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… (T)he great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations. And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this …
James Baldwin, “White Man’s Guilt,” in David R. Roediger, ed., Black on White:, NY: Schocken, 1998), 321.
As social beings we are linked or related to each other in a million ways. As an expression of this, we often spend time with new people we meet trying to figure out positive linkages or connections in the recent past–people we both know, places we’ve both been, experiences we’ve shared. Read more ›
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.
Ms. Gray’s practice is to do all the accompanying document and public records research: oral histories and the written record must go together.
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.
Especially Useful Questions
Processing the Interviews
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.)
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.
Part 2 of the Oral History post describes the kinds of impacts that oral history research can have, regardless of the circumstances of the family whose history is being woven together. The Getting Word project’s impacts and aftermaths are an interesting story, and I hope they give you ideas for what your research might inspire in your family and what else, beyond history, you might be able to create.
Part 3 of this blog series will come out next week.
Part 1 – The Story of the Getting Word Oral History Project
Part 2 – The Impact and Aftermath of the Getting Word Oral History Project
Part 3 – The Researchers and Their Advice for Oral Historians
Part 2 – Getting Word: Impact and Aftermath
Conducting oral history research in any family, grand or modest, has the power to create change, to be disruptive, and to have lasting effects. The impacts may be low key and positive, or they may stir up old feelings of fear, anger, sadness, estrangement or confusion. There is the chance that new and surprising information or connections will be uncovered. Family research is never “just” family research.
An oral history project is probably not going to end when the researcher thinks it will. Collecting stories and hunting up documents often leads to more of the same. Most oral historians have some end product in mind, whether that be a book, a database, a movie, or an exhibit, and that end product is likely to be read, shown to or shared with the people whose stories it contains.
But the research experience and the final product take on lives of their own, an aftermath that the researcher may not have anticipated. The experience of telling stories and looking at documents inspires the people who participate to ask more questions, share more information, and want to connect with other members of the family or community. Gatherings and reunions take place; Facebook groups spring up. Sometimes the family spirit is revitalized, and relatives want to travel together and return to their ancestors’ home places. People other than the researcher are moved to blog, tweet, Instagram, video, scrapbook, and write fiction or non-fiction. News stories get written. Family members offer or are asked to speak to the historical society, the church, the youth group, the school or college. Sometimes an outstanding family member is honored or the research project itself is recognized. Sometimes the oral history becomes an impetus to preserve an old home place or restore an abandoned cemetery.
The impact and aftermath of Getting Word may prepare you for what could come out of your work – undoubtedly results more exciting and broad reaching than you expect.
Impact of Getting Word – Validated & Respected: The initial impact of launching the oral history research was a sense of excitement among the descendants. A Fossett family member was overcome with tears of gratitude to have his family stories finally be believed. Over the years of the project, the experience of having carefully held family histories be affirmed and valued, listened to and recorded, taken seriously by scholars and an important American institution continued to be deeply meaningful to individuals, to their immediate families, and to the Getting Word descendant community.
Research Causes More Research: Another impact of the initial phases of the project was to encourage additional descendants to be interviewed or to be motivated to do their own family research beyond the scope of the project. A woman who was not interviewed by Getting Word but knew of the project started following up on a family story of being descended from “a Jefferson.” As her research continued, Monticello gave her research support, and she was able to find the links between her mother’s family and one of Jefferson’s grandchildren. Persisting, she is now figuring out how she is descended from a Hemings brother.
The TJF website reports that Getting Word led to the “discovery of almost ten previously unknown surnames of enslaved families at Monticello. This has led both to finding descendants and to helping combat the stereotype of “nameless” slaves who took their owners’ surnames after the Civil War.” The project uncovered a fourth individual’s memories of life as a slave at Monticello in the form of a long interview given by Peter Fossett to the New York World in 1898. It also discovered that “one of only a dozen surviving sound recordings of former slaves is an interview with a descendant of Monticello slaves: Fountain Hughes.” Appropriately, part of the end product of Getting Word is a digital collection of over 200 photographs of descendants from the nineteenth century to the present.
Re-Connection and Community: A Getting Word community formed. It started with a gathering at Monticello in 1997 of people interviewed for Getting Word. That event brought together people who had lost touch with or never known one another. Groups of descendants discovered that each line had been telling the same oral history of how they were related. People from different Monticello families whose ancestors had moved to southern Ohio unbeknownst to one another, were rejoined as a community.
Richer, More Truthful Interpretation: Of course the oral history project also achieved its original purpose of informing the interpretation of the historic site. Monticello’s interpretive strategy now weaves together the daily lives, activities, skills and accomplishments of the enslaved people and the slaveholders. Just as the “historically significant” European American family members are mentioned by name, now the names, roles, and personalities of the equally important but less known enslaved individuals are part of the tour guides’ stories.
Aftermaths – Ongoing Gatherings & Engagement with the Work of the TJF: Getting Word has gone well beyond its original reason for existing. When white Jefferson descendants proposed to Monticello that they would hold an all-inclusive gathering for everyone descended from the plantation community, the Getting Word community already existed, ready to be invited. And they came, 200-strong, to a weekend reunion in 2007.
In 2012, Monticello collaborated with the just-forming National Museum for African American History and Culture and the larger Smithsonian organization to put on an exhibit called “Jefferson and Slavery: Paradox of Liberty.” At the entrance to the exhibit was a large wall covered with the names of people enslaved on Jefferson’s properties. Artifacts loaned by descendants of those people were on display, with the lenders named and acknowledged. Stories gathered during the Getting Word research appeared in print or on video, and the narrators’ family trees were on display. The Getting Word community was invited to attend the opening. Some of the descendants became informal spokespeople for the exhibit.
Two years later, after consultation with Getting Word descendants, Monticello prepared for an enormous renovation and restoration project that would start rebuilding the places in which the ancestors of the Getting Word people lived and worked. Descendants of the enslaved workers were asked to “voice” the audio tour guides to the new structures.
A year later, in May 2015, the restorations on Mulberry Row were opened, with a large number of Getting Word descendants present. They were applauded by the public, feted at a dinner and a champagne tea, and let down their hair together in the evening at a local hotel.
Later that summer, a smaller group of Getting Word descendants came back to Monticello to sleep in those restored buildings, for a Slave Dwelling Project overnight. More of them joined the sleepover in 2016. They danced on Jefferson’s lawn to African drumming, discussed their ancestors’ lives by the light of a bonfire at the edge of Mulberry Row, touched the fingerprints in the bricks of the mansion’s wall, put flowers on the graves of unidentified African American enslaved people, sang hymns, and held one another close.
Tips for Impact and Aftermath
There is a problem I have been wrestling with for many years. One of the refrains I hear over and over among people working for racial reconciliation is the necessity of honoring the ancestors and the insistence that the ancestors are helping us in our work, especially in the unraveling the intricacies of enslavement and its genetic and cultural legacy. Read more ›
By Marian Baker, Opinions Editor Furman University. FU. “Furmie.” Or most commonly, Furman. These are the names with which we refer to our cherished university. However, many studen…