Word – The Researchers and Their Advice for Oral Historians
The team of three women who conducted the Getting Word oral history research not only shared their stories of the project and its aftermath. They also responded to the question: “What guidance would you offer to people working on their own family oral histories?” The Tips that accompanied the two previous parts of this post and some additional advice and guidelines below are their responses.
Who the Researchers Are: To put their advice in context, here is some background information about each researcher.
Lucia (Cinder) Stanton: Following graduation from Harvard University, Ms. Stanton spent most of her career as an historian at Monticello. As a result, she is widely known as an expert on Thomas Jefferson’s personal life and the lives of his enslaved people and their descendants. She spent twenty years studying Jefferson’s financial records, editing and annotating his Memorandum Books, resulting in two volumes that are part of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. In 1993, Stanton helped launch the Plantation Community tours. From her involvement with the Getting Word project, Ms. Stanton was able to develop the Plantation Database, accessible through the Monticello website, containing information on 600 enslaved people associated with all of Jefferson’s plantation properties.
In her book Free Some Day: The African-American Families of Monticello (2000), Stanton introduced the families she had been researching for seven years. It is included in her essay compilation, Those Who Labor for My Happiness, published in 2012, extending the story of those families through many more decades and across the country.
The most meaningful insights that Stanton took from listening to over 180 people was that the Monticello enslaved community and its descendants are heroes, heroes to their families and heroes in their communities. They have maintained strong family ties, deep commitments to their faith and to education, they have acquired and made use of skills and gifts in music, cabinetry, pastoring, catering, hospitality, and business, to name a few examples. They were never victims; they saw themselves as people with dignity and standing, people who took actions large and small to ensure their circumstances matched their vision.
Dianne Swann-Wright: Dr. Swann-Wright received her PhD from the University of Virginia, in American History. Prior to working on the Getting Word project, she had been a historian at the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis, MD. Then she was director of multicultural programs at Eastern Mennonite University and finally, she was director of the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park in Baltimore, MD. In those positions, she had both read oral histories of enslaved people and had collected some of her own. Her research became A Way Out of Now Way: Claiming Family and Freedom in the New South. That work looks at the relations between two white landowners and their enslaved people, from a master-slave arrangement in the antebellum period onward to the early twentieth century and an employer and employee situation.
Kendra Hamilton wrote about Dr. Swann-Wright in “’Wrighting’ History’s Wrongs,” Black Issues, August 1999, stating that hiring Dr. Swann-Wright at Monticello was a clear signal of the shift in the site’s programming and interpretation. Once Swann-Wright arrived, events at the historic site intended to draw in an African American audience had credibility in the black community.
Beverly Gray: Beverly Gray has her degree from Ohio University. She is the co-founder and director of the David Nickens Heritage Center in Chillicothe, Ohio, showcasing African American history. She was an elementary, middle school, and high school teacher for more than 30 years, as well as an adjunct professor of education for Ohio University. On retiring from teaching, she was Education Specialist at the historic Adena Mansion and Gardens in Chillicothe. Ms. Gray has been a historian of the Underground Railroad and the African American experience in Ohio for decades. In 1993 she agreed to share her years of study of former Monticello slaves and their descendants as consultant to the Getting Word project.
Ms. Gray is a firm believer in using every possible scrap of documentary evidence to support and fill out the oral history. She also advocates for visiting the places where the family members being interviewed and their ancestors were born, lived and died, seeing their houses, churches, places of business, and final resting spots
Guidelines and Advice: The oral historians shared specific pieces of advice as well as interesting techniques and pieces of the personal philosophies they came to work by.
To gain people’s trust, Swann-Wright and Stanton prepared a brochure explaining the project. On the front was the picture of an African American man in a blackmithing apron, a man who looked strong and capable, far from any caricatured image. They distributed the brochure to libraries all over the country to make sure there was a single, consistent message about the project and to attract sources to come speak to them.
From Dorothy Spruill Redford, Ms. Swann-Wright got helpful suggestions for structuring the project methodology. For example, you must get people’s permission for interviewing, and you may give them access to whatever is written up, but do not let the interviewees edit or change their stories.
- Collect all the information you already know – anything you’ve been told, documents you already have. Begin to sketch out a time line.
- Do background research before and after the interviews. Talk to the elders.
- Create a simple set of well-thought out questions, and ask the same questions in each interview. Formulate questions based on what you know.
- Be sure you’re up on events in the world around your interviewees and their ancestors, e.g., what was happening in Ohio, in the country and in the world, at a given time that would affect the people your interviewees are talking about.
Ms. Gray’s practice is to do all the accompanying document and public records research: oral histories and the written record must go together.
- A sample of useful sources – family Bibles, Land transfer records, photographs, death records, family letters and documents, slave schedules, newspaper articles and notices, Chancery records, benevolent society membership lists, court proceedings, Revolutionary War records, Civil War pension records.
- With permission, scan family papers, letters and photos.
Swann-Wright and Stanton initially hoped that they would only interview one person at a time. But they had to adapt. Occasionally, as many as five people might came to an interview, with some of them speaking and others remaining quiet for the whole time. Being together gave them confidence.
Swann-Wright also emphasized the importance of having a biracial interviewing team. When Stanton would leave the room where they were meeting with an individual or a family, someone would often ask Swann-Wright if Stanton was “OK,” on the level and respectful. Reassurance from the African American member of the team generally led to greater candor.
- Record interviews on tape.
- Always get a set of essential facts at the beginning of every interview, to ensure that you have consistent information about names, dates, locations and family relationships. Make sure you know how the person you’re interviewing is related to or fits in among other people being interviewed.
- Listen with an open mind. Every sentence has meaning – pay close, close attention.
- If you hear an odd or unfamiliar term, be sure to ask for an explanation. Become familiar with local or vernacular turns of phrase. For example, “As long as Grant hung around Richmond” meant “a long time” in a family’s Civil War stories.
- Pay attention to how people are identified – affiliations, nicknames, signifiers of family role, and so on. Identifiers can tell you about the source’s feeling about the person they’re naming.
- With each question, leave enough time for people to tell you what they want others to know, but also what they might be less comfortable to share, especially information they’re not as proud about.
- Respect the answers you get. They have significance. Even when people misrepresent the facts, there are reasons. The more you can find out about a person, the better you’ll be able to piece together disparate or apparently incorrect pieces of information.
Especially Useful Questions
- Ask about family members’ often-repeated sayings, favorite songs or Bible verses. Find out what family members emphasized as being acceptable or unacceptable. Such questions show your interest and help bring the ancestors to life.
- Learn more or get past initial hesitancy by asking questions such as “What do you remember about how she looked?” You are likely to get more than just a physical description.
- Acknowledge family members’ talents and ask follow up questions. If someone was a good cook, find out what they cooked.
- Ask about what happened in the family when people were born, left home and died. How were those events acknowledged? What events were associated with transition times?
- Watch out for assumptions. What does being a “good man” mean to the interviewee – Moral? Courageous? Hard working? A “preacher” could be a church pastor or a woman who often spoke about the Bible.
- Find out about people’s travels, occasions when they left town, where they went if they traveled a lot or left town. Traveling may be connected to unexpected family relationships, troubles in the home community, unusual work opportunities, or even criminal experiences.
- Find out how the family handled the issue of passing for white – Permanently? Just for daytime? Certain areas or activities?
- Ask “What was your family known for?” as an opening to learn about the character of the interviewee’s ancestors.
- Always ask the person what they would want the public to know about their family. This question opens the door for them to fill in what they and their ancestors have valued about the family.
Processing the Interviews
- Accept the stories people give you.
Stanton described the balancing act of dealing with oral histories. On one hand, the researcher must give each person’s story complete acceptance as being true for the person and the family that shared it. On the other hand, the historian must weigh a story against available documents and other stories. This process requires one to discern where a family “truth” may not be exactly an historical truth but has some deeper truth behind it, and exercise enough lateral thinking or imagination to hypothesize what the deeper truth might be. Have people or places with the same names become conflated? Is a grandparent really a great-great-grandparent? (Chronology and generations are the most likely aspects of family stories to become inaccurate over time.)
- Look for how to confirm the oral tradition and the documented historical evidence, but don’t automatically accept either one.
Even documented “evidence” is not always factual and reliable. Census takers see what they want to see. Midwives and undertakers misspell names or misrecord dates and birthplaces. Faced with an unexpected baby, families record half-truths or lies to protect themselves.
- As soon as possible after each interview, go over the notes.
- Keep filling in the time line for the family group – events and people’s dates.