Hailie O’Bryan, OHC Student Worker
Hailie O’Bryan, one of the student workers at the OHC, attended the 2018 Rosie Rally Homefront Festival in Richmond, California in August. She tells us her first Rosie Rally, what she learned, and what we can learn.
My name is Hailie O’Bryan and I am a student worker at the Oral History Center. My recent experience at the Rosie Rally has undoubtedly been one of the biggest highlights during my time at the OHC.
When I first joined the OHC staff a little over a year ago, I was instantly introduced to the
Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front Project that was being managed by David Dunham. While for I did very little work that was directly related to that project during my first several months, I heard the project mentioned several times a day. When I began to work on the OHC’s interviews, I was mesmerized by the significance of them, something that I had never truly considered before. These documents took stories straight from the mouths of living legends and immortalized them in the archive. Needless to say, when I was finally brought on the work on the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front Project, I was unimaginably excited. I would get to read, listen to, and watch someone give a first hand account of an era I had always held a deep fascination for.
I was not let down. The stories and accounts that I have been exposed to are unlike anything else I have ever experienced. These men and women have such an amazing energy about them that it almost flows from their oral histories. I began to do more work with the Rosie project, namely organizing and taking inventory of the database, syncing audio and video, and indexing and sequencing video interviews, exposing me to many different people with different stories.
When I was given the opportunity to represent the OHC at the 2018 Rosie Rally Home Front Festival in Richmond, CA, I was elated. I dressed up as Rosie the Riveter herself (or, my interpretation because I unfortunately do not own coveralls) and spend the day with my coworkers telling people about the wonderful interviews, including the unveiling of synced video interviews or the entire Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front Project database which is going to be done by the end of this year.
At one point in the afternoon, the names of surviving Rosies were announced and they came onto a stage. I was awed by the fact that I was looking into the face of living, breathing history. My coworkers shared my sentiment because when I asked OHC student worker Gurshaant Bassi about her opinion of the rally, she said, “The rally brought history into being. It is essential to read the stories of the women who broke down the barriers we all benefit from now.” Aamna Haq, another one of my OHC co-workers, also shared this opinion. “It was a wonderful experience to learn about the importance of the Rosies in the World War II Era and the role they continue to play in the modern women’s empowerment,” she said.
Gurshaant and Haq are absolutely right. Given the progress of women’s rights since the 1940s, it is important to acknowledge and remember that women did not always have the same privilege as they do today. The Rosies laid the groundwork for woman’s role in the workforce. It is of tantamount importance that we remember the challenges they faced as they were doing this, especially as the years go on and we lose more of these amazing people.
I left the rally left feeling an enormous sense of gratitude towards the Rosies. After nearly 80 years, these women remain legends.To see them beyond the poster was an incredible experience for all of us.
Women still have much progress to be made, but by learning about the lives of these brave women we can remember that progress does not come easy. It is challenging but strikingly necessary. The Rosies chose to persevere amidst the pushback they experienced when they entered the workforce. We must do the same. In this way, the stories of the women involved in the Home Front Project are not of the fleeting past, but the stories of every woman having to prove their right to take space. In this way, we can recognize the stories of Rosies as our own. We are all Rosie.
Shanna Farrell, @shanna_farrell
Liam O’Donoghue is the host of the local history podcast, East Bay Yesterday. He tells the story of the region through baseball teams, earthquakes, grizzly bears, martial arts, activism, and music. We caught up with him recently to chat about how the show got its start, why history can help create empathy, and how he hopes to incorporate oral history. If you haven’t listened to the show yet, check it out on iTunes or head to his website.
Q: How did you get your start in podcasting?
My favorite aspect of journalism has always been interviewing people. I started my first ‘zine when I was 15 years old and published interviews with musicians from Chicago’s underground punk scene. Throughout my career as a print and online journalist, it always saddened me that 95 percent of most interviews never make it into the final article. I gravitated toward podcasting because the format allows interviews to really drive the narrative.
I started teaching myself basic digital recording and audio editing skills in spring of 2016 — mostly by watching tutorials on YouTube and reading “how to” articles on sites like Transom.org. I launched the first episode of East Bay Yesterday in September 2016 and have published nearly 40 episodes since then.
Q: What got you interested in East Bay history?
I started noticing a pattern: whenever I would talk to a longtime East Bay resident, they would always tell me incredible stories that I’d previously been completely unaware of. It made me realize the need to capture, share and celebrate these histories. Because of the rapid displacement of elders and people of color in the East Bay, I felt a huge urgency to devote myself to this project. The kinds of stories I want to collect are slipping away every day.
At the same time, there’s a big influx of newcomers to the East Bay, so I felt it would be useful to present local history in an accessible way. One of the effects of gentrification can be the erasure of previously existing cultures, so a goal of the podcast is to educate recently-arrived residents about what was here before they arrived.
A rather sad and ironic complaint I’ve often heard from longtime Oaklanders is that their new neighbors look at them like they — the Oakland “natives” — don’t belong. For example, I interviewed a Black man who had been using his front yard as a place to practice his martial arts for several decades. After white people started moving onto his block, somebody called the police on him and said he was “threatening.” My hope is that newcomers will have more empathy for longtime Oaklanders if they get to know them better, which is something the stories on my podcast strongly encourage.
Q: What are some of the reoccuring themes that you’re finding in your research?
The old cliche about “history repeating itself” is so true. There have been so many times that I’ve read old newspaper articles that feel like they could’ve been written yesterday. For example, the kind of language that’s being used to describe Oakland’s current boom is eerily similar to predictions about Oakland’s economic destiny in articles from the early 1900s or World War II or the first dot-com bubble, etc. Of course, most of these grandiose predictions fizzled out, which leads to some interesting conclusions when considering the outcome of this current cycle.
Another common theme is longtime residents’ apprehension about newcomers. The racial and socioeconomic dynamics vary, but any time there’s a large influx of people, the locals usually aren’t very thrilled. Some of this is attributable to racism, like when thousands of African Americans moved to Oakland seeking jobs during the World War II industrial boom. However, white “Okies” fleeing the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression were also vilified by many Oaklanders.
Q: How have you developed your podcast production process?
It’s an ongoing learning experience! I’m constantly trying to improve my craft by listening to shows like How Sound, a podcast about “radio storytelling,” reading books like Out on the Wire: Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio, and hanging out with other people in the Bay Area’s extremely friendly and supportive world of audio/radio producers. Getting to co-produce a story with the nationally-syndicated NPR program Snap Judgement was a big help because it finally allowed me to see “how the professionals do it.” It was my first time recording in a real studio instead of my bedroom.
Q: What kinds of archival material have you used?
My shows are usually built around original interviews, but I’m always really excited when I get to incorporate archival audio, because it adds a whole different vibe to the story— like the listener is really travelling back in time. Here are a few examples:
-In the episode about how living in Berkeley was one of the most transformative times in the life of Richard Pryor, I incorporated clips from his (short-lived) KPFA radio show and from his local standup comedy routines.
-In the episode about the Cypress Freeway collapse in West Oakland, I used audio from the California Highway Patrol’s radio communications describing the post-earthquake conditions, calling for emergency backup, etc.
-In an episode about the Oakland Community School, which was established and run by the Black Panther Party, I used a short clip from a 1977 TV documentary featuring this quote from Huey Newton: “They used to serve cookies at the primary school, but if you didn’t have money, you had to put your head on your desk until the other kids were done. I thought that was a problem. At the Oakland Community School, everybody eats.”
Q: Have you used any oral history interviews? How do you plan to incorporate oral history as you move forward?
There’s been surprisingly little coverage of Berkeley’s status as “America’s first sanctuary city.” For my research on that topic, I relied heavily on oral history interviews conducted by Eileen M. Purcell for the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Specifically her interviews with Rev. Gus Schultz and Bob Fitch, who were both pivotal figures in this movement are now deceased.
More recently, I used interviews conducted by Sue Mark, a local artist and historian (although she prefers the term “cultural researcher”), for an oral history project about Oakland’s Golden Gate neighborhood. She used these interviews to produce a short documentary a few years ago, but most of what she recorded had never been shared. I was honored and excited that she gave me her tape and transcripts to create an episode of East Bay Yesterday based on these interviews.
Moving forward, I’m extremely interested in incorporating interviews from the Oral History Center into future episodes of East Bay Yesterday. I’m a bit intimidated by the vast scope of your archives, but I’ve got a few ideas that I’m starting to explore…
Q: What’s your favorite thing about digging into East Bay history?
I love meeting people that I probably never would have met if I wasn’t making this podcast. For example, I was recently invited into the clubhouse of the East Bay Dragons, one of the world’s oldest Black motorcycle clubs. Getting the opportunity to sit down and have a long, emotional, enlightening conversation with a few of their members was an incredible experience.
Q: What are the top three episodes that you recommend for a new listener?
Besides the episodes I’ve already mentioned, these three are a few of my favorites:
- “The queen of the West Coast blues”: Sugar Pie DeSanto serves up sweet & spicy stories
- “This strange monument”: The story behind one of Oakland’s most prominent abandoned buildings
- Lenn Keller and the roots of the East Bay’s lesbian of color community
Q: What podcasts are you listening to?
- Scene on Radio
- The Bay (KQED’s daily news show)
- 99% Invisible
- Bay Curious
From the Summer Institute to the Presidio
Shanna Farrell, @shanna_farrell
Every year, as the sun burns bright over our quiet campus, we welcome a new cohort of Advanced Oral History Summer Institute participants, eager to spend a week immersed in all things oral history. August is an exciting time of year for us at the OHC. We get swept up in the enthusiasm of those who join us to learn; we love hearing people discuss their projects, make connections, and talk through issues they face.
The questions that the crowd ask throughout the week, each day building from the previous, are always thoughtful and make me think deeply about how to push my own work forward. These conversations take many forms and cover many topics. This year, there were many projects about events in the recent past, or that focus on issues that never seem to fade, like mass violence and marginalized communities. The questions that drive these projects are important to think about, research, record, archive, and preserve, and seep into the heart of my own interviews.
I found particular inspiration in the topics relating to trauma narratives because of a currently project that I’m working on with the Presidio Trust of San Francisco. For the past several months, I’ve been collaborating with their historian, Barbara Berglund Sokolov, on a series of interviews with people who have spent time at the Presidio in one capacity or another. Most recently, we have been focusing on the Presidio 27, a group of twenty-seven men—all of whom went AWOL during the Vietnam War and were incarcerated in the Ft. Scott stockade after being caught—who staged a mutiny on October 14, 1968 after one of their fellow inmates was fatally shot by an Army guard.
The project is ongoing, and we’re aiming to interview as many people as possible, including mutineers, guards, lawyers, media, protestors, and prisoners who arrived at the stockade in the wake of the mutinee. Many of the narrators who we’ve interviewed so far were traumatized by their involvement, and this requires careful consideration about best practices, and self-care. I’ve had to think through how best to support our narrators so as not to re-traumatize them, or Sokolov, or myself, in an environment that doesn’t feel threatening.
In preparation for these interviews, I spoke with the Director of the Presidio’s Veterans Program, who generously talked with me through the project and some red flags to be aware of, many of which he suggested that I could glean from the pre-interviews. Did the narrator mention a social or support network present in their lives? Did they seem responsive to the interview process? Were they overly emotional or withdrawn? Another issue was the interview setting. Several of the narrators had been imprisoned in tiny cement cells with no access to the outdoors for days at a time. Conducting the interviews in a basement conference room without windows was a bad idea, while holding them in open room with big windows facing the water pointing toward the North Bay was a better option. Transparency with our interview process, outline of questions, and final goals of the project felt more important here than other projects because the stakes felt higher. We also had to make sure that we asked questions that weren’t triggering and built in time for self-care after the interview.
While I was only just beginning this project when the Summer Institute kicked off last month, it gave me the opportunity to ponder the cornerstones of our work as oral historians, with a responsibility to our narrators, and ourselves. I heard our participants pose questions about their interviews involving trauma, and how they might approach this. I learned a lot from them, and feel lucky to have been privy to their thoughtfulness.
I’ll be writing more about this project–particularly about the interview arc and self-care, over the coming months, with new questions, considerations, and reflections. Stayed tuned.
From the Archives: Rosalind Wiener Wyman
Amanda Tewes, Interviewer/Historian
“They couldn’t believe that I could win,” Rosalind Wiener Wyman remembered about her unexpected election to the Los Angeles City Council in 1953. Over the course of several interviews in 1977 and 1978, Wiener Wyman shared her personal and political triumphs and losses, which culminated in her oral history, “It’s a Girl”: Three Terms on the Los Angeles City Council, 1953-1965; Three Decades in the Democratic Party, 1948-1978. Wiener Wyman’s memories as a woman politician at midcentury are part of the Oral History Center’s California Women Political Leaders Oral History Project, which documented “California women who became active in politics during the years between the passage of the women’s suffrage amendment and the…feminist movement.”
Wiener Wyman came by her passion for politics honestly. Speaking of her parents, she reflected, “I always felt their activities and interest in politics was steeped in me. In my baby book, at two, I’m looking up at a picture of FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt]. Most kids in their baby book are not looking at posters of FDR.”
While a student at the University of Southern California, Wiener Wyman and the campus Democratic Club worked on Harry Truman’s 1948 campaign. But her political work began in earnest when she met her “heroine,” Helen Gahagan Douglas, then a member of Congress representing California and running an ultimately unsuccessful campaign for Senate in 1950. Wiener Wyman was disappointed in Gahagan Douglas’s showing on the campaign trail and confronted her about it. Gahagan Douglas replied, “ ‘If you know so much about a campaign, here, here’s a card. Come see this lady and get into my campaign.’ ” Wiener Wyman took up the challenge and threw herself into this work, hanging posters and driving Gahagan Douglas to her campaign stops. Laughing, Wiener Wyman recalled, “I remember once changing my hose in the car with her in a parade. She took mine and I took hers. Crazy things a woman candidate worries about.”
Wiener Wyman began her own political career fresh out of college. In 1953, she ran a grassroots campaign for Los Angeles City Council that relied solely upon door-to-door conversations with her constituents, without the benefit of media coverage or traditional advertising. Her victory over established, male candidates was such a surprise that she recalls from the night of the election:
As the bulletins were handed to [Joe] Micchice, [a local radio announcer], he said, “I’m sure that the votes are on the wrong name.” So, he, during the night, would give my vote to Nash. Finally he put his hand over the mike – we have this on a record which is so wonderful – and he said, “Is this bulletin right?” Or, “Who the hell is Wiener?”
After a runoff election, Wiener Wyman came out on top. Of this dark horse winner, the Los Angeles Times declared, “It’s a girl!”
Wiener Wyman stood out as the youngest member and only woman on the Los Angeles City Council from 1953 to 1965. Notably, Wiener Wyman did not see herself as a victim of gender discrimination; rather, she saw her break with other council members in terms of age and experience. This, despite the fact that other city council members voted to not allow her personal leave to enjoy her honeymoon. Additionally, Wiener Wyman had to contend with the fact that “the only toilet was off the council chambers and that was for the men.” She recalled, “That became an incredible issue that got around town. Where was I going to go to the bathroom? I thought I would die over that!”
During her time in office, Wiener Wyman famously led the charge to entice the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles, making it the first Major League Baseball team west of the Mississippi River. Although the displacement of Mexican American families from Chavez Ravine and the building of Dodgers Stadium was controversial then and now, Wiener Wyman defended her support for this civic boosterism and the prestige it brought to Los Angeles. However, she conceded of her leadership on this fight: “it probably cost me some of my popularity.”
Beyond her twelve years in elected office, Wiener Wyman’s political legacy perhaps best lies in her fundraising efforts for other Democratic candidates. During one memorable event in the backyard of her Los Angeles home, Wiener Wyman and her husband, Eugene Wyman, hosted a dinner for Democratic congressional candidates. They charged $5,000 a couple, an unthinkable sum in 1972.
Rosalind Wiener Wyman’s life and career point to the many ways in which California women have and continue to engage in political life, as well as the rich collection of political history at the Oral History Center.
As we approach the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage, documenting the experiences of these women political leaders will become all the more important. Here at the Oral History Center, we hope to celebrate this anniversary by supporting an oral history project to document the contributions of women activists and politicians in the Bay Area. Recording the contributions of these impressive local women – political fundraisers, organizers, and elected officials – will help shape the national narrative about women’s historic, current, and future roles in American political life.For more information, please contact Amanda Tewes at email@example.com
How Soon is Now?
Martin Meeker, @MartinDMeeker
Charles B. Faulhaber Director
Recently I was greeted with the unfortunate news that one of my narrators had passed away. My sadness was tempered by the fact that this man, Ed Howden, lived a very long life (he died just shy of 100 years) that was filled with many good accomplishments. He was a stalwart advocate of civil rights from his years heading up the Council for Civic Unity in 1940s and 50s San Francisco through his service as the first staff director of the California Fair Employment Practices Commission in the 1950s and 60s, and later, while working for the US Department of Justice.
There was plenty to talk about when I interviewed him in late 2016 and early 2017. But, by that time he was in his late 90s and many of the events we discussed had happened decades earlier. This experience got me thinking deeply about the “when” of oral history interviewing: when is the optimal time to interview someone? Is there a point when the time has passed?
First off, I feel it important to say I was honored to have the opportunity to interview Howden and, if you read his transcript, I’m sure you’ll agree that it is packed full of fascinating insights and first person accounts of transformative moments and trends in California. But there are also moments of forgetfulness and lack of precision, which was understandable. I had originally invited Howden for an interview in 2005, shortly after I arrived at Berkeley and having been awarded a small grant for a project about human rights commissions. Howden, as it turns out, was caring for his ailing wife at the time, so the interview was delayed by over 10 years. How would the interview have been different had I got to interview him then, or even years before? Howden was 97 when we began our recordings, and his was a valuable interview, I think.
Conversely, is an individual ever “too young” to be interviewed? I know of one project in which oral historians interviewed children, which must have been interesting! While I doubt the OHC will take on that demographic anytime soon, I have interviewed people substantially younger than me (I’m on the mature side of my 40s) and while a long (12+ hour) life history might better be done down the road, all of those interviews were interesting and strong on detail. What is potentially missing in terms of long range historical perspective is compensated for by quickness of recollection, ease with specifics, and strength in accuracy. Those interviews were shorter (typically 2 hours) and highly focused, but I think that they will prove exceedingly useful for scholars and others who are looking for more factual accounts on the topics at hand.
So, there may be no firm rule of thumb on the matter. If you are about to embark on a project in which you anticipate interviewing people of a certain age, it is a good idea to inform yourself of the potential limitations you could encounter on either end of the spectrum. If you plan on asking questions about events decades in the past, know that your narrator might remember little or misremember specifics: know that you’ll get a present perspective on past events, informed by decades of life experience. Also be aware of the potential for cognitive issues to crop up that, in extreme circumstances, might result in confusion, frustration, or other difficult moments for the narrator. Take care to recognize these signs and slow or end the interview if necessary. Memory is a fleeting thing.
We practice a pretty rigorous version of oral history at Berkeley, asking often probing questions and hitting back with follow-up questions that require additional reflective thought. This kind of intense interviewing might not be appropriate for some potential narrators because of health, age, or a combination thereof. On occasion, we turn down an oral history opportunity and instead recommend that the individual participate in a life-review interview: a type of interview best done by someone who knows the narrator well and gently guides that person through stories that they have told before. Oral historians, like other researchers who work with “human subjects,” are obliged to “do no harm” when going about their work.
Several interesting oral history projects have shown that our memories of events change, modulate, or even disappear not solely because of the wear and tear of time or illness but because we think anew about old events and we tend rewrite our own interpretations of things — if not the very facts period. Given how we create and recreate memory as we live, maybe the “when” question doesn’t matter too much? This is worth more thought, I bet.
Clearly there is a lot to think about and much more to be said on this matter. The best first step is to try to get to know your narrator a bit before beginning the interview to determine if that person would not only contribute to existing knowledge but would get something out of the oral history process too.
As always, we at the OHC are thinking and rethinking our methodology and welcome your thoughts and feedback.
As interviewed by Todd Holmes
Alex Vassar attend our Advanced Oral History Summer Institute in 2017. A seasoned civil servant, Alex is no stranger to the circles of California government. In 2007, he served as a Senate Fellow in the state’s upper house, and worked thereafter in both houses before transferring to other departments of state government. Currently, he is the Communications Manager of the California State Library. When he joined us last summer, he had just finished an oral history of former State Senator Denise Ducheny on behalf of the State Archives. This interview was part of a collaborative effort between the State Archives, State Library, Sacramento State, and UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center to revamp the California State Government Oral History Program. That long effort ultimately proved successful, as the program was refunded in the 2018-19 state budget. We caught up with Alex this past month at his office in Sacramento to this victory and see what else he’s been up to since last summer.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your work and how you use oral history.
Vassar: I have always been interested in the political process and how the experiences of the people who run for office impact their thinking and decisions. That was a large part of why I moved to Sacramento in 2007 to participate in the Senate Fellows Program at Sacramento State. In the years since, I have conducted a number of short interviews with current and former state legislators. These interviews formed the crux of my recent book, California Lawmaker: The Men and Women of the California Legislature.
In 2016, I had the opportunity to sit down with former State Senator Denise Moreno Ducheny for a 14-hour interview. This was part of the State Government Oral History Program, housed at the California State Archives since the 1980s. I loved the long format of the oral history interview, spaced between multiple sessions, and how it allowed the interviewee to tell stories and take the time to explore memories.
Q: How did the Summer Institute shape your work?
Vassar: In 2017, I accepted a new role at the California State Library, heading up the Communications Division. Almost immediately after starting the new job, I had the opportunity to participate in the Oral History Center’s Advanced Summer Institute, thanks to the support of State Librarian Greg Lucas. It was an amazing experience and I loved the speakers, my classmates, and the campus. (My mother was working on a Ph.D. at Cal when I was born, but I had never spent more than a few hours on campus.) The Summer Institute gave me new insight into the practice of oral history, knowledge I’m hoping to bring to new interviews in the future, and more importantly, to the oral history-based initiatives we have created at the State Library.
Q: Tell us about these initiatives and what’s next on the horizon for your work in oral history?
Vassar: Recently, I’ve worked with State Librarian Greg Lucas and State Archivist Nancy Lenoil, as well as institutional partners such as the UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center and the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State, to restart the State Government Oral History Program. Created in the 1980s, the program had conducted hundreds of oral history interviews with former lawmakers and civil servants before funding was cut in 2003. My interview with Senator Ducheny was one of the few interviews conducted in recent years, thanks to the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State. I’m happy to report, however, that the efforts of the OHC and Sacramento State proved successful, with refunding of the State Government Oral History Program in the 2018-19 California budget. In addition to this program, we are also currently meeting with academic institutions to establish resources for oral historians to use and share at the State Library.
by Amanda Tewes
A few years back, I visited the Churchill War Rooms in London, the underground bunker near the Houses of Parliament from which Winston Churchill and his advisers directed British military efforts during World War II. My fellow museum goers and I followed the labyrinth of offices and bunkrooms – including Churchill’s personal quarters – to get a taste of what wartime life was like for Churchill, the war cabinet, and staff in this cramped space with no access to sunlight. These underground rooms were important to the security of the prime minister and his cabinet, as Nazi planes regularly rained down bombs on London during the war. While the physical layout of the Churchill War Rooms tells a compelling story about the difficult business of war, it is the many accompanying oral histories that provide texture to the subterranean world. For instance, former employees recalled feeling claustrophobic working so far underground, especially during air raids, while others spoke about taking their turn at the sunlamps that fought against Vitamin D deficiency. Hearing these personal stories in the space where these narrators lived and worked makes the museum about people and not solely wartime strategy.
Indeed, featuring oral histories in exhibits large and small makes big history personal. And sharing these stories in partnership with museums provides greater accessibility to collections for archives with limited public interaction. However, introducing oral histories into museum galleries raises a new set of challenges for both curators and oral historians.
One of these challenges is that of spacial design. How should the public engage with this oral history content: through a touch-screen video monitor, an audio-only listening station, or block quotes on the wall? In galleries where visitors expect to briefly browse images and short labels on the wall, how can curators entice them to stand still and watch/listen to several minutes of content? Curators may have to introduce oral histories at the earliest exhibition planning stages in order to best incorporate them into the space and the larger story.
Curators must also grapple with how to use oral history to question official narratives about a subject or event. Should these personal recollections compliment the exhibit’s narrative or challenge it? Further, sometimes oral history is the only way marginalized communities gain representation and historical acknowledgement in museum spaces. Therefore, what can curators do to not just feature oral histories, but also privilege the stories they reveal, particularly if these narratives do not exist in the museum’s artifact or image collections?
Finally, what is the responsibility of oral historians in developing content for museum exhibitions? Knowing that an oral history might become part of a museum exhibit, how should interviewers reframe these conversations? If museums need fresh content to tell their historical narratives, this provides opportunities for curators and oral historians to collaborate on projects that reveal new information or unique points of view.
Oral history practitioners should be asking not only what museums discuss, but also how they display it, and how oral history can affect these narratives. As an oral historian who formerly worked in a museum setting, these ideas were always on my mind when I pitched oral history content to curators. In our Summer Institute this August, I will be discussing these questions and conflicts with seasoned curators Erendina Delgadillo of the Oakland Museum of California; Christine Shook of the Wells Fargo Family History Center; and Margie Brown-Coronel of California State University, Fullerton. I look forward to exploring some of these questions with them and how they approach curating oral history. If you curate oral history or work in a museum setting, we’d love to hear how you think about these issues!
by Martin Meeker
Since 2002, the Oral History Center has hosted a week-long advanced institute on oral history theory and methodology every August. We’ve welcomed over 500 people from across the country and around the globe, with another 30 about to join us this year. As my colleagues and I prepare for this year’s program, I wanted to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’d like to take this most worthwhile endeavor.
The first institute in which I participated was the second, in 2003. I had recently come to what was then known as the Regional Oral History Office, or ROHO, as a postdoc working with then-director Richard Candida-Smith. That first year (and, frankly, several that followed) are now nothing more than a blur: the experience was definitely one of those “drinking from a firehose” situations. Although I was soon to join ROHO as an interviewer, I now look back and see myself as a real oral history novice. I had read the requisite articles (Portelli!) and conducted a number of interviews, but my experiences were relatively few and not very diverse. The Summer Institute opened my eyes to many aspects of the interview that I had never really considered in any depth. I remember one session taught by guest faculty Jeff Friedman about movement and the performative aspects of oral history. Not that I needed any encouragement to feel more self-conscious in an interview setting, but this got me thinking more about the complexities of self-presentation, body language, and the dreaded yawn that sometimes escapes the mouth of an interviewer.
Subsequent years saw a number of interesting guest faculty appearances along with a revolving roster of OHC interviewers, but for the first dozen institute, the stalwart was Lisa Rubens, who curated and ran the institute. Lisa and I recently met for coffee and we discussed how the institute has changed in interesting and productive ways over the years, but one thing has been true since the beginning: the week is always invigorating (if exhausting) and one can always expect a slightly euphoric afterglow. With so many new relationships forged, so many opportunities to learn and share knowledge, the experience always is worth it.
On August 6th we’ll welcome our next group of summer institute participants. Shanna Farrell, who has led the institute since 2014, has planned what promises to be yet another always fascinating, and sometimes challenging, week of presentations, roundtables, and workshops. I’ll be presenting a updated version of my legal and ethics talk, which is inspired in part by my recent work on the committee revising the Oral History Associations documents on ethics and best practices. We are hosting another Tuesday evening presentation, free and open to the public. This year Erin Riggs will discuss the 1947 Partition Archive, which documents the troubled split of India and Pakistan. In addition to this, I’m especially looking forward to a panel on the final day of the event created by our two newest interviewers at OHC, Amanda Tewes and Roger Eardley-Pryor. They’ll not only discuss the performative aspects of oral history, they’ll…well, I don’t want to give away the surprise, do I?
Every year after the conclusion the institute, the faculty read very carefully the feedback provided by participants, and we take what they have to say seriously, often incorporating participant ideas into next year’s program. So, this institute has become a continuous learning experience for all of at OHC, which is what we hope it is for the participants too.
Charles B. Faulhaber Director
July 27, 2018
by David Dunham
On Saturday August 11th, we’ll be in Richmond, California for the 2018 Rosie Rally 2018 Home Front Festival! at the Rosie the Riveter / World War II American Home Front National Historical Park. Join us!
This year’s annual event celebrates the spirit of Rosie the Riveter by encouraging dress in five costume categories: Best Traditional Rosie; Best Non-Rosie Home Front Worker; Best Parent/Child; Best Authentic 40’s Period Costume; or Most Creative Interpretation of Home Front History.
We look forward to seeing many of our past interviewees, including 96 year old Park Ranger Betty Reid Soskin, whose autobiography Sign My Name to Freedom was edited from her very own blog and our oral histories with her.
This past weekend we attended the Port Chicago Naval Magazine Memorial to honor those who passed on July 17, 1944 in the tragic explosion. Also in collaboration with NPS, we have conducted oral histories with survivors and others with connections to Port Chicago. Later this year we will be sharing online Dr. Robert Allen’s definitive audio oral histories and transcripts with members of the Port Chicago 50, the interviews that were the basis for his book The Port Chicago Mutiny.
This year the Friends of Port Chicago honored our dear NPS colleague Raphael Allen with the Port Chicago Commemorative Hero’s Award. Allen was a passionate storyteller, historian, researcher, and educator. His shoes can not be filled, but each of us whose lives he touched are inspired to work harder to tell the many important stories and lessons of Port Chicago and the World War II Home Front.
The Oral History Center has collaborated with the National Park Service on over 250 oral histories. Sign up for our eNewsletter for updates this fall when we update our website with enhanced search and a pilot of full video oral histories synced to the transcripts.
by Ann Lage
Susan O’Hara, our former colleague at OHC (back in ROHO days) and the prime mover in Bancroft’s acclaimed Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement (DRILM) project, passed away on July 1. We will remember her for her many fine personal qualities, among them a wonderful sense of humor, a gift for friendship, quiet yet strong leadership skills, and a keen historical sensibility. All of these came into play in bringing DRILM into being.
Susan was a 1971 participant in a groundbreaking experiment at Berkeley. A decade earlier UC Berkeley had opened a floor in the campus hospital to house students with significant physical disabilities, most of them then confined to nursing homes or to their parents’ care with little hope of accessing higher education. Attending Cal at a time of free speech and anti-war movements, the students found their voices, reveled in the zeitgeist of the sixties and the freedom of motorized wheelchairs, and became politically active. Over the next decade they founded on campus one of the first programs for students with disabilities in the nation. They next turned their attention to the broader community, founding the Center for Independent Living, which became the model for similar organizations across the nation. A host of spin-off organizations for people with disabilities grew out of CIL; many of the primary leaders of the battle for the Americans with Disabilities Act and other campaigns for disability rights and independent living came out of these initiatives. In 1975, Susan was hired as Berkeley’s coordinator of the residence program for students with disabilities, assisting students in the transition to independent living as the campus made residence halls accessible and closed down the Cowell Hospital unit.
In 1982 Susan approached Willa Baum, ROHO’s director, and made a compelling case that something of great historical moment had happened and was continuing to happen on campus and beyond. “This has got to be documented,” she urged. Willa immediately agreed and the long struggle to find funding for an oral history project ensued. It was difficult going. Susan and Willa’s understanding was ahead of their times; the Society for Disability Studies was just then coming into being, as a section of the Western Social Studies Association; the Disability History Association was far in the future. The Americans with Disabilities Act did not pass until 1990. Only a very few historians or social scientists recognized disability studies as a fruitful field of study and there were apparently no oral history projects underway. The NEH turned down the ROHO grant application three times, and we did no better with other grantors, although Willa was able to find a modest sum from Cal’s Prytanean alumnae to fund two pilot interviews.
Susan did not give up. By the mid-1990s, the time was right. Susan was alerted to a new program at the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research in the Department of Education that might be interested in our project. Susan and Mary Lou Breslin, another disability advocate with a strong sense of history, joined with ROHO to convince Bancroft Library curators of the project’s value. Their meeting resulted in a successful 3-year grant for an oral history program focusing on California leaders and behind-the-scenes activists, and including an additional component for Bancroft to acquire, preserve, and make accessible personal papers and records of activists and their organizations. Four years later, with a second NIDRR grant, the project moved nationwide, recording interviews and collecting historical papers of leaders of the movement in Massachusetts, New York, Washington DC, Texas, and other centers of activity.
Susan played a key role at every step as the project got underway. I was the project manager/coordinator for ROHO so I know better than most how important she was. Under the guise of her position as “historical consultant,” she advised on every aspect of the project. She helped us realize how important it would be to staff the project with interviewers from the disability community, who would have the trust of interviewees and organizational leaders whose memories and papers we were to collect. This trust was essential to study a movement with the watchwords “Nothing about us without us.” With her help, we hired an outstanding group of interviewers whose personal experiences, historical studies, and training in oral history methodology made them ideally suited to the project. Susan helped us navigate the difficult task of selecting interviewees, some of them recognized leaders and founders of organizations, some of them less well-known builders and sustainers of the movement or well-placed observers of key events.
Susan was a skilled interviewer; she conducted fourteen invaluable oral histories for the project. She was also a graceful writer and keen editor, who had a hand in all the project grant-writing, publicity, and website materials. Her lasting legacy in all these areas can be found on the project website at http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/collections/drilm/index.html. You will also find there a record of Susan’s many other contributions to the disability movement in her own oral history, Susan O’Hara, Director of UC Berkeley’s Disabled Students’ Program, 1988-1992; Coordinator of Residence Program for Disabled Students, 1975-1988.