OHA Conference Highlights

Keynote speaker unravels a history mystery for OHA audience

In the early decades of the 20th century, Greenwich Village was home to an odd character named Joe Gould, who coined the term “oral history,” founded an Oral History Association and walked around New York City claiming to write down everything anyone ever said to him, with the goal of documenting the lives of everyday people. He intended, he said, to write “The Oral History of Our Time,” which he claimed was the longest book ever written.

But when he died in a New York mental institution in 1957, no manuscript ever turned up. Later, in 1964, the New Yorker published an essay by Joseph Mitchell titled “Joe Gould’s Secret,” in which Mitchell claimed that the manuscript never existed outside Gould’s imagination.

Decades later, Harvard historian and New Yorker contributor Jill Lepore assigned a class to read Mitchell’s essay and was herself intrigued. She started digging. What she found, Lepore told an OHA audience, was far from what she expected.

For starters, the manuscript likely had existed, with Gould filling hundreds of notebooks with his stories about everyday people. But Lepore also found that “Gould really suffered from profound and ongoing mental illness.” He was arrested repeatedly, confined periodically to mental asylums and was obsessed with race and sex, aspects of his life that essayist Mitchell had omitted.

Lepore also uncovered Gould’s obsessive infatuation with Harlem Renaissance sculptor Augusta Savage, whom he stalked for decades after meeting her in Harlem in the 1920s. He claimed he asked her to marry him. Much of his writing about Savage was said to be obscene, and Savage convinced him to destroy it.

Gould is believed to have had a lobotomy in a New York State mental institution in the 1950s, and he never wrote or talked again, Lepore said.

Gould’s oral history association never amounted to much, but his early belief that oral history was a way to document the lives of everyday people–because they were part of history, too–animates much 21st century oral history practice, notwithstanding its dark past.


Contemporary activism illustrates importance of social media documentation, panelists say

The democratizing effects of social media have opened a new activist era and new forms of documentation reflected in Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock, a panel of human rights activists suggested at an OHA conference plenary session.

But social media at everyone’s fingertips also raise challenges for archivists who want to assure that saving social media content is accomplished ethically, some suggested.

Panelists included: Wesley Hogan, director of the Duke Center for Documentary Studies; Madonna Thunder Hawk and Beth Castle of the Warrior Women Project; Bergis Jules, an archivist at the University of California Riverside; Anh Pham of the Minneapolis-based RadAzns network; and Robyn Spencer, a history professor at the City University of New York.

Jules described Ferguson, Missouri, activists’ use of social media in documenting the violence that erupted in the St. Louis suburb after the 2014 shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer. There were discrepancies, Jules said, between accounts of the events on social media and those reported by mainstream media, giving archivists an opportunity to capture an unfiltered perspective of those involved. But doing so, he emphasized, requires an awareness of the potential for harm.

“I’m about radical inclusion into the archival record,” he said. But archivists need to think about what it might mean to preserve such material. The volume of it can be overwhelming, he noted. Moreover, law enforcement and national security agencies have made no secret of the fact that they mine social media for information.

Anh Pham, a Vietnamese-American immigrant anti-war activist, said her organization grew out of a Black Lives Matter support group that canvassed the Asian-American community in North Minneapolis and found that almost everyone said police treated them differently because of the color of their skin. That led to an effort to debunk the myth of Asians as “the model minority,” she said.

Indigenous rights activist Madonna Thunder Hawk recalled the Red Power Movement of the 1960s. “We didn’t have media of any kind,” she said. “We’re invisible.”

But last year, social media “brought the world to Standing Rock,” a Sioux Indian reservation in North Dakota where thousands of protestors gathered to fight construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline over concerns that a potential oil spill would threaten water resources.

Hogan, who chaired the panel, suggested that a broader issue related to archiving social media messages is how to decide what is the dominant narrative. She asked: “Whose knowledge counts?”


Pioneering oral historians recount lifetime of linking oral history and social justice

Alice Lynd was a nursery school teacher turned draft counselor in the 1960s when she realized that someone should write a book about the unknown men who were conscientious objectors refusing military service in Vietnam.  So she wrote it.

We Won’t Go, published in 1968, was based on oral history interviews, draft board records, letters and diaries of men called up for the draft. “I simply wanted the accounts to be in the individuals’ own words,” she told an OHA plenary session audience.

That was the first of a series of oral history-based books she and her husband, Staughton, wrote, with a focus always on social justice, whether related to draft resisters, steelworkers in Indiana and Ohio, West Bank Palestinians or death row inmates.

Alice Lynd said that in their work, she and her husband always look for corroborating information, contemporaneous accounts and primary sources. Having such background information is important, she said.

“The interviewer needs to know enough to ask critical questions” in an oral history interview, she said, later adding: “You need independent corroborating evidence.”

One audience member asked Staughton Lynd whether the nation should bring back the draft. Staughton noted that when the country had a conscripted army in the Vietnam era, there was considerable discontent within the military. “So people said we can fix that by making it volunteer.”

But even in the volunteer army and in society in general, there is a growing movement against today’s wars, he noted, citing a Carl Sandburg story about a little girl watching a military parade who says: “One day somebody will call a war and nobody will come.”

The Lynds, who are both lawyers as well as oral historians, authors and social activists, were awarded the 2017 Oral History Association’s Vox Populi Award, which recognizes lifetime achievement in using oral history to create a more humane, just world.

“We are very honored to be chosen,” Alice told the oral historians. “It’s not just us; it’s you. We need people who desire to carry it on.”


Historic flour mill site welcomes oral historians

What was once the world’s largest flour mill on Minneapolis’ riverfront was the site of the Oral History Association’s annual Presidential Reception, awards presentation and gathering for oral history newcomers and their volunteer mentors.

The Mill City Museum, which opened in 2003, was built in the fire-damaged ruins of the Washburn A Mill, part of a flour milling complex along the Mississippi River that gave Minneapolis the distinction of being the world’s largest flour milling center from 1880 to 1930.

The Washburn A Mill closed in 1965 and was later gutted by fire. But it became the foundation of the Mill City Museum, which documents the history of the industry that put Minneapolis on the map.

Although not all were able to be present, OHA 2017 award winners recognized at the reception included:

Article Award—Daniel R. Kerr for “Allan Nevins is Not My Grandfather: The Roots of Radical Oral History in the United States”

Book Award—Ma-Nee Chacaby and Mary Louisa Plummer for A Two-Spirit Journey: The Autobiography of a Lesbian Ojibwa-Cree Elder (University of Manitoba Press, 2016)

Elizabeth B. Mason Project Award (Major)—Alex Bishop and Tanya Finchum, Oklahoma State University, for Oklahoma 100 Year Life Oral History Project

Elizabeth B. Mason Project Award (Small)—Christian K. Anderson and Andrea L’Hommedieu, University of South Carolina, for University High School Oral History Project

Martha Ross Teaching Award—John Hutchinson, Marin Academy, San Rafael, California

Nonprint Format, Museum Exhibit—Calinda Lee, Atlanta History Center, for Gatheround: Stories of Atlanta

Nonprint Format, PodcastEric Marcus for Making Gay History

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