Academic journal article The Oral History Review

A People's History of Industrial Philadelphia: Reflections on Community Oral History Projects and the Uses of the Past

Academic journal article The Oral History Review

A People's History of Industrial Philadelphia: Reflections on Community Oral History Projects and the Uses of the Past

Article excerpt

Abstract In this article the author reflects on three community oral history projects he conducted in Philadelphia between 1978 and 1984. Brief histories of these projects are used as an opportunity for reflections on urban folk history, and some of the forces and often unacknowledged "purposes" of the oral historian that shape interviews and the history that emerges from them.


For many years, I have wanted to write about the community oral history projects I began work on more than twenty-five years ago. I did not, however, for fear that to do so would be a narcissistic exercise about flawed research, with few lessons for those who might read it. In 2001, however, I was prompted to organize some ideas by an invitation to speak about community oral history at the Cliveden mansion in Philadelphia--the celebrated historic house around which the Battle of Germantown took place in 1777. Posting of the programs from my first oral-history based radio series, I Remember When: Times Gone But Not Forgotten, on the Talking History website, means that the programs can be heard again for the first time since their last broadcast in the spring of 1983. (1) Having moved well into my fifties and begun the self-reflection that comes with advancing age, the time seems right to put some of that history down on paper. So what I'd like to do is explain the history of my first forays into community oral history, and then offer some reflections on how I make sense of it all some two decades later.

I Remember When was the first of four community oral history projects that I worked on between 1979 and 1985. In those six years I completed more than 200 interviews with a broad cross-section of elderly Philadelphians. Graduate students and community residents working with me completed about another fifty. From these interviews I produced three slide shows, close to ten hours of sound documentaries for public radio that all focused on the history of Philadelphia between 1890 and 1940, my Ph.D. thesis, and a series of other spinoffs. (2) I would like to share some thoughts about those interviews and projects.

Before I do so, however, I'd like to share two stories that have nothing to do with Philadelphia, but everything to do with how I now make sense of these earlier projects. At West Chester University I teach "Varieties of History," a course on historiography and historical methodology that all history majors must take. And in this course I always have my students read a wonderful essay on "historical facts" that Carl Becker wrote in 1926. (3) Some of you may know it. Becker asserted that historical facts are not those simple, concrete, empirical bits of objective data that historians presumed to be the basic building blocks of history. In reality, he wrote, they are complex symbols synthesized from an infinite number of impressions and experiences that exist only in the present, and only in the mind. Becker also insisted that they do not even exist until they are called upon "by the purpose of the historian."

Story Number Two: In June 1997, I was interviewing University of Rome Professor Alessandro Portelli about a series of oral history interviews he had conducted the previous fall in Harlan County, Kentucky. Reading through the transcripts of those tapes to prepare for my interview of Sandro, I had been struck by the large number of stories he recorded about shootings, knifings, traffic accidents, cancer, and floods. So we're talking in a New York apartment at about 1:30 in the morning and Sandro was explaining how he interviewed without an agenda to see what folks want to talk about, and how he combined his agenda with their agenda, and about how the focus of his project was becoming "well fuzzier, maybe." Already quite tired and hoping to redirect our interview, I asked him, "So why your interest in death?" And here is what he replied.

   Portelli: Well, it's not that I'm interested in death, or maybe I
   am. … 
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