SIS Oral History Project: Sharing and Preserving History, One Story at a Time

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Collecting the memories and stories of African-American women elders is the kind of history one may never find in traditional textbooks. Many of the stories go untold; others are soon forgotten.

Take Ann Nixon Cooper, the 106-year-old woman whom then-President-elect Barack Obama mentioned as embodying the spirit of his victory in November 2008. Then, there is the story of 92-year-old Gladys Brumfield, the first African-American microbiologist to work for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, where she conducted research on HIV/AIDS. Or, the members of the Newtown, Ga., Florist Club, who battled environmental racism after discovering that many of their members and neighbors were dying from similar toxin-related illnesses.

Camille and Ms. Brumfield

Now, as the country commemorates Black History Month, students in Spelman’s Independent Scholars’ Oral History Project continue to celebrate, share and preserve the rich stories of African-American women of wisdom throughout the Southeastern United States. The two-semester independent, interdisciplinary, and intergenerational learning experience is open to students across all majors. The goal of SIS is to enhance students’ critical writing and thinking skills while teaching the fundamentals of oral history research. Students learn to interview, transcribe, archive, edit, and extract qualitative and quantitative data from interviews for inclusion in various types of writing.

In addition to conducting and archiving oral interviews, students create CDs and DVDs of their interviewing experiences, analyze assigned texts, complete response and research papers, participate in scholar activism, and travel globally for cross-cultural experiences that focus on age.

“You cannot begin to talk about history without acknowledging elders,” said SIS founding director and professor Gloria Wade-Gayles, Ph.D. “They take us to sites of memory that are not present in history books. When we go to those sites, directed by elders, we have experiences that help us understand our history and cultural phenomena and are present today. Only an unwise people fail to study their history.”

SIS scholar Kabrillen Jones, C’2015, said SIS has significant importance to Black history.

“As a people, we have an intimate past with oral tradition,” said Jones, a history major. “For generations, we have passed our history, morals, and traditions through the likes of singing and storytelling, so collecting the stories of our elders in the form of oral history is not only staying true to our heritage but paying homage to those who came before us.”

Preserving Our Elders’ Stories

Monique and Ms. Hatch

Established August 2001, SIS has produced two volumes of the student-reported and -edited anthology, “Their Memories, Our Treasure: Conversations with African-American Women of Wisdom,” with a third book in production as the independent study program enters its second decade. During the past 11 years, students have also conducted oral history research in Benin, West Africa, Accra, Ghana, Sapelo Island, Ga., New Orleans, La., and Kingston, Jamaica. Another intergenerational trip to the Bahamas is planned for March.

“This isn’t simply a course,” Dr. Gayles explained. “It’s a project. It gives our students an appreciation for gifts they receive from elders, and prepares them to be age-conscious leaders for the 21st century. The learning experience impacts the students in ways I cannot expect.”

Political science major Camille Henderson, C’2015, is one of those students. As a SIS Scholar in the fall semester, Henderson captured the story of Brumfield, one of the first African-American women to serve in World War II.  She became a world-class traveler, journeying with the U.S. Army across Europe as a mail carrier. After completing Clark College with a degree in biology, Brumfield began working for the CDC.

“Not only did she conduct research, but she taught her peers on the subject as well,” Camille wrote in her essay, “When an Elder Speaks at 92 Years Young.” “She told me that her White counterparts depended on her teachings despite their hesitation of being taught by a Black woman.”

Since becoming a SIS Scholar, Henderson said the class has become an integral part of her scholarship, allowing her to see life through the lens of her elders.

“This collection of oral history means so much to them,” she said. “The elders are in tears when expressing gratitude for sharing their stories. They’re honored and given the satisfaction of knowing their opinions, their lives, their feelings, really matter. It brings a certain joy to their lives and makes them feel relevant and valuable.”

Sitting at Their Feet

Ms. Foster and Thomika

From school teachers and administrators to college professors and entrepreneurs, SIS Scholars sit at the feet of elders – their mentors – gleaning wisdom and wit from these griots. Over the years, scholars have interviewed dozens of elders, including Spelman alumnae Darlyne Killian, C’48, mother of Darnita Killian, Ph.D., C’79, vice president for Student Affairs; Rubye Neal, C’92, mother of Cynthia Neal Spence, Ph.D., C’78, associate professor of sociology; and others such as Evelyn Dabney, who became the first person in her hometown of Warm Springs, Ga., to graduate from high school in 1933; and Harriet Chisholm, an elementary school teacher and charter member of the Atlanta chapter of Jack & Jill, who was the daughter of a physician and granddaughter to the first Black real estate agent in Atlanta.

“Our history lies in our elders, and every time an elder dies, we lose a library,” Henderson said, quoting an African proverb. “This class opens our lens to age and helps us examine the life and well-being of an elder. I’m more aware of what she’s been through and what her experiences were like. There’s so much wisdom, and as scholars, we have so much respect for our elders. We realize they’ve experienced so much history, something I could never imagine.”

Ultimately, SIS connects the present with the past, allowing scholars and communities to understand the journey elders have traveled.

“The lens of age has been infinitely opened for me,” said Jones. “I not only see elders, but I have begun to see the world in which they live. I also see their achievements, which can become my own.” – Alicia Lurry is senior communications specialist and editor of the Spelman Connection for the Office of Communications.

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