by Christine Shook
Christine Shook is an independent historian with over a decade of experience in oral and public history. She earned her master’s in history from California State University, Fullerton in 2010. Her previous positions include Museum Assistant at Mission San Juan Capistrano, Exhibits and Collections Associate at the Tahoe Maritime Museum, and Historian and Assistant Vice President at Wells Fargo’s Family & Business History Center.
September 11, 2001 was an incredibly surreal day. Never a fan of mornings, I awoke late on the Pacific Coast, turned on the TV, and found some sort of devastation unfurling in the east. I didn’t know what had happened. The newscasters had temporarily moved on from the footage showing the planes hitting the World Trade Center and were instead discussing the rescue efforts and fears that the buildings surrounding the towers might collapse. Terrified and utterly confused, I turned to the Internet for answers and first saw the footage of the second plane hitting the towers, and learned about the four planes that had crashed. I spent the next hour bouncing back and forth between the computer and the tv in an attempt to discover what I missed while staying on top of the latest events. It felt like one of those days when the rest of the world should have paused while this thing worked itself out, but that wasn’t the case. I had to go to work. I tamped down the overwhelming feeling of uncertainty I was experiencing, put on my work uniform, and prepared to face the public.
As a recent high school graduate, I worked the closing shift as an attendant at a swanky hotel spa in Dana Point, California. The spa was relatively empty that day. The only exception was a couple from New York who found themselves stranded in Southern California. Unable to fly home or contact any of their friends and family, they came to the spa hoping to find a much needed distraction from the things they could not control. They didn’t stay long.
Later that night, the rest of the spa staff and I spent the hours until closing in one of those drab back rooms that only hotel staff sees, adjusting the antenna on a radio so that we could hear the latest news. As I sat listening to the radio waiting for updates about these attacks on 9/11, my mind transported me to sixty years in the past to the attack on Pearl Harbor. I began to wonder if Americans in 1941 also experienced this atmosphere of angst, remorse, anger, and uncertainty. The events of December 7, 1941 led to years of war and sacrifice. Was that where we were heading?
I was not the only one pillaging the past in search of answers about an uncertain present. Politicians, pundits, pastors — everyone seemed to be making the same comparison to Pearl Harbor, and deriving strength and certainty from the virtue with which America responded to that particular wrong. A common message seemed to be: History has taught us that America is good, so our response will follow suit. Of course, I knew from the stories of family and friends that things were more complicated than that. My grandfather earned medals for his participation in WWII but no one in my family has them today. The physical and psychological wounds with which he returned inspired him to throw those medals into the Atlantic Ocean upon receipt. As a grad student in history, I read Stud Terkel’s “The Good War” and discovered more stories like my grandfather’s that casted doubt on the flawlessness of the conflict and the glorified way in which Americans remember it. The United States’s response to 9/11, the realities of war, and the uncertainty of government actions have similarly affected people in a variety of ways over the past twenty years. While the exact failings of the response to that day vary according to political parties, few think that the United States has handled things with the storied righteousness with which it started.
My own observations and lessons about 9/11 over the past two decades have been heavily influenced by my work as a historian. For the past six-and-a-half years I helped ultra-high-net-worth families examine their historic roots in search of values and lessons that they could apply to today — using the past to guide future choices and investments. When I first began this work, the message we offered clients was always one of hope: your family not only survived X, it eventually thrived financially. There’s value to that narrative of resilience, of course, but also a danger in overconfidence. In the past few years, I’ve noticed a promising trend where family members — especially those from younger generations — want to know more and more about the hard and uncomfortable truths from their past. They appear to recognize their ancestors as flawed people with cautionary tales that accompany the celebratory.
I can only hope that this willingness to look at cherished personal histories with a critical eye will expand to include the national narrative. Perhaps the next time America faces another crisis like 9/11, the stories of people like my grandfather, who rejected a jingoistic narrative, won’t be overlooked in order to provide quick answers to the question: what now?
by Shanna Farrell
My memories of Tuesday, September 11, 2001 are vivid. I was sitting in my second period senior English class when my teacher, who was known for his sarcasm, delivered the news.
“Hi, everyone,” he said. “I just heard that a plane hit the World Trade Center.” The class began to laugh awkwardly.
“No,” he said. “I’m serious. I don’t have any more information than that.”
A hush fell over us, but we proceeded with class as normal. I’m sure I was distracted but we were discussing books and I love discussing books. Besides, it wasn’t yet real.
When the bell rang, I walked down the hall to my current events class, where our teacher routinely had a TV playing in the back of the room so he could watch the news while he taught. That’s where I first saw the images of the plane crash. Of the burning buildings. Of people falling through the sky. Of endless smoke. Of the clear blue sky. That’s when I realized I needed to call my mother, immediately. The tragedy was now real to me.
Despite the fact that my family’s residence at the time was in upstate New York, in a small mill town built on the banks of the Hudson River that hugged the Vermont border, my mother worked in New York City. She was in educational sales and her territory covered all five boroughs. She often had appointments at Stuyvesant High School, a building that is just blocks away from the World Trade Center. I knew this because even though my birth certificate indicates something different, I was partially raised in the city. My mom would often point out Stuyvesant High School when we would drive down the West Side Highway or walk around TriBeca or buy tickets for Broadway shows in the atrium of the World Trade Center. That morning, she was on her way there.
As soon as I reached the main office of my school, I pleaded with the administrative staff to let me use the phone to call my mother.
“My mom is there. My mom is there,” I repeated. I remember the horror wash over their faces, how one of them picked up the phone and instantly dialed “9” to get me an outside line. Since my mother spent so much time in her car, she had a hard-wired cell phone, cord and all. I punched in her number, but all I got was a busy signal. I did this over and over with the same results. I called my dad and the first thing he said to me was, “I can’t reach her either.” He promised to call me as soon as he heard from my mother. I hung up the phone and turned to see a few others in line behind me waiting their turn to call family or friends who also lived in the city. I didn’t know what else to do but return to class and watch the news on loop.
I’d felt fear watching major events unfold in the past, like six years earlier when a terrorist blew up a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. That had scared me. But this fear, the type I felt while waiting to find out if my mother was alive or dead, was something entirely different. It was panicked and unrelenting. Time seemed to stand still. I could have moved from room to room or stayed in the same seat. (I do, however, remember relocating to the cafeteria at some point where TVs had been wheeled in so we could watch the media coverage.) And then I heard my name over the PA system. I had a phone call and needed to report to the office.
“She’s okay,” my dad said. “She called me from a payphone. She was in Brooklyn.”
In the days that followed I would learn that my mother was headed to Manhattan from Brooklyn that morning, but got stuck on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway while she was en route. Traffic moved slowly, if at all, and she ended up snaking her way to the part of the expressway that is just under the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, a place known for its iconic view of the lower Manhattan skyline. From there, she watched with hundreds of others as the towers burned and debris floated across the harbor as the wind blew southeast. She was eventually able to make it to Queens, where she pulled over and found a payphone. I would later watch her struggle with what she had seen that day, hear her plead with me not to get on a plane in the coming weeks for a college visit, listen to her talk to colleagues and discover she knew people on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.
The trauma of the event was lasting for her, for me, and for us as a family. We visited Ground Zero many times and I have memories of the smoldering ashes fading into piles of debris and later becoming a gaping hole in the ground. I remember the photos of the missing people stapled to the fence surrounding the site. I remember the tone of the city and the feeling of community. I remember being so happy that my mother was alive, and so sad that others hadn’t been as lucky. I remember how filled with grief each anniversary of the attacks were each year.
In September 2011, I was starting a master’s program in oral history at Columbia University. The Columbia Center for Oral History Research had started a massive interviewing project ten years earlier, the same day the towers fell. Interviewers–staff, student, and volunteers alike– recorded hundreds of life histories with a wide range of people who were affected by the attacks. They interviewed anyone who wanted to participate and returned to many months later to interview them again. I still consider this to be an innovative model for an oral history project, especially in a field that is constantly asking itself “how soon is too soon?” (For more on this, check out Amanda Tewes’s piece on interviewing around collective trauma.)
This project served as much of the foundation of the Columbia program and the interviews became the basis for a book, After the Fall: New Yorkers Remember September 11, 2001 and the Years that Followed, which was published as I began the Master’s program. As graduate students, we read through transcripts, listened to interviews, engaged with theory related to memory and trauma-informed narratives, learned methodology for approaching sensitive interviews, and expanded our studies into other topics, like genocide and mass-incarceration. We even watched a professor interview a paramedic who had been at Ground Zero that day, live in class, offering us the opportunity to practice our question-asking skills.
It was intense. But it made me into an interviewer who isn’t afraid to shy away from difficult topics. My training also gave me space to process my own grief around the 9/11 attacks. I found myself asking my parents more about that day and how they felt in the years that followed. It gave me a concrete example around which to center my work as an oral historian and how I should approach trauma in my own interviews. How would I want to be asked about these things? How would I feel if I cried in an interview? How would my tone, pace, and velocity of speech change when a difficult subject came up? What were my boundaries and how would I express them to an interviewer? Which of my memories were solid and which were porous?
In the conversations that I had with my parents after the tenth anniversary of the tragedy, I realized that many of my memories, no matter how vividly I remember that day, were not quite accurate. My mother explained that she hasn’t actually been heading to Stuyvesant High School. Instead, she was trying to get to a school on W 33rd Street through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, which enters Manhattan just south of the World Trade Center. This had been part of my narrative for years. My memory wasn’t perfect.
Now, twenty years later, I’m still using these experiences as the basis for how I approach trauma-centered narratives, and, for that matter, any interview where a sensitive subject comes up. It’s remarkable how much I use the same techniques that I learned in grad school, honing them over the past ten years. My pace, my tone, my body language, my ability to pause and give someone space, my interest in putting my feelings aside to privilege a narrator’s story all matters. As oral historians, we often take the life history approach, which can dredge up painful memories from the past, no matter how much we prepare in the pre-interview and planning process. I have to be ready to handle a narrator’s emotions about a troubled relationship with a parent, a divorce that proved formative to a career, a bad review in a newspaper, and yes, a terror attack.
It’s also made me mindful of people’s memories, especially around trauma. Though the historical facts of how I remember 9/11 remain static for me, the details of my mother’s experience were fuzzy. But it’s relevant to how we memorialize events, how we talk about them with our own communities, and what gets documented in the historical record. It’s also made me consider what gets left out of the left out of the story, perhaps because it happened too long ago, was repressed, or doesn’t feel as significant. For example, in talking to my mother about this very article that you’re reading, she told me that I was interviewed by the local newspaper shortly after September 11, 2001 about my experiences that day. I had my picture taken. I said that 9/11 had “changed my life.” Yet, I have no memory of being interviewed until or having my picture taken. And I have no idea why. I only vaguely remember hearing my parents talk about the article. In many of the oral history interviews that I’ve conducted over the last ten years, narrators often say to me, “I can’t remember the last time I thought about this.” That’s exactly how I felt when my mom told me about that newspaper article.
9/11 shaped me in countless ways. That cloudless Tuesday and its aftermath continue to be present in my life, following me from high school to graduate school to my work at the OHC. It’s informed the way I think about life pre-9/11 and over the past twenty years. I’m not sure my memories will ever be less vivid or more pliable, but the impact, personally and professionally, will persist.
Introduction by Martin Meeker
When coming up with ideas for a special newsletter commemorating the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we recognized a blind spot: as a history organization, we typically look backwards into the past to inquire about the memories of individuals, now older, about experiences when they were younger. But what about the young? How do they experience and recall events that might have happened even before they were born, yet are destined to impact their lives going forward? What are they told by their parents and taught by their schools to help them form opinions and make them grapple with events in which they can take no blame and accept no praise? How do they remember key, shared events that they did not experience as conscious, thinking adults? In the passages below, you’ll find a group of our wonderful student employees as they contend with the “experience” of 9/11.
Shannon White is currently a third-year student at UC Berkeley studying Classical Languages. They are an Undergraduate Research Apprentice in the Nemea Center under Professor Kim Shelton and a member of the editing staff for the Berkeley Undergraduate Journal of Classics. Shannon works as a student editor for the Oral History Center.
I was born in April of 2002, several months after 9/11, and as such, I’ve never lived in a world that didn’t have the shadow of such an unprecedented tragedy looming over it. In September of 2001, my mom was six weeks pregnant with me, living in an apartment on campus at the MIT Sloan School of Management, where my dad was getting his master’s degree. I’ve heard the story from her many times over the course of my life: she was watching the news and sat there, in a state of absolute shock, as the towers fell. “I wondered what kind of world I was bringing you into,” she said when I asked her about it again today. My parents have both described their sadness in the wake of September 11, as well as the fear that their home, a major east coast city, would also become the target of an attack. The firsthand accounts of my parents have been so important for my understanding of an event which I did not experience myself but which has had such a lasting impact on the world in which I grew up.
Jordan Harris worked at the Oral History Center as an editorial assistant from February 2020 to August 2021. She graduated from UC Berkeley in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in English.
I was three years old when 9/11 happened. My mom remembers first hearing about it from a phone call with her mom, who said the Twin Towers were bombed. But my mom didn’t believe any of it, thinking my grandma had just been watching some crazy television show. When she came home after picking up my sister and me from daycare, my dad told her about the planes crashing into the towers. They vividly remember watching the overwhelming news coverage on the television, sitting in shock as they saw bodies falling from the destroyed buildings on the screen.
I don’t think I really understood the impact of 9/11 until I was in middle school. Starting in those years and continuing through high school, there would be annual assemblies to honor the fallen of that day in 2001. As I grew older, every year I became more and more aware of it as this grave, anniversal fixture of American culture, from those assemblies in school to the cable news on TV to the millions of posts on social media, especially as those platforms evolved into ubiquitous fixtures of their own in everyday life. As someone who has no memories from that day since I was so young, it’s a strange thing to think about each year because even though it happened in my lifetime, it still feels far away—an episode of my parents’ lives but not my own.
Ashley Sangyou Kim
Ashley Kim is currently a fourth-year student at UC Berkeley studying Rhetoric. She is an editor for the World Section of Berkeley Political Review (BPR). Ashley works as a student editor for the Oral History Center.
My mom was six months pregnant with me when she saw 9/11 on TV. The first time I heard of this event was when my mother talked about seeing the burning Twin Towers on the news. She told me that she could not believe what was on the screen, and that even the reporters sounded confused at first. Many South Koreans look to America as the ultimate symbol of power, and the fact that something like this could happen was a shock to many people there. After my family immigrated to the US, the first time 9/11 was brought up in school was in sixth grade. My teacher showed the class a documentary detailing how passengers responded to the news that the planes were hijacked. It was a very emotional film, and the individual testimonies stayed with me for a while. Only a couple of years ago in college did I learn how 9/11 had an enormous impact on U.S. domestic and foreign policy. To be honest, I feel like I only know the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how 9/11 changed the world.
Ricky J. Noel worked at the Oral History Center as a student editor. A recent graduate of UC Berkeley, he majored in history with a Latin American concentration.
For those of us born in the very late 90s, 9/11 was something that occurred in our lifetime, but we never quite understood the true gravity or impact of the tragedy until much later in life. Every anniversary of the tragedy was marked on our calendars but I personally did not learn the details of what had occurred until high school. Through various documentaries and podcasts I finally learned the full extent of what occurred that day and I finally understood how this terrible tragedy must have affected the people living through it. The idea that something like this could happen within the United States must have been a terrifying prospect. It set the stage for the United States — and by extension other countries — to become a lot more locked down in terms of how we moved around the world. The event changed everyday simple aspects of American life. Before 9/11 you could wait at the gate at the airport for a loved one, traveling was easier, and Afghanistan and Iraq were not constantly present in the back of your mind. Coming up on twenty years after the attack, 9/11 still has a conscious impact on America. It’s a tragedy that has continued to reverberate through the years, even through small changes that we have all become used to as part of everyday life.
by Martin Meeker
The radio alarm was set to KCBS news radio. I never really listened to the station itself but there was something mundane and even comforting about the even-keeled voices of newscasters summoning me from sleep. That morning was different, however. In the moments between the radio alarm sounding and my hitting of the snooze button, I heard a few voices in a more fevered tone than usual. I fell asleep again but I now recall dreams filled with anxiety and then awoke again before the 10-minute snooze reprieve.
I turned the radio back on because I sensed something was wrong. It took a few minutes to unravel the breaking story, but the newscaster was speaking with then-San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. The conversation was earnest and a bit frantic. The talk was of securing bridges, tunnels, public transit, and major public sites; offices were closing for the day and air traffic was grounded at the SFO airport. Here my memory gets a little foggy but I believe all four airplanes had already gone down along with one of the towers of the World Trade Center. I quickly roused myself from bed and turned on the television and tuned it to CNN (during one of the few times in my life I had cable TV). The images remain seared in my memory. I’m quite sure that I was watching as the second tower fell. I can still summon the emotions that I was feeling (although I typically prefer not to): fear, anger, horror, confusion, despair, helplessness, etcetera. The remainder of the day was a blur. I recall not wanting to commute from my apartment in Oakland to my work in San Francisco that day, so I stayed home and, like many, remained glued to the television.
The recollection above is what oral historians called a “flashbulb memory” — and this was my flashbulb memory of learning about the attacks of September 11, 2001. The American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology defines this concept as, “a vivid, enduring memory associated with a personally significant and emotional event, often including such details as where the individual was or what he or she was doing at the time of the event.” Other common examples of when a vast number of people recall a moment with specificity include the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, and the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986. In part because these events were so memorable — and often quite traumatic — they are said to define a generation or mark the transition to a new era. While studies have shown that the recalled memories tend to be vivid, they are not always as accurate as one might expect. Still, the memories when factually recalled (or creatively reimagined) can be revealing as they demonstrate the elements of an event that people find memorable — worth maintaining in one’s active memory and often sharing with others years after the event.
We at the Oral History Center do not make a regular practice of asking our interviewees to recount their own flashbulb memories, but sometimes the question is appropriate or simply happens to come up in the course of the interview. Thanks to the excellent work of our student researcher Deborah Qu, we have below a series of recollections of that tragic day now twenty years ago.
The first selection is from Bob Swinford, who was interviewed for our project with the US Forest Service. He recalled, “I was right here on this floor [4th floor] Washington office of the Forest Service in Washington, DC, not in this office but across the way there, when the plane hit the Pentagon. This is an old building. We felt the concussion very much in this building. We felt the building quake, and we knew something bad had happened. Didn’t know where. But it didn’t take long because some folks on the fifth floor, in legislative affairs, saw right away. Obviously, we were watching the Twin Towers stuff on the television here, and then everybody said — a lot of people have taken credit for taking charge that day and sending everybody home. We didn’t hear anything. The chief just made the decision. A couple of law enforcement folks happened to be in the building for some reason, and we didn’t have a speaker system then, so they just became human speakers, and they went up and down the floors in all of the wings of the building and told everybody to go home.”
Robert Berdahl, who was Chancellor of UC Berkeley and thus living in the Pacific time zone, had a Berkeley-specific recollection: “It was a Tuesday morning. It’s one of those days that is etched in your memory, like the assassination of Kennedy or some very, very significant event where you remember exactly where you were when you learned that something happened. In this case, I was still in bed and my wife was in St. Paul, so I was home alone. The phone rang at about 7:00 or 7:15 or something like that and it was John Cummins and he said, ‘Have you seen the television?’ And I said, ‘No, what’s happening?’ And he said, ‘Well, there’s been a terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers’ And so I jumped up, turned on the television and started watching it. And then watched when the Towers came down. And we called an immediate cabinet meeting to discuss what to do. There were a number of campuses that closed. This was September 11, so we were the only UC campus where school had started, because the others were on quarter system and school started later, a week or two later. So we were the only one that was open. But there was a lot of discussion about whether to close the campus.”
Finally, another perspective comes from Bill Koenig, a former San Francisco police officer who was on holiday navigating a barge through the canals of France. “We were actually moving that day. We were moving through the canals and we were coming to a small city, Briare, which is two/three hours south of Paris by car, maybe a month south by boat. So we were coming into a mooring. We squeezed into a mooring. Right behind us was a small English boat, very small, a single man on the boat. He had a TV. We had just put our mooring lines down. We had a dish on a TV so we could watch our TV. He came running out and said that an airplane had just flown into a New York skyscraper. We quickly got our TV working. We had it in operation by the time the second plane flew into the Twin Towers. It just stopped us, of course. There are hotel boats that take people, different size hotel boats, maybe four couples on, maybe up to twenty couples. Some of them — to go through the canals, maybe ten couples. One of the hotel boats came in with many Americans on board, and of course we were glued to the TV. We were getting CNN at that time. We could follow it. When the hotel boats came in, we put up more American flags. . . . One of the things that continually stops me is the 343 New York firefighters that lost their lives on that day.”
These accounts all provide great detail into events that, in a few examples, happened years prior to the interview. Rarely do we record such precise details of everyday life into our active memories, and those typically only are retained once we’ve had the opportunity to rely on such events shortly after transpiring. In other words, it is usually as a result the retelling of an event that it is recorded into our memories. The interviewees also tend to focus on the moment of learning itself: this is the flashbulb moment, in which it seems like an imprinting happens. And in each of these examples, the narrative flows from the moment of recognition to the immediate response: what happened next? For Swinton, the next move was evacuation from a vulnerable site; for Berdahl, it was how to respond as head of a major university campus; and for Koenig, the response was to learn more and to show pride and defiance in the face of the attack.
On this solemn anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11, I invite you to connect with others and share your own memories of that date and the events that followed — and perhaps explore the memories of our flashbulb memories. What are the specific details that you remember? What are the facts that now seem a little fuzzy after twenty years? What transpired in the hours and days after the attack? Why do these memories stand out? How do your memories differ from those of friends and family? I recall one phrase heard and seen often in the wake of 9/11 was “Never Forget.” Perhaps one way of honoring those who lost their lives that day is to remember, share those memories, and explore the meaning of what we’ve recalled.
Find these and all our oral histories from the search feature on the UC Berkeley Oral History Center home page. You can search by name, keyword, and several other criteria.
“…I very rarely ask questions about 9/11 during oral history interviews, and I’ve been trying to grapple with why that is.”
As we approach the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, I’ve been reflecting on my own memories of that fateful day in September, and its impact on how I interview others about traumatic events. Indeed, I recently realized how deeply intertwined my thoughts about 9/11 are with my oral history practice.
The first time I spoke aloud about 9/11 – aside from discussing breaking news in the days that followed – was in my introductory oral history class with Dr. Natalie Fousekis at California State University, Fullerton in August 2009. This was nearly eight years after the original events, when the terrorist group al-Qaeda coordinated the hijacking of four passenger airplanes with the intent to crash them into major US targets. This led to a tragic loss of life and shook a sense of national security for many Americans.
As an exercise about collective memory, Natalie invited the class (from youngest to oldest) to share recollections of that day. Despite the age differences (approximately early twenties to early forties), as we went around the table, it was striking that roughly twenty different stories aligned so closely, as though we were all reciting the same narrative with slightly different words. With the exception of hearing the news while getting ready for high school, my own memories were much the same. This was, of course, in part due to the media coverage Americans saw of the Twin Towers falling over and over again, which helped create a collective memory of that day. But the similarity in omissions was striking, too. I don’t remember many people discussing the plane that hit the Pentagon or Flight 93, which crashed in the fields of Pennsylvania. Later dubbed Ground Zero, even in 2009, New York City dominated our memories of 9/11.
I also remember that though the mood in the classroom was somber, none of us cried or expressed an overwhelming sense of grief. Looking back, I wonder why there wasn’t more emotion around this discussion of such a traumatic moment. The eighth anniversary of 9/11 was only weeks away, and for those who had been teenagers in 2001, that day and the ensuing War on Terror had indelibly changed our lives. In part, maybe we were already trying to analyze our own experiences as oral historians rather than vulnerable individuals, interpreting what our collective memories meant rather than sitting with their personal heaviness. Or maybe this room of California students felt more removed from the horrors of that day due to physical distance from the sites on the East Coast. But it is also possible that even eight years later, we weren’t yet ready to address these memories as collective trauma.
In the more than a decade since this classroom discussion, I have conducted hundreds of oral history interviews – many of them discussing traumatic moments for individuals and the collective. Yet, I find it strange to reflect on the centrality of 9/11 to my early oral history training, as it has been a major pitfall in my own practice as an interviewer. About three years ago, while preparing an interview outline, I suddenly realized that my narrator’s work documenting and securing collections at a major arts institution coincided with this moment in history. Luckily the narrator agreed to share her memories, and we had a fruitful discussion about the ways in which, for a time, 9/11 impacted all levels of American culture. This experience helped me register that I very rarely ask questions about 9/11 during oral history interviews, and I’ve been trying to grapple with why that is.
One possibility is that I, like many others in the field, struggle with when an event gets to become “history,” and how we choose to memorialize it. To me, 9/11 feels like yesterday, not necessarily an historical moment upon which I need to ask narrators to reflect. And I am certainly guilty of collapsing historical timelines and not concentrating on the recent past, even during long life history interviews.
But I also suspect that my omission of 9/11 in interviews has a great deal to do with the traumatic nature of that day. Like many interviewers, I’ve sometimes been reluctant to introduce topics at particular points of an oral history for fear of creating a trauma narrative where there otherwise wasn’t. And until recent training, I was not even confident in my own skills tackling trauma-informed interviews. This hurdle has a clear solution: I need to prioritize discussing potentially traumatic topics like 9/11 in pre-interviews or introducing them in the co-created interview outline.
What is less clear is how to navigate my own trauma about 9/11. How do my own memories of that day impact my willingness to ask others about it? Am I too close to the subject to be able to speak with narrators about it? Quite possibly. But one complication for all interviewers is that unlike other traumatic events with a beginning and end date, 9/11 is an ongoing reality – even twenty years later. From the recent withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan to the wide reach of the Department of Homeland Security to heightened airport screenings, we are all still living with the consequences of 9/11, and the trauma has not actually ended.
Twelve years after that classroom exercise around 9/11 and collective memory, I can appreciate Natalie’s methods all the more. I’ve learned over the course of my oral history practice that even deeply personal narratives can include elements of collective memory, and it is important to recognize such common threads in our lives as interviewers, as well.
I often preach that oral history practitioners need to acknowledge our biases so that we can better overcome them or even use them to our advantage. For me, examining my blind spot around 9/11 has also encouraged me to think about incorporating more recent and ongoing historical events into interviews. Not only is this reflection an important addition to the historical record, it is part of our essential work to help narrators make meaning of their lives through oral history. Similarly, evaluating my own blind spot around 9/11 has helped me recognize the blind spots in the collective memory of that day – such as narratives that leave out Flight 93 or the attack at the Pentagon – and encouraged me to think about how oral history can help fill these gaps. As we recognize the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, this work feels more necessary than ever.
By Roger Eardley-Pryor, PhD
Interconnections in oral histories are like the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon: once you notice them, you start seeing them everywhere. At least that’s how interconnections appear to me, both within and between some of our oral history projects. Webs of connection within a single oral history are sometimes overt—like when Sierra Club leader Aaron Mair hitched together the thoughts of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with the words of John Muir, all while discussing inherent intersections between voting rights, civil rights, and environmental justice. Other interconnections, as you’ll read below, demand a bit of digging. However, once you scratch the surface, they’re like the root system for Quaking Aspen trees: it’s all interconnected down below.
Quaking Aspens are the state tree of Utah, a place where I discovered some fascinating relationships between a few of our recent oral history projects. Hop along this interconnected oral history journey, with stops at a proposed power plant near a national park, then to a desert community in central Utah that twice experienced a major influx of new residents, which will bring us back to a new project the Oral History Center recently began. Along the way, we’ll examine environmental laws on air quality, lobby a few Senators, construct a coal-fired power plant, confront racist wartime hysteria, and seek contemporary healing from crimes of the past. I hope this journey leaves you with a sense of how oral histories reveal relationships between people and places, and how our sense of belonging to both evolves and intersects across space and time.
This journey begins with my interview with Tony Ruckel, another Sierra Club leader who, like Aaron Mair, was eventually elected president of the Club. Before that, in the 1970s, Ruckel founded and became director of the Rocky Mountain Regional Office for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (SCLDF). The SCLDF, now called Earthjustice, was one of the nation’s first public interest environmental law organizations and, coincidentally, has many of its files archived in The Bancroft Library. Ruckel and his Rocky Mountain Regional Office handled all Sierra Club litigation from the northern plains, throughout the Rocky Mountains, and down to the desert southwest, including the red-rock canyonlands of southern Utah. A rouge riot of river-hewn rock undulates through southern Utah in streams of stone that reveal layers from eons upon eons of Earth. Wind-worn gorges where scrub brush and pine cling to canyon sides erupt in spires and stone arches of stark beauty and worldly wonder, such that several national parks aim to preserve that erosional landscape. During the energy crises of the 1970s, some of Ruckel’s legal campaigns featured battles against the Intermountain Power Plant, an enormous coal-fired electricity plant proposed just outside of scenic Capitol Reef National Park in southern Utah.
The early plans for the Intermountain Power Plant near Capitol Reef would have created one of the largest coal-fired facilities ever built with four giant smoke-stacks belching pollution into the air. As Ruckel recalled, “Originally, it was proposed at five thousand megawatts. Well, nobody’s ever tried to build a plant that size…. So, then they carved it down to three thousand megawatts.” Most of those megawatts would be sent by wire to sprawling southern California for purchase by L.A.’s Department of Water and Power, with additional power purchased by the municipalities of Anaheim, Burbank, Glendale, Pasadena, and Riverside. “It was clear California didn’t want to build this stuff,” Ruckel noted, “they just wanted to consume the energy.” To combat the giant coal plant near Capitol Reef, Ruckel’s legal strategy relied in part on the relatively recent Clean Air Act of 1970, which had surprisingly sharp teeth and a wide scope for federal regulation and enforcement.
The Clean Air Act of 1970 required the federal government to not just improve air quality in polluted areas, but it demanded the “prevention of significant deterioration of air quality” in areas that already had clean air, like at Capitol Reef National Park. However, in 1977, as Ruckel worked to halt the power plant in southern Utah, the Clean Air Act came up for Congressional review. The US House of Representatives rushed through new amendments and, as Ruckel told it, “lo and behold, there was nothing regarding the prevention of significant deterioration in the new statute … the language supporting it had been removed in the amendments.” Ruckel quickly shifted gears and, with help from Friends of the Earth, mounted a lobbying campaign in the US Senate to reinstate prevention of significant deterioration of air in amendments. “The result of the lobbying,” Ruckel explained, “was we certainly educated a ton of Senate staffers, particularly, and a few critical Senators. And as it resulted, that turned out to be enough.” The final 1977 Clean Air Act amendments re-inserted language on the prevention of significant deterioration of air, which pushed the Intermountain Power Plant toward a different construction site away from southern Utah’s pristine national parks. In the early 1980s, plans for the power plant moved north to the desert of central Utah near a town named Delta, which provides the next stop on our interconnected journey between Oral History Center projects.
Tony Ruckel’s efforts to move the Intermountain Power Plant away from southern Utah’s national parks produced significant demographic and social changes in the small desert community of Delta in central Utah. In 1981, during groundbreaking ceremonies for the Intermountain Power Plant, the population of Delta City was 1,930. Over the next few years, Delta’s population exploded with 6,000 new construction workers and their families who struggled to find temporary housing, often living in burgeoning mobile home parks or in motel rooms. Delta’s over-crowded classrooms benefited from new school construction, paid with nearly $8 million in mitigation funds from the Intermountain Power Plant, which also helped build a new city hall. In 1984, a new hospital broke ground in the town of Delta in addition to sewer and water system improvements, enhanced police protection, and new vocational education opportunities funded in part by the power plant. But even as local incomes rose, so did crime rates and, after Delta’s long standing ban on Sunday alcohol sales was repealed in 1983, liquor purchases more than doubled. After the power plant’s first coal-fired unit came on line, a formal dedication of the project held in 1987 saw an estimated 8,000 people attend. The tiny Delta airport handled fifty-two private airplanes, which required hiring an air traffic controller in a temporary tower built for the occasion. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang, and the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came down from Salt Lake City to offer a dedicatory prayer. In the 1980s, after inviting the Intermountain Power Plant to Delta, the town transitioned temporarily from a dozy desert community to a bustling boomtown. A swift sense of change swept through Delta’s desert community like a flash-flood through a slot canyon.
Those developments in Delta during the 1980s spurred some longtime residents to preserve parts of its dwindling past. When local residents launched a drive to retrieve and preserve an 1893 Case tractor in the county, they sparked interest in building an historical center to house such artifacts. The Great Basin Museum and the Great Basin Historical Society were both founded in the mid-1980s. And in over-subscribed journalism classes at Delta High School, teachers aimed to engage new students in the local history of their new hometown. Students began interviewing Delta’s local elders for the school paper and learned that many longtime residents had memories and historical artifacts from an American race-based prison camp constructed during World War II just a few miles outside of Delta, Utah.
Back in February 1942, just 10 weeks after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the exclusion of all persons of Japanese ancestry from “prescribed military areas.” More than 110,000 Japanese American citizens—men, women, and children—were forced from their homes in Western portions of the country to incarceration camps built in desolate areas of the United States. One such Japanese American incarceration camp was built hastily in the remote desert of central Utah, sixteen miles from Delta. The “Central Utah Relocation Center,” more commonly called Topaz, was designed to house 9,000 prisoners in forty-two blocks of make-shift housing units. During its three years of operation, Topaz imprisoned 11,212 individuals due to their race and family ancestry. Most were American citizens. In the early 1940s, the influx of imprisoned Japanese Americans at Topaz made it the fifth-largest community in Utah before the camp closed and was disassembled in October 1945.
In the early 1980s, the influx of new residents to central Utah for the Intermountain Power Plant sparked renewed interest in Delta’s local history, including that of Topaz and the people affiliated with it. In 1983, survivors of incarceration at Topaz and residents in Delta together created the Topaz Museum Board as a 501(c)(3) organization to formally collect stories and artifacts for an eventual museum in Delta. Around the same time, longstanding protests by Japanese Americans demanding financial redress for their mass incarceration without due process gained new traction. In 1980, the US Congress and President Jimmy Carter approved creation of a Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC). The Commission’s report, released in late 1982 and titled Personal Justice Denied, denounced the injustice of mass exclusion, removal, and detention of Japanese Americans and concluded the government’s policies were caused not by “military necessity” but by “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” The Commission’s recommendations eventually culminated in passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided a national apology and individual reparations of $20,000, known as redress, that were delivered to survivors of that imprisonment.
The redress movement in the 1980s encouraged renewed reckoning with one chapter from the long, dark history of American racism, but over time Americans’ knowledge of Japanese American incarceration appeared to fade. Nearly twenty years after redress, Congress passed the Preservation of Japanese American Confinement Sites (JACS) Act of 2006, which established a $38 million matching-grant program to identify, collect, and preserve stories, artifacts, and historic sites connected to the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans. The Topaz Museum Board in Delta, Utah, submitted an early JACS grant and, after many years of effort, the Topaz Museum opened to the public in 2017. One of the museum’s founders wrote, “If you visit the museum, you might be able to sense the complexity of the deeply troubling history of Topaz. We hope you will be convinced that we all have an obligation to prevent anything like it from happening again.”
Here’s where the points along our journey connect back to Berkeley’s Oral History Center and to The Bancroft Library. Almost ten years ago, the Oral History Center also earned a JACS grant to conduct oral histories with Japanese Americans who attended UC Berkeley before—and in some cases after—their incarceration during World War II. That initial oral history JACS project coincided with The Bancroft Library’s separate JACS grant to digitize and make available online the library’s extensive Japanese American incarceration materials, which have now become The Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Digital Archive. Many of those materials will be used in a forthcoming exhibition titled, “Uprooted: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans,” which will open this October in The Bancroft Library.
At the same time, the Oral History Center is now in the early stages of a new JACS project titled “Healing Intergenerational Wounds of Japanese American Confinement?: Private and Public Memory at Manzanar and Topaz.” During the pandemic year of 2020, the Oral History Center submitted a JACS grant proposal focused on two of the ten Japanese American prison camps during World War II: Manzanar in southeastern California, and Topaz in central Utah. In May of 2021, the same month the Oral History Center published our interview with Tony Ruckel for the Sierra Club Oral History Project, we learned our JACS grant proposal was successful!
The heart of our newest JACS project asks, how do people heal? In collaboration with Japanese American advisors and partners, we will conduct new oral history interviews, produce a new Berkeley Remix podcast series based on those interviews, and create graphic narrative artwork to document and disseminate the ways in which intergenerational trauma and healing occurred after the U.S. government’s incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. With narratives of healing as our project’s through line, we will interview descendants of those involved in the redress movement who initiated the conversation around healing; individuals who relate to their Japanese American heritage and incarceration history through popular culture; and those who interpret these stories of trauma and empowerment at incarceration sites and beyond. We will investigate the impact of different types of healing, how this informs collective memory, and how these narratives change across generations. The oral histories conducted for this JACS project will examine and compare how private memory, creative expression, place, and public interpretation intersect at the Manzanar and Topaz prison camps. We hope that preserving and sharing this myriad of voices from an intergenerational spectrum of experiences—both historic and contemporary—will provide an accessible way for society to engage with America’s fraught past with Japanese American incarceration.
Writer and Sierra Club member Wallace Stegner, whose interview with the Oral History Center is titled “The Artist as Environmental Advocate,” wrote an essay in 1986 titled “The Sense of Place.” “It is probably time we looked around us instead of looking ahead,” Stenger wrote, “to learn that place’s history and to … acquire the sense not of ownership but of belonging.” Who belongs to a place, what belongs, and how they belong—or how they do not—are all questions that echo across the oral history journey recounted in this post, particularly as they reverberate in the canyons and over the deserts of Utah. But questions of belonging and place animate all of American history. Indeed, that is the story of humankind.
The stories of how people make sense of their place in the world, and how their sense of belonging changes over time, is exactly what we try to record at the Oral History Center. I’ve learned from preserving and promoting these stories that, almost always, they are interwoven in intricate and unexpected ways. As Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in 1963 from a jail cell in Birmingham, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states.” King continued, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Former Sierra Club president Aaron Mair, in his oral history, connected King’s thoughts to words scribbled in a journal by eventual Sierra Club founder John Muir nearly one hundred years earlier. In 1869, while spending a transformative summer living in the Yosemite Valley, Muir wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.”
Interconnected threads such as these between people, places, and projects at the Oral History Center weave a remarkable tapestry through time. The more time you spend exploring our incredible archive of oral history interviews, the more intricate and meaningful these connections begin to appear. This month, as a new academic year begins and students and staff physically return to Berkeley—with many first and second-year students stepping foot on campus for the very first time—I encourage you to dive into our collection and see what kinds of interconnections might appear.
Find these and all the Oral History Center’s interviews from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, keyword, and several other criteria. To ensure a full text search, on the next page scroll down and toggle on the button that says “full text.” You can also visit all our collection guides and our projects page to find oral histories on specific subjects. We have oral histories on just about every topic imaginable.
— Roger Eardley-Pryor, PhD
Since its inception in 1953, the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley has been responsible for compiling one of the largest and most widely used oral history collections in the country. The interviewees within this vast collection include many of the nation’s high-profile citizens, ranging from senators and governors to artists, actors, and industrialists. And standing among this distinguished list is an equally impressive group of scholars. As a research unit based at UC Berkeley, the Oral History Center has long gained rare access to the academy and ultimately built one of the richest oral history collections on higher education and intellectual history in the nation. Interviews with Nobel laureates and university presidents fill this collection, as do leading scientists and pioneering faculty of color. Thus, a project on the famed Yale political scientist, James C. Scott, and his equally renowned Agrarian Studies Program, stands as a fitting addition to the Bancroft collection. We are pleased to announce the release of the Yale Agrarian Studies Oral History Project, a two-part series featuring the life history of James C. Scott, and shorter interviews with over a dozen affiliates of the Yale Agrarian Studies Program. The project was created and conducted by OHC Historian Todd Holmes.
For many students and scholars, James C. Scott needs no introduction. He is the Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale University, with additional appointments in the Department of Anthropology and School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He is the author of over nine books, most of which are not only widely read across the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, but considered foundational works in those disciplines. To be sure, the impact of Scott’s scholarship is immeasurable. Over the decades, his books became a series of major interventions, shaping dozens of discourses and research agendas throughout the academy. “Brilliant” became an adjective used by readers with no sense of hyperbole. In recognition of his contributions, he was awarded the 2020 Albert O. Hirschman Prize, the Social Science Research Council’s highest honor.
In his oral history, James C. Scott: Agrarian Studies and Over 50 Years of Pioneering Work in the Social Sciences, he discusses his childhood in New Jersey and the Quaker school that played a large role in shaping the scholar known for marching to his own drummer. He discusses his experience with the National Student Association, the interesting turn his studies took upon entry to Yale Graduate School, and the string of books he produced in the decades that followed. These include The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia; Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance; Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts; Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed; The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia; and Against The Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, among other works. He also recounts the founding of the Agrarian Studies Program, an interdisciplinary flagship in the humanities and social sciences now celebrating over thirty years of operation at Yale University.
Part Two of this project features interviews with affiliates of this renowned Program. Aptly titled, “Reflections on James C. Scott and the Agrarian Studies Program,” this segment of the project has scholars recount their experience with both Jim Scott and the Program, recollections that help to document the history and impact of Agrarian Studies, as well as offer future generations a glimpse at the extraordinary scholar who shaped it.
For the last three decades, Yale’s Agrarian Studies Program has stood as one of the most exciting intellectual ecosystems in the academy. Officially founded by Jim Scott and collaborators in the fall of 1991, the Program brought a critical and interdisciplinary lens to the everyday experience of rural societies. With the world as its intellectual playground, and the sweep of history its scope, the Program became the place for cutting-edge research. Anthropologists, historians, and political scientists filled the rooms of the weekly colloquium, as did sociologists, activists, and real-life farmers. The topics of discussion stood just as diverse. From peasant revolts in France or ancient Roman cuisine, to dam building in India or the industrial foodways of American agribusiness, nearly any topic of interest found a place within the big tent of Agrarian Studies. Few could have realized in the fall of 1991, that the newly-minted program would not only last thirty years, but also come to shape nearly three generations of scholarship and redefine the notion of interdisciplinary work.
Below are the interviews of the Yale Agrarian Studies Oral History Project. You can access the transcript for each interview through the respective hyperlink. Segments of these interviews are also featured in the video below celebrating the Program’s thirtieth anniversary. Lastly, we are pleased to announce that a video on the life and career of James C. Scott is currently underway and will be released in spring 2022. Stay tuned!!
Interviews & Transcripts
Sterling Professor of Political Science
Director, Yale Sustainable Food Program
Margaret K. Musser Professor of Social Ecology
Chester D. Tripp Professor of History
Henry J. Heinz Professor of History & African Studies
Former Program Coordinator
Yale Agrarian Studies
Professor of History
Professor of History
Former Provost / Franklin Muzzy Crosby Professor Emerita of the Human Environment
Professor of History & American Studies
Professor of Geography
University of California, Berkeley
Sterling Professor of Political Science
Professor of Anthropology
Dinakar Singh Professor of Anthropology / Professor, School of the Environment
Turrentine Jackson Professor of U.S. Western History
University of California, Davis
Class of 1963 Professor of Geography (Emeritus)
University of California, Berkeley
Crosby Professor of the Human Environment / Professor of Political Science
Project by Todd Holmes
By Deborah Qu
The balance between preserving nature and sharing it with the public remains a delicate one, according to redwood conservationist Newton Bishop Drury. “In a great natural area its beauty is a fragile thing usually — that’s particularly true of mountain meadows and other areas of relatively sparse vegetation, slow-growing plants. In one day an undue visitation might blot out many of the elements that made the beauty of the place, so that many a great area carries in its beauty the seeds of its own destruction.” As the director of the National Park Service from 1940–1951, Drury set out to revive the flora and fauna of the California statewide park system to its most natural state, while allowing the public to enjoy the most out of the scenery. This challenge was not his first in balancing the demands of environmental conservation and the interests of people and industries.
This challenge was not his first in balancing the demands of environmental conservation and the interests of people and industries.
Within the extensive five-volume oral history recorded by the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library from 1960–1970, Drury recounts his life and fruitful career. Drury graduated in the class of 1912 at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-founded the advertising agency Drury Brothers Company in 1919. That same year, he was hired to publicize the newly formed Save the Redwoods League, a nonprofit organization that to this day specializes in the preservation of the endangered redwood forests and parkland. Drury became instrumental in expanding the League and establishing public support for a united park system throughout the twenties. Due to his efforts, among the work of the Save the Redwoods League and others, the California state park system was formed in 1927.
In his oral history, Drury describes how the Save the Redwoods League first began in 1917, when geologist and UC Berkeley professor Dr. John C. Merriam and others had taken a trip to Humboldt County in Northern California, as urged by the head of the National Park Service, Stephen Mathers. Upon viewing the rapid deterioration of redwood groves within the last century, they called for legislative action to protect redwood forests. “At that time, the way we have always understood it, the idea of a permanent, nationwide organization such as the Save the Redwoods League was conceived,” Drury recalls.
Deforestation was at its height due to uncontrolled logging in the early 1900s. The drastic change of forest scenery throughout California was heartbreaking to Drury, who observes, “One of the great tragedies in California is that practically none of the river banks in California, except a few relatively small parks that have been established just lately, are assured of preservation.” During the flooding seasons, banks experienced erosion and the habitats of burrowing mammals were lost. The natural beauty of the Northern California coastline was also harmed. As Drury recalls, “All of this country had magnificent coast oak forests in the early days. Some of Berkeley still has. Now you hear the city of Oakland named and you wonder how it got its name.”
To secure land, Drury often worked with logging companies and the forestry board, which was established to ensure a steady flow of wood products. Drury distinctly remembers the way the logging industry and the League differed in priorities, describing how the forestry board wanted “to conserve for consumption, while the parks were for the purpose of preserving for enjoyment and maintaining the pristine condition of the forests.” At the same time, they were motivated to work with the League in the interest of sustainability. One of Drury’s first great contributions to the League was his involvement in raising funds and negotiating a purchase of redwood groves for the League from lumber companies in 1920–1921, areas that constitute Humboldt Redwoods State Park today.
According to Drury, his brother Audrey came up with the idea of establishing memorial groves dedicated to historical figures, environmentalists, and philanthropists during the early 1920s. As executive secretary of the League in 1920, Drury established the “first so-called memorial grove” known as Boiling Grove inside Humboldt County. Today, there are thousands of park areas that memorialize figures, including a scenic parkway built to commemorate Drury for his work in forest preservation.
Although the League was successful in acquiring land in the late 1910s and 1920s, conservation parks in California were separately run and faced issues of obtaining sizable grants to acquire the areas that needed to be preserved. This is why the League always recognized the need for a government-run system. Throughout the twenties, Drury began publicly campaigning for a unified state park system. In 1925, two bills requesting a centralized park system had passed the legislature but were denied by Governor Friend Richardson. However, in 1927, three state park bills under Governor C. C. Young passed, which together granted permission to create a commission for a statewide park system, to survey for potential park sites, and to request a $6 million bond issue to purchase forests for state parks from voters. The State Park Commission was formed, and the $6 million bond issue that requested matching funds from non-State sources was successfully approved by voters. Land purchased by the League was generally donated to the California state park system. With adequate funding, a united front, and Drury as the acquisition officer, the park system quickly grew.
Today, the California state park system has over 270 parks and the Save the Redwoods League continues to raise money for land acquisition as well as to restore damaged redwood forests. Because of Drury, members of the League, other conservationists, and lawmakers, we can enjoy redwood groves that bring shade to sunny days, homes to wildlife, and beauty of the landscape. Drury became director of the National Park Service in the forties and head of the State Division of Parks and Beaches in the fifties, but in 1959 he returned to the Save the Redwoods League as a chairman, back to where he first started.
More Oral Histories on the Save the Redwoods League
In addition to Drury’s story, the Oral History Center collection contains interviews of California state park managers as well as other Save the Redwoods League members. This includes Humboldt Redwoods State Park’s first ranger Enoch Percy French, who supervised the conservation of Humboldt County redwood groves after they were acquired by the League. Sierra Club co-founder and secretary of the State Park Commission William E. Colby provides more insight into the commission’s formation in his 1954 oral history. The oral history by UC Berkeley paleobotanist professor and long-standing Save the Redwoods League member Ralph Works Chaney describes the fight to leave “the fragile nature of the landscape” at Point Lobos undisturbed, with the goal to erase destructive human interference. Chaney, who became president of the Save the Redwoods League from 1961–1971, also felt the conflicting perspectives between the park and the forest service, the latter of which was interested in “selling lumber, selling grazing rights, and . . . regulat[ing] and regularly permit[ting] camping.” For information about the Save the Redwoods League through the late twentieth century, Bruce Howard, League president from 1980–1995, recounts further bouts of reorganization and expansion in his OHC interview. Within these oral histories are countless stories of individuals with a love of nature, a dedication to the conservation of plants and wildlife, and a vision to preserve it for future generations.
Find these and all the Oral History Center’s interviews from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, keyword, and several other criteria.
See also The Bancroft Library collection of Drury’s papers: Finding Aid to the Newton Bishop Drury papers BANC MSS 79/61 c.
Deborah Qu (she/her) is an undergraduate research assistant at the Oral History Center from the Bay Area. She is currently going into her third year at UC Berkeley and is majoring in Psychology with a Data Science minor.
In the history of war, soldiers died more often from infectious disease than from the initial blasts of artillery. Danger from bacterial infection affected people from all walks of life. A person with a minor cut might die within days, bacterial pneumonia was a leading cause of death, and while the advent of sulfa drugs in the nineteen thirties saved countless lives and transformed medicine, there was little physicians could do to save some patients. Until World War II, that is, thanks to the widespread use of penicillin. Discovered by bacteriologist Alexander Fleming in 1928, the Penicillium mold was not harnessed into a widely available treatment until World War II. At that time, penicillin was made available to soldiers and, to a lesser extent, those on the home front. From then until today, antibiotics remain the go-to treatment of bacterial infections worldwide, and the driving force behind a dramatic increase in life expectancy. An interview with Dr. Morris Collen, who treated workers in the Kaiser Shipyards, provides insights into this watershed moment in medical history. Additional oral histories take us beyond the initial scientific breakthrough to show penicillin’s effect on medicine, the pharmaceutical industry, and beyond.
“And to this day I keep saying it was a miracle. He recovered.” — Dr. Morris Collen, on giving penicillin to a patient for the first time in 1942
Early researchers who had witnessed penicillin’s effects on otherwise incurable patients hailed it as a miracle cure. During World War II, the potential of penicillin as a magic bullet was so powerful — the therapeutic results so speedy and effective — that scientists recognized the treatment could make a difference in the outcome of the war. But turning Penicillium into penicillin was slow, the output minuscule, and the technology to support mass production elusive.
A team of scientists from Oxford University intent on solving these problems — Howard Florey, Ernst Chain, and Norman Heatley — realized that they couldn’t successfully make the medical advances needed within war-torn, resource-strapped England. They sought support for their endeavors in the United States in the summer of 1941, freely sharing their research findings and techniques.
The Oxford team easily persuaded scientists at the USDA, pharmaceutical companies, and elsewhere of the value of penicillin. After formally joining the war in December 1941, the United States government took over the research and production of penicillin, mobilizing government agencies, research laboratories, universities, and pharmaceutical companies in the United States and Great Britain. The ability to produce penicillin in bulk became a top priority for the war effort, behind only the Manhattan Project.
As a result of this unprecedented international and inter-industry cooperation (not repeated until the coronavirus crisis and Operation Warp Speed), the United States was able to produce more than two million doses of penicillin in the lead-up to D-Day. This mass production of penicillin saved the lives of countless troops and likely made a difference in the outcome of the war.
An interview by the UC Berkeley Oral History Center with Dr. Morris Collen provides insights into this watershed moment in medical history. Collen was interviewed by the Oral History Center’s director, Martin Meeker, for the Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Oral History Project on evidence-based medicine. In 1942, Collen became the inaugural chief of medical service at the first Kaiser Permanente hospital in Oakland, California, serving those who worked for the Kaiser Richmond Shipyards, and also led Kaiser Pemanente’s research division. In his oral history, Collen describes in depth the difficulty of treating patients with pneumonia, and how penicillin changed everything.
Then we began to see patients with pneumonia. A lot of women came to work. That’s where Rosie the Riveter started. Mr. Kaiser sent railway cars around to pick up men to work in the shipyards. All the healthy men were in the armed services, so the trains went around and picked up whoever wanted to get to work. So a lot of them were alcoholics and not in good health. When they hit the Richmond shipyards, where it’s cool and damp, within a few months we were getting — I remember we had ninety patients with pneumonia at one time.
When we first started there was no treatment for lobar pneumonia, pneumococcal type, except horse serum, and the people almost always got sick with serum sickness. It was a terrible treatment, but was all we had. Then from Germany came sulfanilamide, and then sulfathiazole and sulfadiazine, and a series of sulfa drugs, and we began to treat pneumonias with them. That’s where we began, I would say, our first clinical research, evaluating different treatments for pneumonia.
Finally when penicillin came along, Chester Keefer in Boston became the czar controlling penicillin. Ninety percent went to the armed services, and 10 percent, about, went to the United States. We had so many pneumonias and we had reported already in a journal that we were treating large series of pneumonias. So we got the first dose of penicillin in California, and treated a young man with a very severe lobar pneumonia, type 7. They all died from that, and this poor fellow was going to die. So we gave him this one shot of 15,000 units, and to this day I keep saying it was a miracle. He recovered. Then gradually more penicillin came, and we switched to using penicillin.”
Interviewer Martin Meeker: How long did it take for penicillin to ramp up in production?
Collen: Oh, I don’t remember exactly.
Meeker: When was it no longer a rarity to use in the clinic?
Collen: Well, the war ended in ’45, so it became available thereafter. See, when the shipyards began to close down from 90,000 members to 14,000, then most of these workers left. By then the first clinic building was built, and I had some twenty-five beds or so. We still had a fair number of pneumonias, but it wasn’t like it was in the shipyard days. And then we used penicillin routinely, and we had no trouble in getting it after ’45.
Meeker: So after mobilization for the war ceases and it’s not all going overseas, then you have more access to it for the domestic scene?
Collen: That’s true; it became available for civilian patients.
The Oral History Center archive contains more than 100 oral histories that reference penicillin. Some of these are reflections of those who benefited from penicillin, others of bereaved family members whose loved ones died before it was available. Some references are from scientists, physicians, entrepreneurs. The mentions are usually brief, often in passing, as these individuals were being interviewed for other reasons. Just a few examples are below. The oral histories take us beyond the initial scientific breakthrough to show penicillin’s effect on medicine and the pharmaceutical industry. Together these oral histories highlight how penicillin revolutionized not just the practice of medicine, but also how people experienced it.
Alice Lowe: Commissioner on the San Francisco Asian Art Commission, Asian Art Museum Oral History Project
Oh, I didn’t tell you that my father became ill because he tripped one day, when he was visiting one of the canneries for which he hired people, and he got an infection. I guess that was before penicillin. He became kind of an invalid, and so my mother had to take care of him.
Paul Boeder: PhD, Teacher of Physiological Optics, Ophthalmology Oral History Series
She had a miserable, early death, I hate to tell you. After Clara came Eda. Eda was the prettiest of the Boeder girls. She also had a beautiful voice; we loved to hear her sing. When she was thirteen, she contracted diphtheria in school. Penicillin wasn’t heard of at that time; she died in a day or two.
Thomas David Duane, MD: Wills Eye Hospital and Thomas Jefferson Medical College, Ophthalmology Oral History Series
I was saying that there is no specific single way of learning how to treat patients. It’s necessary that you know what can be done chemically and physiologically to put them in a better situation. The other thing is to make them relax. That is the art of medicine. If you want to be a good doctor, you’ve got to do both. You can’t just go into the room and dictate, pontificate, say a few words, and walk off. However, you wouldn’t hold their hand and talk to them all day when, if you gave them a shot of penicillin, it would cure them.
Dr. Russel V.A. Lee: Earl Warren and Health Insurance, 1943–1949
In 1918, when I had the flu ward In San Francisco Hospital, 65 percent of my admissions died of pneumonia. When I went to the Air Force, we had a flu epidemic of the same kind. I called the doctors together. I said, “If anybody dies of pneumonia in this hospital, some doctor’s going to get court-martialed.” That’s the difference, because we could cure it and prevent it by then. That’s largely due to the advent of penicillin and the other antibiotics.
So, that’s what makes it so important now that everybody has access to good medical care, because access to good medical care has some meaning now. It had no meaning in days gone by. If you want to have your kids live, you want to have a good doctor, because then they won’t get diphtheria, they won’t get meningitis, they won’t get polio, and if they do get them, they’ll be cured. This is a revolution.
Herbert Heyneker: Molecular Geneticist at UCSF and Genentech, Entrepreneur in Biotechnology
I always felt that antibiotics were a field that would be open for Genencor, and I tried to push that early on because once we knew how to ferment, production of antibiotics, in my opinion, was also quite an interesting opportunity and very valuable. The penicillins and cephalosporins in the world were huge multibillion-dollar products, and still are.
C. Judson King: A Career in Chemical Engineering and University Administration, 1963–2013
The history of freeze drying in the food industry is actually kind of interesting. It doesn’t start in the food industry. The big push on freeze drying came from World War Two. It came with the isolation and stabilization of penicillin. This was the first way to isolate penicillin so it could be used as a medicine, and it was [also] used for blood plasma. A lot of freeze-dried blood plasma. The freeze drying stabilizes it. The penicillin would go bad if it weren’t dried, and this was the one way to dry it, and ditto for the blood plasma. That was the start. Then as we came out of World War II, it was recognized that freeze drying could have uses in the food industry.
August 6, 1881, is the birthday of Alexander Fleming.
How to search our collection by keyword
To conduct a key word search, from the search feature on the Oral History Center home page, type penicillin or any keyword and click search. On the next page, toggle on “full text.” The results page will list all the oral histories that mention penicillin, showing the interviewee name, title of the oral history, and a snippet of the abstract. Results are easy to skim. You can then click on any oral history to be brought to a page with a description of the oral history, a PDF of the oral history (which you can read and search on the page or download), along with other information, such as publication date, project, related resources, and more.
Assessing the Role of Race and Power in Oral History Theory and Practice Symposium
Call for Proposals, deadline of October 1, 2021.
Convened by the Ad Hoc Group for Transformative Oral History Practice in collaboration with the Oral History Association and the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley
It has been just over one year since a White police officer murdered George Floyd, sparking the largest call for racial justice in this country in a generation. Support for Black Lives Matter reached an all-time high in June 2020, with nearly 70 percent of U.S. adults holding a favorable opinion of the movement, and support spilling over to all corners of the globe. White Americans also helped take down Confederate monuments and bought books on antiracism in record numbers while corporations pledged millions of dollars to social justice organizations and causes. One year later, however, commemorations of Floyd’s life and legacy asked: “What’s changed since?”
We acknowledge that “Assessing the Role of Race and Power in Oral History Theory and Practice” is taking place amid revitalized demands for understanding – and changing – the systemic racism that enabled a White police officer to murder a Black citizen in daylight without seeming fear of repercussions. But it is also taking place at a time of fierce backlash to any understanding of the oppressive forces that enabled Floyd’s murder. At the time of this writing, some state legislatures have passed laws banning the teaching of critical race theory, even as a majority of states seek to suppress the Black vote and overturn our elections. Recent events such as these are causing many to evaluate the role of structural racism and White supremacy in the arts and humanities, including the practice of oral history.
Building on an enthusiastically received panel that asked “Is Oral History White?” at the 2020 Oral History Association annual meeting, participants in that session (calling ourselves the Ad Hoc Group for Transformative Oral History Practice), in collaboration with the Oral History Association and the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley, are convening a symposium that will define, identify, analyze, assess, and imagine alternatives to conventional practices, prevailing ideologies, and institutional structures of oral history in the United States and Canada, as they pertain to historic and current forms of systemic racial discrimination. In essence, the symposium is moving beyond the question the 2020 panel asked – “Is Oral History White?” – to interrogate broader structures and dynamics of race and racialized thinking in oral history.
We are inviting proposals from oral historians and others involved in fieldwork-related interviewing practices, as well as critical race and Whiteness theorists, to submit proposals for symposium papers that pose major questions and offer precise assessments of racial constructs as a factor in all phases of oral history work: project design, research processes, financial and budgetary matters, fieldwork and community relations, interviewing, archival practices, and public presentation and interpretation of narrative materials.
The “Assessing the Role of Race and Power in Oral History Theory and Practice” symposium will take place via Zoom Webinar over a three-day period in June 2022. We expect to convene approximately thirty-five presenters, spread over six to eight sessions of two hours each. With the assistance of a moderator and/or one or more discussants, session presenters will summarize and discuss pre-circulated papers posted on a conference website, which will have also been made available to registered attendees in advance of the symposium. Symposium sessions will allow time for audience questions and comments, vetted and synthesized via the Zoom Webinar “Q&A” function by the session moderator. This format will allow for especially robust and probing discussion during sessions.
This symposium should present a significant opportunity for audience members to reflect personally upon the charged subject of race in oral history in a pedagogically constructive way. Discussions of racialized experience and representations in our field will raise not only important insights but also strong emotions. We expect our audience to have a vast range of racial identities and relationships – including but not limited to Whiteness and Blackness – and varying degrees of experience reflecting upon that. We therefore plan to set shared expectations for constructive conversation rooted in mindful awareness, good faith engagement, and emotional maturity at the very beginning of the symposium and to create opportunities for small-group discussion and individually tailored self-reflection over the duration of the symposium. We hope that the symposium’s virtual nature, with participants in the relative privacy and comfort of their own homes, will contribute to this aspect of the symposium experience. Above all, we plan to keep discussion focused on practical applications of whatever theoretical and conceptual insights into race in oral history our symposium may furnish.
Intended outcomes include publication of revised versions of selected conference papers in an edited volume and a white paper assessing OHA’s racialized history, practices, and programs, to be developed by symposium organizers. Organizers, in cooperation with OHA’s Equity Task Force and Diversity Committee, will also create and promulgate guidelines for racial equity in oral history.
Pending receipt of grant monies, we hope to provide honoraria for symposium presenters.
Each proposal should include a title, an abstract of no more than 500 words, and a short biographical statement of no more than 300 words. Include your name, institutional affiliation if relevant, mailing address, email address, and phone number. The abstract must outline the research that you either have conducted or intend to conduct in support of your proposed presentation, the sources that you have consulted or will consult, and the collections in which you have conducted or will conduct research. While we anticipate that most proposals will be for a single paper, we welcome proposals for full sessions, also – to include 3-5 papers, moderator and discussant/s. We also welcome inquiries from individuals interested in serving as a session moderator or discussant to include a brief statement of interest and a short summary of work in oral history. Proposals are due October 1, 2021. (See below for more information.)
Some questions and themes we expect symposium participants may address include:
(Please note that we are open to other related questions and explorations.)
Whiteness and White Supremacy
- How should Whiteness be defined, and how do the deep structures and conventions of our practice reflect Whiteness, structural racism, and White supremacy?
- How might an interrogation of unexamined Whiteness be brought to bear on work in oral history? This might be done by assessing a past project or the curation of an existing collection or by considering the planning and implementation of a project currently under development. (Note: While we welcome case studies that audit specific projects, we would also like to see papers go beyond that.)
- How has work that has drawn upon existing collections reproduced racialized assumptions?
- What are some examples of projects that handled or represented racial dynamics, including Whiteness, in a creative, antiracist, or otherwise generative way?
Non-Western perspectives and approaches
- What has oral history learned from Indigenous, African American and other perspectives and approaches that fall outside the dominant Western paradigm?
- What patterns do we see in our own work that can be traced to BIPOC origins and models? What do these BIPOC origins and models have to teach us about the pitfalls of Whiteness and White Supremacy?
- How might specific insights, both theoretical and methodological, generated by the field of Critical Race Studies, help guide practical approaches to oral history?
- How and in what circumstances has oral history operated against the grain of prevailing racial assumptions?
- What can oral historians learn about power dynamics and reflexivity from research in the field of trauma studies?
- How have the institutional and organizational structures underlying work in oral history been racialized? How has the way oral history has been funded and otherwise supported contributed to unintentional racial bias? How has the “history from below” approach perpetuated these biases? And how do White interviewers themselves perpetuate bias?
- Over its fifty-plus year history, how has the work of the Oral History Association been racialized or reflective of broader patterns of White supremacy? In what ways and to what effect has the association functioned as a gatekeeper for oral history and oral historians, including some practitioners, practices, and work, excluding others, through its various products and programs such as the Principles and Best Practices, annual meeting, and publication of the Oral History Review? How has the association addressed racial issues over time, to what effect?
- When and where is it appropriate for oral historians to think beyond our individual projects and consider the role of the institutions we work for in order to tackle structural racism?
Oral history and current events
- How are oral historians and the institutions and organizations with which we are affiliated responding to the current political moment? How might we respond more effectively?
- Oral history is by its nature a civic enterprise and a medium for public engagement. How can oral history mobilize anti-racist constituencies, create dialogue around difficult issues, and/or influence public opinion or policy?
- What are the limits of oral history in combating structural racism?
The deadline for proposal submissions is October 1, 2021.
Notification of acceptance: On or about November 15.
Submit proposals to:
In the subject line of your email, please write, “Last Name Symposium Proposal Submission” and send to: TRANSFORMATIVEORALHISTORY@GMAIL.COM. Proposals should be sent as an attachment in Word or PDF formats and not in the body of the email. Please include a cover page with your name, contact information, and brief bio.
Questions may be directed to:
Final papers should be submitted no later than April 15, 2022 in order to post them on the conference website for distribution to conference attendants by May 1, 2022.
Final papers should be between 5,000 and 7,000 words and include a bibliography.
Submit final papers to:
In the subject line of your email, please write, “Last Name Symposium Paper Submission” and send to: TRANSFORMATIVEORALHISTORY@GMAIL.COM. Proposals should be sent as an attachment in Word or PDF formats and not in the body of the email. Please include a cover page with your name, contact information, and brief bio.
*The Ad Hoc Group for Transformative Oral History is composed to date of the five panelists who contributed to the OHA’s 2020 conference session, “Is Oral History White?” – Benji de la Piedra, Jessica Douglas, Kelly E. Navies, Linda Shopes and Holly Werner-Thomas.