Spelman Oral History Project Preserves Black Women's Wisdom

Article excerpt

The pages of Black women's history are peppered with the stories of nationally prominent figures, while scant attention is paid to the lives of ordinary Black women. To help fill this void, Spelman's Independent Scholars (SIS), a group of undergraduates at the all-women's college in Atlanta, are working on a groundbreaking oral history project documenting the lives of elderly Black women of the South.

"The SIS Oral History Project seeks to give voice to a segment of the population that has been essentially marginalized or ignored, discarded or silenced," says English professor Gloria Wade Gayles, who created the two-semester, independent and interdisciplinary program, now in its fourth year.

Students in the program spend a minimum of six hours interviewing elderly Black women - dubbed Women of Wisdom (WOW). To date, about 40 students and 45 elders - ages 70 to 103 - have participated in the project.

The WOWs featured are culled from a variety of sources - including churches, newspaper articles and recommandations. They are leaders and community activists who have worked as social workers and domestics, scholars and cooks. Though many of the WOWs are from across the Southern states, most live in Georgia today and represent diverse economic and social backgrounds - one is the daughter of Atlanta's first Black physician and another is the daughter of a handyman.

Some students travel internationally, helping Virginia Floyd, M.D., SIS scholar of traditional knowledge, collect narratives of elders in indigenous communities. Her research seeks to preserve and restore African traditional science.

The project, however, is about more than collecting stories, says Gayles. It is also designed to bridge the generational gap that she often sees between young and elderly Black women. …