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Oral Histories at the American Folklife Center

Introduction

Oral history collections from the American Folklife Center

 

The American Folklife Center was created in 1976 by the U.S. Congress to "preserve and present American folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibitions, publications, and training. Its archive includes many oral history collections, selections of which are included below. 

Civil Rights History Project

The Civil Rights History Project is a collaboration between the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture to conduct a survey of existing oral history collections with relevance to the Civil Rights movement to obtain justice, freedom and equality for African Americans and to record new interviews with people who participated in the struggle.

 

Civil rights activist Ruby Sales (b. 1948) describes the central role and importance of Rosa Parks and other working women for the freedom struggle in an interview conducted by Joseph Mosnier for the Civil Rights History Project in 2011.

TEXT:when we look at Rosa Parks, people often think that she was – she did that because of her civil rights and wanting to sit down on the bus. But she also did that – it was a rebellion of maids, a rebellion of working class women, who were tired of boarding the buses in Montgomery, the public space, and being assaulted and called out-of-there names and abused by white bus drivers. And that’s why that Movement could hold so long. If it had just been merely a protest about riding the bus, it might have shattered. But it went to the very heart of black womanhood, and black women played a major role in sustaining that movement. And so, that’s why I think it’s really important to see the larger context. I don’t think a civil rights movement could have lasted as long as this movement did without the cultural nuances of God, without the theology, without the intimacy, without the connections, and without the strong desire to be first-class human beings. 

Journalist Moses Newson (b. 1927) remembers the terror of taking part in the first bus ride of Freedom Riders in 1961 in an interview conducted by Joseph Mosnier (b. 1962) for the Civil Rights History Project in 2011.

TEXT: I was on the Greyhound bus that day, and, uh, out on the road, um, another Greyhound bus hailed us down and told us there was a pretty nasty mob up at, uh, Anniston, Alabama station, at the Anniston, Alabama Greyhound station. And when we got there, sure enough, uh, [laughs] there was a pretty angry mob there. And, uh, man, they were calling the Freedom Riders all kind of names and, uh, you know, “niggers,” and “communists,” and “come on out and integrate Alabama,” and that sort of stuff. Uh, they were beating on the buses, the bus, with chains and sticks and whatever else they had. Uh, the bus driver had to take care of a little business there, but he would lock the door when he got out, so nobody could get on the bus. And, uh, I guess I had another one of those little experiences. There was a woman on the bus, uh, that knew nothing about the Freedom Rides. She was coming home from a funeral. She was sitting across the aisle from me and, uh, she was saying things like, “Why are they doing this to us?” And, “I don’t want to die here like this.” And she was down on her knees between the two seats there. So, I go over and try to, uh, tell her what was going on, that sort of thing, [laughs] and still watching the window because they were trying to break out the windows there. And, uh, she told me, uh, I could use her name in my story. Her name was Roberta Holmes, I believe. And, uh, eventually, uh, the bus driver got back in, and we took off. And, uh, about the time we got to the edge of the city, you heard that, uh, sound of tires going down. And, uh, you could look back and you could see a line of cars that were following us. And there was a little roadster that stayed in front of the bus to keep the bus from picking up speed, so we were sort of trapped there. Uh, that’s when we found out that, uh, there were a couple of white state troopers, uh, on the bus. We didn’t know about it; they were in plainclothes. And, uh, they started again breaking out windows and banging on the bus and daring people to come out and that sort of thing. Uh, one of these guys, uh, one of the state officers, uh, E.L. Cowling, uh, he pulled his pistol and, uh, stood in the doorway, uh, to keep anybody from getting on the bus. And, uh, that sort of saved us, [laughs] because, uh, they finally made a break through one of the windows and, uh, they threw this firebomb thing in the seat just behind me, which was an empty seat. And I got a few burns on the back of the ear and that sort of thing, but, uh, nothing serious. Suddenly, it was pitch black on that bus. And, uh, a couple of people got out of windows and caught rides. Uh, several of us were sort of trapped on the bus there until we could get out. And I said, “Well, I’m going to be the last guy off this bus. Nobody gets trapped on here.” So, I just put a handkerchief over my mouth and nose and that sort of thing, and hung around as long as I could. And it started getting hot on there. [Laughs] It was time to get off. Uh, so we got off. And I tell you, uh, when you stepped off that bus and you looked around and you saw these people crawling around, trying to get the, uh, smoke out of their chest, and, uh, people crawling and coughing and gagging, uh, it was one of those sights that make you wonder why, uh, Americans are doing that sort of thing to fellow Americans, uh, who were just trying to exercise their rights. But, uh, eventually, that bus burned right down, broad open daylight. They burned down this expensive Greyhound bus. 

Professor Freeman Hrabowski (b. 1950), President of UMBC, remembers joining the Birmingham Children's Crusade at the age of 12 in an interview conducted by Joseph Mosnier for the Civil Rights History Project in 2011.

JM: So, tell me the story of the [30:00] spring of ’63. FH: [Clears throat] Uhm! JM: You’re just twelve and a half years old. FH: Um-hmm, um-hmm. JM: And, uh, all of this just torrent of protest – FH: Um-hmm, sure. JM: Would unfold in a couple of months there in April and May. FH: Sure, sure. JM: How did that history find you there in the city in those months? FH: I think I told you we were always in church. [Laughs] And I make students laugh sometimes because I say, “I am not going to paint that as a picture where we were so happy to be there all the time.” And I did not want to go listen to these different people from outside talk, I mean, and I’m sitting in the back of the room. And the way my parents could placate me was to let me read just my book or do my math. I loved math. And so, I’d sit in the back of the church, because you had to be there, and I’d listen to a bit, and you learned to sing the songs, and the songs were good. But amazingly, when I heard this man say that what he was proposing – and that is involving children in the march – could lead to children being able to go to any, to the best schools in our city, now that got my attention, because I wanted to see just how smart these white kids were. [Laughs] I didn’t think anybody was smarter than I was. And to me, though, smart was not about what you’re born with. Smart had to do with how hard you were willing to work. My parents had to sometimes punish me for not going to sleep. I mean, I just wanted to keep working, and they were worried that I was working too hard. And to me, that was smart – when you work really hard and you achieve a lot and you make As, not because you want the grades, but because you want to, you dare to know, alright? And, uh – but when he said that, I said, “Now, that’s worth listening to.” JM: Do you remember who that was? FH: And I said, “What’s the guy’s name? What’s this – what’s this minister’s name?” They said, “King, King.” That was my first time – I’ll never forget. I said, “King? What a name, King.” “No, Reverend King, Reverend Martin Luther King.” It was very, very – it was amazing. And, uh – and then I began to listen to him and others and I realized how well spoken they were. Now, as it turns out, my pastor was also very polished as a speaker. He read a lot. We read books together. So, we were accustomed to polished speakers, but this man was talking about, um, the next level, what it would take to change things. Because what we don’t remember is that, while we knew things were not fair, we tended to think, “This is the way of the world.” I suppose it’s the way my descendants [note: Dr. Hrabowski intended ancestors] felt in slavery. It just is this way. It’s awful, but this is the way of the world. And before that King message, that message from Dr. King, the thought was, “Since this is the way of the world, you’ve got to be really good to get a chance at all.” He was changing the model, the vision, and saying, “It doesn’t have to be this way,” that we could be empowered to change it. Very different message! And did I believe him? I wanted to. Was I convinced it was going to happen? Absolutely not! If you’ve seen the world one way all of your life, even if it’s just twelve years, it is the way it is. The best you can do is have hope and try, and that’s what happened. 

Civil rights activist Chuck McDew (b. 1938) recounts the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and disagreements about nonviolent philosophy in an interview conducted by Joseph Mosnier (b. 1962) for the Civil Rights History Project in 2011.

Occupational Folklife Project

The Occupational Folklife Project began in 2010 to document the culture of contemporary American workers during an era of economic and social transition. To date, fieldworkers across the United States have recorded more than 600 audio and audiovisual oral history interviews with workers in scores of trades, industries, crafts, and professions.

 

Barbara Miller Byrd interview conducted by Tanya Ducker Finchum and Juliana M. Nykolaiszyn, 2011-11-19.

Third-generation circus owner Barbara Miller Byrd was born in 1946. She talked about her parents, D.R. and Isla Miller, and the history of the Carson & Barnes Circus, and the future of traveling tent shows. Barbara performed various acts and worked multiple jobs on the circus from selling tickets to riding elephants to managing the budget. She described her current role as owner and manager and discussed the Endangered Ark Foundation committed to the care and breeding of Asian elephants.

Barbara Miller Byrd at the Endangered Arc Foundation, Hugo, Oklahoma, November 2011

Old ticket wagon at the corner of Carson & Barnes Winter Quarters, Hugo, Oklahoma, November 2011

 

Joyce Vegar interview conducted by Nathan J. Moore and Donald Eugene Stacy, 2015-01-21.
 
Joyce (Joy) Vegar discusses her work as a home care provider in Coos County, Oregon, including her training, the qualities that are needed to do the job, the importance of humor, and her advocacy for her clients. She also talks about her union activism and the culture and activities of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
 
Find the full interview here

Greg Vaught interview conducted by Charlie Seemann, 2011-10-07.

Interview with Greg Vaught, "Safety Troubadour," from Newmont mining. Talked about his various jobs at Newmont, his work in mine safety, and about writing safety songs.

Find the full interview here

Veterans History Project

The Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center collects, preserves, and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war. Many but not all of our collections are oral histories. 

Grant Ichikawa served in the U.S. Army for two tours of duty, spending 4.5 years during WWII in Military Intelligence Service and 2.5 years during the Korean War. He was discharged as a First Lieutenant. 

In late 1941, Theodore R. Cummings was stationed in Chicago, setting up a metalsmithing school. But with the outbreak of war, he immediately requested a transfer and was soon trained to operate a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR). After landing on Tulagi with the 1st Marine Division, he watched the Battle of Savo Island, describing it as a "huge, just satanic kind of fire on the ocean." He later learned that his brother Edwin’s ship, the USS Vincennes, had sunk during the battle and assumed Edwin had been lost. Meanwhile Edwin also believed his brother had been killed in action, and it would be more than four months before a chance encounter reunited the two in Australia.

A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Melvin “Mel” Pender experienced racial prejudice and segregation first-hand during his childhood and young adulthood. Seeking escape, and inspired by the combat soldier and actor Audie Murphy, Pender decided to join the Army in 1955, at age 17. While stationed in Okinawa, Pender was recruited for the 1964 Olympic track and field team. At age 27, he competed in the 100-meter dash in Tokyo, where he placed sixth due to an injury. In 1967, Pender was pulled out of Vietnam to train for the 1968 Olympics, where he and his teammates won the gold medal for the 4x100 meter relay. Following his military service, he served as West Point’s first African American track coach.

StoryCorps

StoryCorps gives people of all backgrounds, typically two at a time, the opportunity to record meaningful conversations and archives the recordings at the Library of Congress.