A Conversation with Dr. Monroe Fordham
Richardson, Jean, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History
Dr. Monroe Fordham, Professor Emeritus, taught in the History Department at the State University of New York College at Buffalo (Buffalo State College) for 25 years. He pioneered the development of a process for forging partnerships between practitioners and community members in the search of local record and histories. "A Conversation with Monroe Fordham" addresses the fundamental historiographical problems stemming from the absence or lack of "hard data" needed for creating sound community history.
He outlines the methods he and others developed to form dynamic partnerships with non-academicians and their quest to gather, preserve, and present authentic local histories. Fordham illustrates the importance of significant endeavors such as programs to conduct workshops in the community on preserving historical materials and sponsored essay contests to involve school children in their own histories. He summarizes the value of the program when he says, "What is going to get your history included is somebody deciding that it is important to gather those source materials from which people can do research and do writing." In this way, anecdotal historical accounts become part of the knowledge base.
While the focus of Dr. Fordham's project is primarily African American history, the model of what can and should be done for community participation applies to preservation of the history of any group. It is an unpretentious model that provides for the collection and preservation of material in a manageable, minimalist approach that can be implemented at little expense and with little training.
We are very happy that you are willing to talk with us about the project you developed over the years to collect documentation for the African American community in Buffalo. What we are particularly interested in exploring is your point of view about the project, how you got started, its basic objectives and anything that can contribute to a broader understanding of its purpose and the philosophy behind it, some of your successes and failures. (Words in italic identify interviewers Dr. Jean Richardson, Dr. Nuala McGann Drescher and Mr. Paul DeWaId.) '
MF: I will talk first about how we got started. Back when I graduated from the University of Buffalo (UB)2 in 1973, I was looking around, for a research project that would engage me for a few years, in the short term. I decided to do local history because of the proximity of sources and how inexpensive it would be to do.
I further decided to do local church history, the history of the African American church. I was going to focus on the twentieth century. And, I decided to do oral history as a beginning, not with the idea of building an archive, but with the idea of building some materials from which I could examine and explore the impact of the church in Buffalo. I decided to begin the interviews with a lady by the name of Mrs. Alberta Nelson.
Mrs. Nelson was about ninety years old. She was a member of the church that I attended and was very active in it. Her mind was very fluid and she had been involved in the history of the A.M.E. Bethel Church of Buffalo for a long time. So I set up the interview with Mrs. Nelson and went over to meet her. When I did, I also met her husband, who was also about ninety years old, maybe a little older. During the interview with Mrs. Nelson, we discussed church activities and her involvement with the church. We worked for about an hour and I intended to go back and do additional interviews with her.
But, when I got through interviewing Mrs. Nelson, her husband came up to me and said that I might want to interview him. I did not think much about it because he wasn't a churchman. He was not active in the church; he was not even a member as far as I knew. As I got ready to leave, he said 'do you want to set a date for interviewing me?' I said 'maybe we'll just talk to you now about what I might interview you about. …