Women Create Tapestry of Black American Tales Oral-History Projects Burgeon as Researchers Record the Long-Neglected Stories of Educators, Activists, Writers
Kirsten A. Conover, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
Walk into Radcliffe College's Schlesinger Library, put on a pair of headphones, and you can hear stories from African-American women who have made a difference in the world.
Take Lucy Mitchell, who has devoted more than 50 years to teaching and improving child care in this country. Her great-grandmother recalled being a slave on a plantation and seeing a man go off to "take care of the United States" - and his name was George Washington.
Then there's Christia Adair, a civil rights activist who worked to abolish segregation. She talks of how her husband was a brakeman on a train during Warren Harding's presidential campaign. When the train stopped just outside of Houston, she recalls how Harding reached over the heads of the black schoolchildren to shake hands with the white schoolchildren. Ms. Adair declared that if this is the way Republicans behaved, she was going to become a Democrat. Such stories - part of a collection of recordings known as the Black Women History Project - are a fascinating window on the history of black women in the United States. Since 1984, the photo exhibit - with brief biographical sketches - has traveled to 52 sites in 22 states. Now, after more than a decade of touring, "Women of Courage" has returned home. The collection is not only a symbol of the civil rights and women's movements, but also a trendsetter for other likeminded oral-history projects. Preserving past conversations The idea for the project was sparked in 1972. Letitia Woods Brown, professor of history at George Washington University in Washington and a member of the Advisory Committee of the Schlesinger Library in Cambridge, Mass., suggested that the memoirs of older African-American women who bettered their communities and the nation be recorded and preserved. From 1976 to 1981, some 72 women across the country were interviewed under the careful coordination of Ruth Hill, an archivist and oral historian at Radcliffe. They were educators, lawyers, physicians, social workers, civil rights activists, business women, and writers. Their stories range from the historic (how Boston students called on Melnea Cass, a Boston civil rights activist, during a sit-in) to the touching (how as a little girl, Alfreda Duster would get on a step stool and comb the hair of her mother, activist Ida B. Wells). In 1980, the project took a visual turn. Photographer Judith Sedwick approached Ms. Hill and offered to visually portray the women, resulting in the highly celebrated exhibit "Women of Courage." "This made the project public," Hill recalls. It also spurred interest in further such projects. "The whole field of oral history has just burgeoned," says Sherna Gluck, professor of history and women's studies at California State University, Long Beach. "It helps all of us to understand how we're all part of the historical process." Oral history, which today can include video- as well as audio-taped interviews, has been vital in documenting the history of people whose stories might not otherwise have been told. This is particularly poignant for black women, including those in the "Women of Courage" exhibit, many of whom were born before the turn of the century. …