In my years working as an oral historian, I’ve come to learn that the most important skill I have in my professional toolbelt is humility. Even after years of study and completing interview-specific research, I know that in any given oral history, I am never the expert in the room. In recording life histories with narrators, I always walk away with new information and fresh perspectives. Oral history folks call this “sharing authority,” but I also like to think about it as an opportunity for personal growth. And part of this growth requires jumping into new subjects and interview situations that challenge me.
One project that continues to challenge and delight me is the J. Paul Getty Trust Oral History Project. I have been working on this project since I joined the Oral History Center (OHC) in 2018, interviewing employees and trustees about the organization’s important contributions to the arts. Also in 2018, the partnership between the Getty Trust and the OHC expanded in order to document the history of prominent African American artists as part of the Getty Research Institute’s (GRI) African American Art History Initiative. Between the two subject areas, the Getty Trust Project represents most of the interviews I have conducted over the last year.
I love that the Getty Trust Project has prompted me to use my background in museums and art history, sometimes forcing me to literally dust off old textbooks. Even so, these interviews have taken me outside my personal art historical comfort zone of Renaissance Italy (I once took an entire course on the works of Michelangelo!), and introduced me to fields from medieval Flemish illuminated manuscripts to twentieth-century American video and performance art. This introduction to various art history specialities has required much study, but also humility in knowing when to defer to the expert.
In the case of the GRI’s African American Art History Initiative, I have had the pleasure to work with one such expert as a co-interviewer: art historian and University of California, Irvine professor Bridget R. Cooks. Cooks has been a delightful addition to the team and a wonderful resource about the artists we interview together. Her academic work in display and criticism added crucial framing to each artist’s story, and her interest in and respect for the people we interviewed shone through every oral history, creating positive experiences for all.
However, approaching these interviews with two interviewers has challenged me as an oral historian. Typically, it is the job of one interviewer to direct an oral history and help guide narrators through the discussion. I.e. Should I ask a follow-up question here or move on? How much time should we spend on this one topic? But working with two interviewers means I am not the sole person in control of the oral history, even when working off the same interview outline. At any given time, one interviewer might want to leave a topic, while another wants to ask more questions.
In order to alleviate some of this confusion, Cooks and I have had to not only build rapport with narrators, but also with each other. And after conducting several interviews together, we have worked out our own system of how to communicate during oral histories – non verbally or with sticky notes – and in how to collaborate in preparing interview outlines. For instance, before I approached a narrator for a pre-interview conversation, Cooks and I had conversations about why the individual was chosen to participate in the project, what themes we hoped to address in the oral history, and what resources I as the non-expert should consult. After completing the pre-interview with the narrator, I used that discussion to build out the interview outline, which I shared with Cooks. We used a Google Docs file to have a back-and-forth about interview structure, language to use, and even subjects to avoid or emphasize. As we decided Cooks should take the lead in these oral histories, this early collaboration was key to their success.
While working on the GRI’s African American Art History Initiative, I have also been challenged to better center the underrepresented voices in these oral histories. In a project that in part seeks to investigate race and power in the art world, this was especially important for me to get right. After all, I’m a white woman who works for an elite university – UC Berkeley – and such institutions have sometimes silenced the contributions of African Americans. In order to combat this historical power dynamic, I privileged extensive pre-interview conversations with narrators about what they wanted to discuss, including the potential to break from the way art historians, critics, or journalists have previously interpreted their lives or work. This is a meaningful practice for any oral history, but these interviews taught me to be acutely sensitive in helping individuals narrate their life stories in the ways that they prefer.
Navigating all these issues in interviews from both subject areas in the Getty Trust Project has challenged me to be a better and more flexible interviewer, and to appreciate the humility required along the way. I hope you enjoy learning from the interviews in this project as much as I have!
Here some finalized Getty Trust interviews I have conducted over the last year:
Here are some other Getty Trust interviews I have conducted that you can to look forward to in the coming months:
Joyce Hill Stoner
Other non-Getty interviews I’ve conducted in the past year:
Mary Hughes- Bay Area Women in Politics
Zachary Wasserman- Law and Jurisprudence Individual Interviews
At the conclusion of every academic year, the Oral History Center staff takes a moment to pause, reflect on the interviews completed over the previous year, and offer gratitude to those individuals who volunteered to be interviewed. The names below constitute the Oral History Class of 2020. Please join us in offering heartfelt thanks and congratulations for their contributions!
We would also like to take this time to thank our student employees, undergraduate research apprentices, and library interns. It was a unique semester, topping off a busy and productive year, and they continued to come through for us, as they always do. We rely on this team for work that is critical to our operations: research, interview support, and curriculum development; video editing; writing and editing of abstracts, frontmatter, and transcripts; and more. They’ve even produced articles and oral history performances to share our work with wider audiences. We couldn’t do it without them!
The Oral History Center Class of 2020
Robert L. Allen
Alexis T. Bell
Michael R. Peevey
Nancy Donnelly Praetzel
Bay Area Women in Politics
California State Archives
Vicki L. Ruiz
East Bay Regional Park District
Rev. Diana McDaniel
Economist Life Stories
Michael R. Schilling
Joyce Hill Stoner
Napa Valley Vintners
Yale Agrarian Studies
Marvel “Kay” Mansfield
Helen F. Siu
Elisabeth Jean Wood
Ashley Sangyou Kim
Undergraduate Research Apprentices
Corina (Mei) Chen
by Katherine Y. Chen
When I first began at Cal, I was excited to experience dorm life, take interesting classes, and study with my friends in the library. Before working at the Oral History Center, I viewed the library as merely a physical space to sit and study. However, working at the Oral History Center (OHC) quickly dispelled this false notion.
Through my tenure at the OHC and my experience with research from my classes, I have learned that the library is more than a building in which to study. The library offers a multitude of resources for students — databases encompassing different topics and mediums such as ProQuest for newspaper articles, librarians ready to assist students in planning out papers, and primary sources such as personal interviews. After an informative meeting with a librarian introducing all these resources and more, I quickly began to utilize them in my research. I spoke to a librarian who helped me find multiple sources for my papers; I learned how to navigate the infinite databases accessible to students; and I learned which database to use to find specific types of sources.
Furthermore, my work at the OHC greatly helped me hone my research skills. I learned how to navigate an archive, how to find specific information, and had the opportunity to help fellow students as well. While promoting the Carmel and Howard Friesen Prize in Oral History Research to my peers, I was able to utilize all the skills I had learned. I helped students navigate the OHC’s archive to find interviews, and gave advice on further research.
I became very familiar with the different projects and subject areas the OHC has to offer. My personal favorites are the Women Political Leaders project and the Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream project. It was gratifying and empowering to read about the impact women had on politics, especially as an Asian American woman who intends to pursue law. Furthermore, ice cream is a favorite treat of mine, and to learn about how Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream became widely popular was incredibly interesting.
My experience at the OHC exposed me to the many resources the library has to offer. In turn, I aimed to introduce my peers to the wonders of the library. For example, my friend was writing a research paper for her class and was having trouble keeping her sources in one accessible place. Based on what I learned, I recommended the saving grace of my paper to her — Zotero. Zotero is a program used to store and cite sources, and a librarian recommended it to me after I described having the same issue. Once downloading Zotero, my friend had a much easier time with her sources, and citing them was even easier.
Additionally, I recommended an oral history to another friend of mine who needed to find a primary source for their paper. They needed a source from a specific era, and I remembered reading over oral histories that fit what they were looking for. I sent over the link for the AIDS Epidemic in San Francisco Oral History Project. I wanted to show my peers that the library is not just a building to study in, but a plethora of resources right underneath their noses.
To everyone reading, especially Cal students, take the time to learn more about the resources at the library. Take advantage of all the library has to offer, and I guarantee you will be all the better for it.
Katherine Y. Chen just finished her first year at Berkeley. She is majoring in rhetoric with a minor in public policy.
Miranda Jiang is an Undergraduate Research Apprentice at the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. She is a UC Berkeley history major graduating in Spring 2022.
In the fall of 2019, I joined an undergraduate research apprenticeship on oral history performance with Oral History Center interviewers Amanda Tewes and Roger Eardley-Pryor. Though I’d had some previous experiences with oral history, I wasn’t entirely sure what oral history performance was. I had my speculations: I was familiar with The Laramie Project and some other full-length plays which drew from oral histories. But no matter what the form of the performance would be, I understood that the project would take an approach to history that prioritized and shared the voices of ordinary people.
During the first few weeks of the semester, we discussed readings that fleshed out my understanding of oral history, then introduced me to multiple forms of oral history performance. Through readings such as Lynn Abrams’s Oral History Theory and Natalie Fousekis’s “Experiencing History: A Journey from Oral History to Performance,” I learned that the process of creating an oral history involves both the interviewer and the narrator (the person being interviewed). An oral history is a conversation. Both participants contribute to the content and direction of an oral history, and thus how an experience gets told. Oral history performance presents these experiences to the public, and places the experiences of multiple narrators in conversation with each other.
With these readings and assignments in mind, I searched through the Oral History Center’s vast archive of interviews to find sources for my own oral history performance. The only criteria I initially had in mind were that the subject I chose should be a story I knew little about, that I felt was undertold, and was centered in the Bay Area. I read interviews from the Freedom to Marry Project and the Suffragists Oral History Project, ultimately deciding on the Rosie the Riveter Project. It included interviews from people of African American, Chinese, Japanese, indigenous, and other backgrounds, and it was centered around the Bay Area.
I eventually decided to focus this performance on Chinese-American experiences in the Bay Area. I hoped that by focusing on this one group, I could have more time to flesh out the details of their lives. I do not have my own living grandparents to speak to, so hearing these stories about what young Chinese-American people like me had experienced growing up in California in the 1920s to 1950s made me feel connected to people who lived nearly a century ago. Hearing them also made me realize just how varied our experiences were.
Over the next weeks, I compiled a large annotated bibliography of quotes from relevant interviews, highlighting themes which continuously reemerged. In the spring semester, Amanda, Roger, and I shared many conversations about what it means to create a cohesive script out of direct quotes from oral histories. When we chose which quotes to group together, which to place in conversation with each other, and how we ordered and extracted quotes, we were interpreting each quote’s meaning. We constantly thought about how to assemble a script that highlighted common themes in the experiences of Chinese Americans, without taking narrators’ words out of context or imposing our own interpretations onto the quotes and our audience.
I soon found that by placing quotes of similar subjects next to each other, meaningful similarities and contrasts revealed themselves on their own. For example, many of the interviewers asked if the narrators had experienced teasing as children. Alfred Soo, Dorothy Eng, and Theodore Lee all described growing up in neighborhoods where they were among the only Chinese people there. Soo, who grew up in Berkeley in the 1920s, did not recall any teasing from other children. Lee, who grew up in the 1930s in Stockton, described not being treated any differently, emphasizing the lack of “snobbery” among working-class white people. Eng, who grew up in Emeryville in the 1920s, described being persistently mistreated by kids and teachers throughout grammar school. As a Chinese American who encountered racial insensitivity in school in the early 2000s, I expected that stories of children who grew up in the “age of exclusion” (1882-1943) would easily reinforce my own experiences. And yet, these oral histories showed a more complicated reality than I anticipated.
Another primary goal of this performance is to point the general public towards reading the full transcripts of the interviews. In the final script, there is a quote from Royce Ong, who states that he “just [eats] regular American food.” When I first read this, I was amused and annoyed by how he discounted Chinese food as something strange, when it was his own culture. But reading more of the interview, I found that his comments revealed more about his unique creation of a Chinese-American identity. He discussed “Chinese American” and “Chinese” as very distinct identities, with different political interests. To Ong, he could be a proud Chinese American as someone who didn’t eat Chinese food and who also learned only English as a first language.
Working on this performance made clear that no universal set of criteria comes with identifying as Chinese American. It made me aware of the vast multitude of experiences of other Chinese Americans, which are different from my own and different from each other. The format of the script brought the diversity of Chinese and American life to the forefront, and allowed each narrator to speak about their experiences as they occurred. It was up to the audience to observe and consider the contradictions between quotes.
The final script I created acknowledges that different Chinese Americans had unique experiences, while also highlighting similar struggles and activities within the ethnic group. Many anecdotes are relatable to me, today, and to other Chinese Americans in 2020. And ultimately, while some narrators leaned more towards embracing American culture, and others more towards also preserving Chinese traditions, all of them expressed the same conflicts with identity as Chinese people living in California.
By mid-March, we had created a final draft of the script after many sessions of cutting, rearranging, and reading out loud. We initially planned to give the eight-minute performance at the April 29th Oral History Commencement in the Morrison Library, with four or five student performers of Chinese-American backgrounds. When the campus closed due to COVID-19, we switched to an online podcast format, with the same script and number of performers.
The podcast version will be available on The Berkeley Remix this summer. I’m excited to be able to share this performance with more people using the magic of the Internet. I hope you’ll stay tuned for more!
Lately, things have been challenging and uncertain. We’re enduring an order to shelter-in-place, trying to read the news, but not too much, and prioritize self-care. Like many of you, we here at the Oral History Center are in need of some relief.
So, we’d like to provide you with some. Episodes in this series, which we’re calling “Coronavirus Relief,” may sound different from those we’ve produced in the past, that tell narrative stories drawing from our collection of oral histories. But like many of you, we, too, are in need of a break.
The Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Founded in 1954, the Center records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world.
We’ll be adding some new episodes in this Coronavirus Relief series with stories from the field, things that have been on our mind, interviews that have been helping us get through, and finding small moments of happiness.
Our second episode is from Shanna Farrell.
These are strange, challenging times that we’re living through. As we shelter in place near and far, trying to reduce our chances of contracting the coronavirus, each day brings news of something else, the dust barely settled from the day before. It’s forced us to adapt quicker than we thought possible. Or maybe that’s just me.
As the fallout from this global pandemic unfolds, I’ve been watching as an industry I love – food and beverage – has begun to collapse. Bars and restaurants all over the world, including in the Bay Area, have closed their doors indefinitely. There are over half a million restaurant workers in San Francisco alone, many of whom are scrambling to stay on their feet. My partner, who manages a bar in the heart of a thriving neighborhood, was temporarily laid off, along with over 1,000 other employees in his company alone. But as their income and health insurance evaporated, people in the service industry have banded together, creating fundraisers and support groups. Maybe there is hope in the dark.
This community-driven spirit is one of the reasons why I cherish the food and beverage industry. It’s also made me think about Rebecca Solnit’s 2009 book, Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. Solnit chronicles how people pull together in times of crisis from the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake to 9/11. As a realist who tries my best to be optimistic, I’m hoping that we can all take a page out of this book – restaurant industry and beyond – and emerge from this pandemic stronger than when it found us.
Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Paradise Built in Hell, a chapter called “The Mizpah Cafe” about the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.
The Mizpah Cafe
The Gathering Place
The outlines of this particular disaster are familiar. At 5:12 in the morning on April 18, 1906, about a minute of seismic shaking tore up San Francisco, toppling buildings, particularly those on landfill and swampy ground, cracking and shifting others, collapsing chimneys, breaking water mains and gas lines, twisting streetcar tracks, even tipping headstones in the cemeteries. It was a major earthquake, centered right off the coast of peninsular city, and the damage it did was considerable. Afterward came the fires, both those caused by broken gas mains and chimneys and those caused and augmented by the misguided policy of trying to blast firebreaks ahead of the flames and preventing citizens from firefighting in their own homes and neighborhoods. The way the authorities handled the fires was a major reason why so much of the city–nearly five square miles, more than twenty-eight thousand structures–was incinerated in one of history’s biggest urban infernos before aerial warfare. Nearly every municipal building was destroyed, and so were many of the downtown businesses, along with mansions, slums, middle-class neighborhoods, the dense residential-commercial district of Chinatown, newspaper offices, and warehouses.
The response of the citizens is less familiar. Here is one. Mrs. Anna Amelia Holshouser, whom a local newspaper described as a “women of middle age, buxom and comely,” woke up on the floor of her bedroom on Sacramento Street, where the earthquake had thrown her. She took time to dress herself while the ground and her home were still shaking, in that era when getting dressed was no simple matter of throwing on clothes. “Powder, paint, jewelry, hair switch, all were on when I started my flight down one hundred twenty stairs to the street,” she recalled. The house in western San Francisco was slightly damaged, her downtown place of business–she was a beautician and masseuse–was “a total wreck,” and so she salvaged what she could and moved on with a friend, Mr. Paulson. They camped out in Union Square downtown until the fires came close and soldiers drove them onward. Like thousands of others, they ended up trudging with their bundles to Golden Gate Park, the thousand-acre park that runs all the way west to the Pacific Ocean. There they spread an old quilt “and lay down…not to sleep, but to shiver with cold from fog and mist and watch the flames of the burning city, whose blaze shone far above the trees.” On their third day in the park, she stitched together blankets, carpets, and sheets to make a tent that sheltered twenty-two people, including thirteen children. And Holshouser started a tiny soup kitchen with one tin can to drink from and one pie plate to eat from. All over the city stoves were hauled out of damaged buildings–fire was forbidden indoors, since many standing homes had gas leaks or damaged flues or chimneys–or primitive stoves were built out of rubble, and people commenced to cook for each other, for strangers, for anyone in need. Her generosity was typical, even if her initiative was exceptional.
Holshouser got funds to buy eating utensils across the bay in Oakland. The kitchen began to grow, and she was soon feeding two to three hundred people a day, not a victim of the disaster but a victor over it and the hostess of a popular social center–her brothers’ and sisters’ keeper. Some visitors from Oakland liked her makeshift dining camp so well they put up a sign– “Palace Hotel” –naming it after the burned-out downtown luxury establishment that was reputedly once the largest hotel in the world. Humorous signs were common around the camps and street-side shelters. Nearby on Oak Street a few women ran “The Oyster Loaf” and the “Chat Noir”–two little shacks with their names in fancy cursive. A shack in Jefferson Square was titled “The House of Mirth,” with additional signs jokingly offering rooms for rent with steam heat and elevators. The inscription on the side of “Hoffman’s Cafe,” another little street-side shack, read “Cheers up, have one on me…come in and spend a quiet evening.” A menu chalked on the door of “Camp Necessity,” a tiny shack, included the items “fleas eyes raw, 98 cents, pickled eels, nails fried, 13 cents, flies legs on toast, 9 cents, crab’s tongues, stewed,” ending with “rain water fritter with umbrella sauce, $9.10.” “The Appetite Killery” may be the most ironic name, but the most famous inscription read, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may have to go to Oakland.” Many had already gone there or to hospitable Berkeley, and the railroads carried many much farther away for free.
About three thousand people had died, at least half the city was homeless, families were shattered, the commercial district was smoldering ashes, and the army from the military base at the city’s north end was terrorizing many citizens. As soon as the newspapers resumed printing, they began to publish long lists of missing people and of the new locations at which displaced citizens and sundered families could be found. Despite or perhaps because of this, the people were for the most part calm and cheerful, and many survived the earthquake with gratitude and generosity. Edwin Emerson recalled that after the quake, “when the tents of the refugees, and the funny street kitchens, improvised from doors and shutters and pieces of roofing, overspread all the city, such merriment became an accepted thing. Everywhere, during those long moonlit evenings, one could hear the tinkle of guitars and mandolins, from among the tents. Or, passing the grotesque rows of curbstone kitchens, one became dimly aware of the low murmurings of couples who had sought refuge in those dark recesses as in bowers of love. It was at this time that the droll signs and inscriptions began to appear on walls and tent flaps, which soon became one of the familiar sights of reconstructing San Francisco. The overworked marriage license clerk had deposed that the fees collected by him for issuing such licenses during April and May 1906 far exceeded the totals for the same months of any preceding years in San Francisco.” Emerson had rushed to the scene of the disaster from New York, pausing to telegraph a marriage proposal of his own to a young woman in San Francisco, who wrote a letter of rejection that was still in the mail when she met her suitor in person amid the wreckage and accepted. They were married a few weeks later.
Disaster requires an ability to embrace contradiction in both the minds of those undergoing it and those trying to understand it from afar. In each disaster, there is suffering, there are psychic scars that will be felt most when the emergency is over, there are deaths and losses. Satisfactions, newborn social bonds, and liberations are often also profound. Of course, one factor in the gap between the usual accounts of disaster and actual experience is that those accounts focus on the small percentage of people who are wounded, killed, orphaned, and otherwise devastated, often at the epicenter of the disaster, along with the officials involved. Surrounding them, often in the same city or even neighborhood, is a periphery of many more who are largely undamaged but profoundly disrupted–and it is the disruptive power of disaster that matters here, the ability of disasters to topple the old orders and open new possibilities. This broader effect is what disaster does to society. In the moment of disaster, the old order no longer exists and people improvise rescues, shelters, and communities. Thereafter, a struggle takes place over whether the old order with all its shortcomings and injustices will be reimposed or a new one, perhaps more oppressive or perhaps more just and free, like the disaster utopia, will arise.
Of course people who are deeply and devastatingly affected may yet find something redemptive in their experience, while those who are largely unaffected may be so rattled they are immune to the other possibilities (curiously, people farther from the epicenter of a disaster are often more frightened, but this seems to be because what you imagine as overwhelming or terrifying while at leisure becomes something you can cope with when you must–there is no time for fear). There are no simple rules for the emotions. We speak mostly of happy and sad emotions, a divide that suggests a certain comic lightness to the one side and pure negativity to the other, but perhaps we would navigate our experiences better by thinking in terms of deep and shallow, rich and poor. The very depth of emotion, the connecting to the core of one’s being, the calling into play one’s strongest feelings and abilities, can be rich, or even on deathbeds, in wars and emergencies, while what is often assumed to be the circumstance of happiness sometimes is only insulation from the depths, or so the plagues of ennui and angst among the comfortable suggest.
Next door to Holshouser’s kitchen, an aid team from the mining boomtown of Tonopah, Nevada, set up and began to deliver wagonloads of supplies to the back of Holshouser’s tent. The Nevadans got on so well with impromptu cook and hostess they gave her a guest register whose inscription read in part: “in cordial appreciation of her prompt, philanthropic, and efficient service to the people in general, and particularly to the Tonopah Board of Trade Relief Committee…May her good deeds never be forgotten.” Thinking that the place’s “Palace Hotel” sign might cause confusion, they rebaptized it the Mizpah Cafe after the Mizpah Saloon in Tonopah, and a new sign was installed. The ornamental letters spelled out above the name “One Touch of Nature Makes the Whole World Kin” and those below “Established April 23, 1906.” The Hebrew word mizpah, says one encyclopedia, “is an emotional bond between those who are separated (either physically or by death).” Another says it was the Old Testament watchtower “where the people were accustomed to meet in great national emergencies.” Another source describes it as “symbolizing a sanctuary and place of hopeful anticipation.” The ramshackle material reality of Holshouser’s improvised kitchen seemed to matter not at all in comparison with its shining social role. It ran through June of 1906, when Holshouser wrote her memoir of the earthquake. Her piece is remarkable for what it doesn’t say: it doesn’t speak of fear, enemies, conflict, chaos, crime, despondency, or trauma.
Just as her kitchen was one of many spontaneously launched community centers and relief projects, so her resilient resourcefulness represents the ordinary response in many disasters. In them, strangers become friends and collaborators, goods are shared freely, people improvise new roles for themselves. Imagine a society where money plays little or no role, where people rescue each other and then care for each other, where food is given away, where life is mostly out of doors in public, where the old divides between people seem to have fallen away, and the fate that faces them, no matter how grim, is far less so for being shared, where much once considered impossible, both good and bad, is now possible or present, and where the moment is so pressing that old complaints and worries fall away, where people feel important, purposeful, at the center of the world. It is by its very nature unsustainable and evanescent, but like a lightning flash it illuminates ordinary life, and like lightning it sometimes shatters the old forms. It is utopia itself for many people, though it is only a brief moment during terrible times. And at the time they manage to hold both irreconcilable experiences, the joy and the grief.
Thanks for listening to The Berkeley Remix. We’ll catch up with next time, and in the meantime, from all of here at the Oral History Center, we wish you our best.
From the OHC Director, April 2020
I’ve been thinking a great deal of late about what it means to live a life connected or disconnected or perhaps something in between. I suspect I’m not alone in pondering these states of being — a kind of remote engagement that itself feels a little bit like connection.
Oral history is about many things: listening, documenting, questioning, recording, explaining. I think connection is always key to the work that we do as oral historians. But like many other operations, including basically all non-medical research projects that involve humans, our work conducting interviews is largely shut-down while we consider how best to forge ahead.
My colleagues and I have always valued the importance of the in-person, face-to-face interviewing experience. We regularly travel across the country at some considerable expense just so we can be in the same room with the person we are interviewing. We have found this time in close proximity with our narrators to be priceless. Not only does this allow us to shake hands, look eye-to-eye, and gauge body language just before and during the interview, but also these are practices that, until recently, have been second nature — we usually do them without thinking much about it. There really is an unconscious kind of dance that happens, especially when meeting someone for the first time, that in most instances results in a spontaneously choreographed fluidity that can carry the ensuring interview through fond memories and bad. Because of this, up to this point, only when it really was impossible to meet in person have we conducted an interview over the phone or online.
But times change. The current health crisis has profoundly rearranged social relationships, and likely for some time into the future. (Dr. Fauci even suggested that we rethink the practice of shaking hands, which, I’ll admit, makes me sad.) The Oral History Center staff have been scattered now for over a month. But we have endeavored to not lose touch with one another. Thanks to multifarious technological options, we have easily transitioned our weekly staff meetings online. We use either Google Hangouts or Zoom and, so far, everyone has used video, so we get to hear each other’s voices and see faces too. We sometimes have agenda items that require lengthy discussion, at other times we simply check in with each other about work but also about “how things are going.” We live in different settings so people have different challenges and we do our best to touch on those. I also chat every week with each of my colleagues individually and I’m very pleased to know that my colleagues have been meeting with each other, doing their best to push projects forward. The success of these virtual meetings, and, well, the zeitgeist, inspired me to set up virtual happy hours with friends and family. My family lives across the country and it’s been probably four years since we’ve been in the same room together but for the past two weeks we’ve all gathered online to check in, tell stories, have some laughs, get serious and, of course, get photobombed by various kids and dogs. We don’t escape the underlying gravity of the current situation, but this hasn’t stopped connection — in some real ways it has promoted it.
So, with this in mind, we are exploring the options for bringing our oral history back to life by bringing it online. We’re currently testing out various options for video and audio recording, paying close attention to everything from quality of recording to ease of use (considering that most people we interview don’t fit within the “digital native” demographic). We also are sensitive to the dimension of personal connection, rapport, and understanding, but given recent experiences “at” home and “in” the office, we have reason to be optimistic. The reasons for going online are not only about opportunity, they are much deeper and in some ways quite profound: every day, every month that passes, we lose an opportunity to interview someone who should have had the opportunity to tell their story. In fact, we just learned the very sad news that artist and advocate of Black artists, David Driskell, passed away due to complications from COVID-19. This was a man with a story to be told — and thankfully, with our partners at the Getty Trust, we conducted his oral history last year. We simply cannot wait out this epidemic and let it steal stories along with lives.
The second profound reason is related to something I’ve mentioned rather delicately here in the past: that the Oral History Center is a soft-money institution. What that means is we are basically a non-profit that earns its money (allowing us to do our work) by conducting interviews. The longer we are prevented from conducting oral histories, the more precarious our position becomes. We hope for but do not anticipate relief from the university, the state, or the federal government. All we want is to resume the good work of documenting our shared and individual experiences in times of growth and times of challenge — to continue the work that we’ve done for the past 66 years.
As we consider the path ahead, the Oral History Center staff continues to work vigorously albeit remotely. We’re finishing the production process on dozens of interviews that have been conducted already — that is, writing tables of contents, working with narrators on edits for accuracy and clarity, creating the final transcripts for bound volumes and open access on our websites. We continue to process original audio and video recordings so that they can be uploaded to our online oral history viewer. We’re writing blog posts about oral history and producing podcasts, including our newest and very topical season, Coronavirus Relief. Plus in addition to the regular work, we’re using this opportunity to focus on long desired projects: We’re creating curriculum for high schools; we’re writing abstracts for old interviews that never had them; and we’re using this time to think about new projects and write grant proposals so that when the time comes, we’ll be ready to go full steam ahead.
Check back here next month for more on our efforts to move oral history online. We’ll share our results publicly as many others are venturing into this domain too — and have themselves made important contributions to the conversation (I especially recommend checking out the free Baylor / OHA webinar on “Oral History at a Distance”). Until then, we sincerely hope that everyone this newsletter reaches stays safe, healthy, and able to remain connected to those who are important to you.
Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director, Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library
By Deborah Qu
“It was naive, but it wasn’t as naive as it sounds.” — Lucy Sprague Mitchell on chasing her dream to expand career prospects for women
One hundred and fifty years ago in 1870, the UC Regents first declared that the university’s doors were open to women students, giving them the opportunity to pursue a higher education. Access to student facilities, housing, and resources were still far from equal for women. Thus began an era where thousands of young women pioneered for positive change, making their mark on the university, as well as transforming society at large. One of these women was Lucy Sprague Mitchell, the first dean of women from 1906–1912, and one of the first women instructors in UC Berkeley’s Department of English. Mitchell, an advocate for educational reform, had observed that “public opinion reacts very slowly. And there’s always been something that irritates me, and that is the voices against are so much louder than the voices for.” Yet her unrelenting optimism and her passion for education allowed her to introduce a more holistic framework for child learning and expand career prospects for women outside the limited field of teaching.
Born in 1878, Lucy Sprague Mitchell grew up in a traditional household where any sort of play was seen as “a waste of time.” In a 1962 interview with the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library, Mitchell recalls a multitude of happy childhood memories, but they were also mixed with conflicting feelings of unworthiness and loneliness caused by her family’s strict Puritan modes of discipline. It is possible that these childhood learning experiences were great influencers in her later experimental work in education. In her autobiography, Two Lives: The Story of Wesley Clair Mitchell and Myself, she explained how she believed that the entire learning process is not complete without the “intake” of experience transforming into an “outgo,” or some living, creative action caused from the development. Perhaps these mixed childhood memories had also inspired her to take positive action through childhood education reform.
After graduating from Radcliffe College, Lucy Sprague Mitchell was appointed as Berkeley’s first dean of women at only age 23. In her oral history, Mitchell recalled a conversation she had with the university President Benjamin Ide Wheeler. His instructions were “to find out what needs to be done and to do it.” While terrified and confused, this is exactly what Mitchell did. As dean of women, Mitchell did not succumb to the “motherly” role to students that was expected of her in the early 1900s. Instead her youthful perspective allowed her to expand beyond the traditional housing and counseling needs to truly connect with students at Cal. She initiated community trips, poetry readings, and sex education discussions. She organized Parthenia, which she fondly called greek for “women of the Parthenon,” a performative showcase about various historical women and imagined female characters.
In her oral history, Mitchell reflected on why she wanted to leave her role as dean of women; Mitchell explained that her interests truly were rooted in education, not administration. During her years working with women students, she had become, she says, “extremely concerned about the lack of professional training for women excepting in the field of teaching. She explained how “not everybody is equipped to be a teacher, nor wants to be a teacher.” At the time, Mitchell found it jarring that over 90 percent of the women students she surveyed had planned to become a teacher after graduation. While Cal was progressive for its time, teaching was the most socially acceptable profession and “the only thing that the University offered to women.” In retrospect, Lucy Sprague Mitchell believed that her real reason for requesting a leave from Berkeley “was to try to explore different fields of work that women could enter and for which the University could train them.”
This disaffection inspired innovation. Lucy Sprague Mitchell brought the issue of limited education for women to six social organizations in New York, completing statistical fieldwork from women working in nursing, to labor legislation about city tenements, to public schools. Her exposure to public school education had such a profound effect on Mitchell that she became an educator resource for teachers throughout 1922–1955. She began developing experimental methods about childhood education and classroom procedure that promoted creative expression and holistically fulfilled a child’s emotional, physical, and mental needs. Her emphasis on “relationship teaching” and “active learning” over memorization helped shape the way for “social studies,” a course widely studied in American classrooms today. Her focus on the learning environment was unorthodox at the time, and it led her to new paradigms of using childhood maturity instead of age to measure emotional intellectual development. She founded Bank Street College of Education in New York as a graduate student teacher training institution in 1916 based on this same philosophy.
From my perspective as an undergraduate student at Cal, Lucy Sprague Mitchell’s life story teaches me that to truly orchestrate change, we should not just be focusing on the various problems of the present, but rather dreaming about all the future potential. The oral history interview allowed Lucy Sprague Mitchell to recount the early dream she had formed working with Cal students in her late 20s: to provide opportunities for young women to pursue rich and nuanced fields of study. This dream certainly did not go to waste. As a young college woman with a wide selection of majors to choose from, I am grateful that she and many others helped pave the way. Reflecting on this vision for women, Lucy Sprague Mitchell said, “Now that sounds very naive. It was naive, but it wasn’t as naive as it sounds.”
Deborah Qu is a first year undergraduate student who intends to study psychology. As a part of the celebration of 150 years of women at Berkeley, Deborah is researching the Oral History Center’s vast archive to identify women in the collection with a relationship to UC Berkeley.
Howardena Pindell is a painter and mixed media artist, as well as a professor at State University of New York at Stony Brook. She earned a BFA from Boston University in 1965 and an MFA from Yale University in 1967. Pindell worked at the Museum of Modern Art from 1967 to 1979, where she held several positions, including exhibit assistant, curatorial assistant, and associate curator. She cofounded the A.I.R. Gallery in 1972. Pindell has taught in the Department of Art at State University of New York at Stony Brook since 1979.
Pindell’s interview is the first in a series of oral histories with prominent African American artists for the Getty Research Institute’s (GRI) African American Art History Initiative. These oral histories complement the GRI’s ongoing work to collect, preserve, and interpret the art and legacies of these artists.
Pindell was born in 1943 and grew up in segregated Philadelphia. Thanks to the support of her parents and her demonstrable talent, Pindell had a great deal of exposure to art early in life. She went on to study at Boston University and Yale University, then moved to New York in the 1960s. In New York Pindell began working at the Museum of Modern Art while also continuing to paint. She recalled, “…I was working five days a week, and I was used to having natural light, and I didn’t have natural light.” As natural light is so important to a painter, and her work schedule cut into daylight hours, Pindell started experimenting with mixed media in these years – a practice she has continued to expand.
Perhaps Pindell’s best-known work is Free, White and 21, a video performance piece from 1980 that is a commentary on her experiences with racism and sexism. Listen to Pindell recount the logistics of creating the piece.
Free, White and 21 also relates to many of Pindell’s ongoing challenges with racism in the women’s movement and the art world at large. Though she was a cofounder of A.I.R. Gallery in 1972 – the first artist-run gallery for women in the United States – as an African American woman, she often felt marginalized in discussions about how to expand opportunities for women artists.
Pindell also spoke at length about her work as a professor of art, and her approach to teaching. Having been academically trained, she worked with many different professors and knew what teaching styles she would and would not emulate. Further, she saw working with students as important to her practice as a working artist. Pindell explained, “I think teaching helps me a lot, just so it keeps me fresh, because I can help the younger students – and in some cases, older students – with their work with formal issues. That keeps me informed about how I should think about my work, as well.”
Pindell’s story highlights the challenges of being a working artist, the importance of teaching others, fighting racism and sexism in the art world and beyond, as well as the long-overdue recognition of African American artists.
To learn more about Howardena Pindell’s life and work, check out her oral history!
From the Director — March 2020
From all of us at the Oral History Center, we are wishing you our best in these challenging times. We hope that you’re doing your best to get through the coming days, and above all, you and your loved ones are staying safe and healthy.
In a recent oral history, George Miller discussed the idea of the dreaded “Black Swan” event that might strike at a moment’s notice, leaving destruction and disruption in its wake. But Miller has artfully crafted a healthy sense of informed detachment and thus always used these events as an opportunity for learning and reflection. Perhaps the greatest lesson from the Black Swan events he experienced in the world of finance was that we always came out the other side — maybe a bit bruised but ready to face another day. So, as many of us sit at home, self-isolating, I invite you to take a break from the constant news feed of what is happening right now and instead spend some time in the past. Delve into the OHC archive of transcripts and recordings and expose yourself, for example, to many individuals who achieved great things in their lives but who each experienced Black Swan events of their own. Trial and turbulence, patience and perseverance.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the most remarkable of these stories come from women we’ve interviewed, in particular those women who broke glass ceilings in the workplace and the realm of politics. We’re currently developing a database documenting the hundreds of women we’ve interviewed over the years who were connected to the University of California — as part of the 150 Years of Women at Berkeley celebration. And we continue to contribute to this history with plenty of recent interviews, including female students who were active in the SLATE organization on campus in the 1950s and 60s. And then many more interviews with women who persevered while working in support of the arts (Kathleen Dardes), the environment (Michelle Perrault), and public service (Anne Halsted). You’ll see a handful of those stories referenced in this newsletter but I encourage you to just jump in, browse the collection (our Projects page is the best way to do this), and allow the thousands of life stories we’ve collected give you reassurance, perspective, and company.
Finally, we’ve made the decision to postpone our annual Oral History Commencement in which we invite our interviewees to campus for a lively celebration of oral histories completed in the past year. We still want to express our gratitude to our narrators, so stayed tuned.
Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director of the Oral History Center
For students across the country, college is a time of political awakening. And perhaps no other university has earned its reputation for radical student politics quite like UC Berkeley. Indeed, mid-century political activism around civil rights, the Vietnam War, and the Free Speech Movement has shaped how students, faculty, and administrators experience life at Berkeley today.
However, one important part of Berkeley’s political history that often gets left out of the conversation is the New Left student political party SLATE. SLATE — so named because the group backed a slate of candidates who ran on a common platform for ASUC (Associated Students of the University of California) elections — operated between 1958 and 1966, and ignited a passion for politics in the face of looming McCarthyism and what many perceived as the University of California’s encroachment on student rights to free speech. These students translated political theory they learned in the classroom to action, even when it went against University policies. Perhaps SLATE’s most important ideological contribution to Berkeley’s campus and to other social movements is the “lowest significant common denominator.” This concept allowed the group to form a big tent coalition between Marxists, liberal Democrats, and others by only choosing political positions and actions that the whole group could agree on. As a result, the group became involved with civil rights, labor organizing, and anti-war protests on campus and across California. Most notably, in May of 1960, SLATE and other student activists protested the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) hearings at the San Francisco City Hall. In response to the peaceful sit-in, police blasted students with fire hoses and dragged them down stairs before placing them under arrest. This event was emblematic of SLATE’s commitment to activism, even when it came at personal risk.
In recent years, the Oral History Center of the Bancroft Library has conducted a series of interviews with members of SLATE to keep alive memories of the group’s influence on ideology and political infrastructure at UC Berkeley.
An essential part of SLATE’s story is the contributions of its women members. SLATE operated at a time before the women’s movement, but its work became an important introduction to political organizing for a generation of women students at Berkeley. These women were dedicated members of the group, but often felt sidelined in SLATE leadership. And yet, their work helped to change political culture and campus life at Berkeley. Three of these groundbreaking Berkeley women are Cindy Lembcke Kamler, Susan Griffin, and Julianne Morris.
Cindy Lembcke Kamler was just a freshman when she connected with SLATE in the spring of 1958, drawn in by the political ideals of the group dominated by male upperclassmen and graduate students. Susan Griffin and Julianne Morris were among the second generation of SLATE activists and joined the group around the same time in 1960 — after the famous HUAC protest.
All of these women came from politically left families who feared encroaching McCarthyism. Griffin and Morris also had connections to Judaism. These backgrounds helped ignite a political consciousness in these women that led them to SLATE.
Certainly Kamler, Griffin, and Morris’s oral histories contribute to the larger archive of SLATE history, but they also speak specifically to their experiences as women in this group. For instance, Griffin and Morris recalled instances of feeling marginalized and of being left to do what Morris called the “scut work,” like mimeographing fliers and cooking for hungry activists. This work, while essential to maintaining operations, felt to them like gendered tasks. For her part, Kamler doesn’t remember gender discrimination in SLATE. She insisted, “Oh, no, I never made coffee or any of that stuff.” And yet, Griffin recalled that several years later at a meeting of SLATE women in the 1970s,
“We were recounting how there was this prejudice against us and we were never allowed to have leadership positions. And husbands and boyfriends and guys from SLATE showed up at this meeting and started making fun of us and broke the meeting up. They thought that was the end of the story. Little did they know, [laughs] that was just the beginning of the story.”
These tensions came to a head at a 1984 SLATE reunion in which women newly empowered by feminism expressed displeasure with the way they had been treated while working for the campus political group. Many of the men denied there had been discrimination, but others took it to heart and sincerely apologized. Morris explained, “There were a lot of women who were really angry about how it had been. I don’t know that I was angry, in the sense that I really felt it was a different time and one can’t judge one time by another. But there was no question that that’s the way it was, and that’s what kind of was accepted.” Watching these events unfold, Kamler recalled, “I was just sitting there stunned. I didn’t do any of that stuff. I ran for office, I got elected, I was chairperson.”
Indeed, while there may have been invisible barriers for many of the women involved in SLATE, there were still opportunities to grow as individuals and leaders. Kamler ran for second vice president in the spring of 1958 and lost, but ran again for representative-at-large in spring of 1959 and won. She also served as the chair of SLATE for some time, helping to shape the group’s platform and activist agenda. Even Griffin and Morris were encouraged to run for ASUC office in the early 1960s, and had to learn how to campaign and feel confident in public speaking. Morris especially found running for office to be a formative experience. She remembered,
“And that was, for me, a big experience, because as I said, I was shy in terms of speaking out and I didn’t think that I could do it. And Mike Miller kept urging me to do it and saying, ‘You can do this. I’ll help you if you want, but you can do this! You’re going to be able to go to all of these fraternities and talk to them about ROTC. I just know you can do it.’ So I did it, and I really was very frightened about doing it, and I actually did fine. So that was, for me, kind of a breakthrough, that I was able to do something like that, because it wasn’t easy for me at the time.”
But as their lives became less centered around the UC Berkeley campus, these women drifted away from SLATE. Kamler married and left the group after the spring of 1960. Griffin and Morris had decreased their participation in SLATE or left campus entirely by 1964. And yet, as their oral histories reveal, the experiences these women had as Berkeley undergraduates in this student political party shaped their perspectives about politics and activism for years to come. For both Griffin and Morris, this activism took shape as involvement in the women’s movement. Griffin explained, “The guys may not have known it, but they were training feminist activists in all that period.”
Thinking about the longer arc of SLATE’s impact on the lives of its dedicated members, Morris recalled of a reunion in the 1990s:
“One of the things that we did was that we went around as a group and talked about what our lives were like now. And no one in that whole group went into business. Everybody was an organizer, a teacher, a social worker, a psychologist. It was so interesting that this group of people kind of, in some ways, stayed true to what we all went through in college. It really formed our lives.”
But most importantly, what these women learned from their time with SLATE was the importance of building and sustaining community in activist groups. For Morris, joining SLATE helped her find a place where she belonged. Griffin pointed to organizations of politically like-minded individuals as ways to create belonging and “joy” through an almost spiritual experience of protest.
And yet, the political work of Cindy Lembcke Kamler, Susan Griffin, and Julianne Morris wasn’t just personally fulfilling. For these individuals and generations of other women students, their political activism at UC Berkeley left an indelible mark on the campus. In thinking of this legacy, Morris reflected, “…it was one of the first…of the Left student movements. And I think it influenced a lot of people in that regard…I’m not at all sure that the Free Speech Movement would have happened without SLATE.” She concluded, “I think we were very successful in those years. We got a lot of people elected to the campus political organization, and I think people started thinking, at Cal, a little differently. They got woken up in a way that perhaps they would not have been.”
To learn more about these activist women at Berkeley and the history of this early student political party, check out the Oral History Center’s SLATE Oral History Project.