3 Oral History, Democracy, and the Power of Memory by Paul Ortiz

Abstract: African American struggles from slavery to freedom in American history have helped to create viable and enduring Black institutions and communities. In many ways the reconstruction of the African American story has relied on oral history, deeply rooted in African oral tradition. And for the purpose of this chapter, oral history may be defined as the “collection and study of historical information about peoples of African descent in the Diaspora, and important events, using recording devices or transcriptions of interviews.”

This essay argues that African American elders attempted to pass on to their children what will be referred to here as a “testimonial culture,” a way of testifying to the struggles and dignity of individuals. This also illustrates the significance of oral history to African American Studies.

The research for this chapter mined the richness of the oral history archives at the University of Florida and at Duke University. It includes many interviews I have conducted with African American elders spanning nearly three decades between 1993 and 2020. In addition to weaving a historical narrative, I discuss methodological approaches to the study of African American history and oral history drawing on the works of James Baldwin, C.L.R. James, W.E.B. Du Bois and others. The essay is designed for use in African American Studies seminars that promote community-based public history and digital humanities learning and that facilitate collaboration between students and underserved communities.


We should have likewise, days of bitter bread, and tabernacle in the wilderness,

in which to remember our grief-worn brothers and sisters. They are now pleading

with million tongues against those who have despoiled them. They cry from

gory fields—from pestilential rice swamps—from cane break, and forests—from

plantations of cotton and tobacco—from the dark holds of slave ships, and from

countless acres where the sugar cane nods to the sighing winds. They lift up

their voices from all the land over which our country floats. From the banks of our

silver streams, and broad rivers, from our valleys and sloping hills, and mountain


—Rev. Henry Highland Garnet (1848; 2007)

Oral history is a testament to human survival, our aspirations for the future and the struggle to retain one’s dignity in an uncertain world. We tell each other stories about our heritages and where we come from in order to affirm foundational values and to prove that our lives have meaning. Without our memories we have nothing to stand upon. Playwright August Wilson composed a cycle of riveting dramas to pose the question: “Can you acquire a sense of self-worth by denying your past?” (Heard and Wilson, 2001). This proverb is a preeminent theme of the African Diaspora. During the Middle Passage, enslaved African women collectively sung songs of cultures lost in order to steel each other to survive the horrific journey to the Americas. The British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson wrote of these women, “In their songs they call upon their lost Relations and Friends, they bid adieu to their Country, they recount the Luxuriance of their native soil, and the happy Days they have spent there” (Rediker, 2007).

Black bards used oral testimonies to preserve chronicles of the sacrifices needed to achieve—and to sustain—freedom. Work songs, ring shouts, religious sermons, jazz ensembles as well as Decoration Day lectures given by Civil War veterans bristled with lessons of faith, humility, and endurance. The characteristics that animated these diverse performative genres and made them powerful tools of community building included group participation, call-and-response cadences, and intense synergy between performers and observers (Levine, 1978). In James Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, the young minister in the story realizes that, for a sermon to be successful, he must move his congregation from being passive observers to active listeners and actual participants in the liturgy (Baldwin, 1952). Like the oral history encounter between interviewer and interviewee, audiences and performers in these sacred and secular encounters engaged in dialogical learning where new meanings and forms of knowledge were being created and recreated. In Sonny’s Blues, Baldwin describes how a group of musicians led by a fiddler named “Creole” tell the story of their people’s painful and exultant histories in a small Harlem nightclub. They do so without uttering a single word. The narrator observes:

He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness (Baldwin, 1957).

It finally dawns on Sonny’s brother—a member of the audience—that this is a reciprocal performance that demands participation from all: “Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he [Sonny on keyboards] could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.” Once again, the watchers become interlocutors and stamp their own collective historical meanings on an intimate blues performance (Baldwin, 1965). African American storytellers in the antebellum period tried as best as they could to preserve spaces to dream of liberation in a nation bent on aggressively expanding slavery (Kelley, 2003). Born in Baltimore in 1825, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s career as an abolitionist, Underground Railroad conductor, poet, and co-founder of the National Association of Colored Women spanned seven decades. Harper wrote “Bury Me in a Free Land” in 1858 as a poetical sanctuary for all African Americans as they fought to defend their communities against torrents of white terror:

Make me a grave where’er you will,

In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill;

Make it among earth’s humblest graves,

But not in a land where men are slaves.

I could not rest if I heard the tread

Of coffee gang to the shambles led,

And the mother’s shriek of wild despair

Rise like a curse on the trembling air.

If I saw young girls from their mother’s arms

Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,

My eye would flash with a mournful flame,

My death-paled cheek grew red with shame.

I ask no monument, proud and high.

To arrest the gaze of passers-by;

All that my yearning spirit craves.

Is bury me not in a land of slaves (Harper, 1858).

Black intellectuals toiled to remind each other of the egalitarian dimensions of their battles for emancipation. This is where African American Studies and oral history practices intersect. The emphasis in both disciplines is on the role of so-called ordinary people in remaking and redeeming the world. What Cedric Robinson called the “Black Radical Tradition” emphasized mass, collective struggles while critiquing top-down models of leadership favored by the dominant society (Robinson, 1983). Hence, W.E.B. Du Bois argued in Black Reconstruction (1935) that the self-activity of enslaved African Americans was the key to winning the American Civil War. In a speech given in the midst of the most perilous weeks of the conflict, Frederick Douglass made it clear that Lincoln’s leadership would not win the Civil War: “We are not to be saved by the captain this time, but by the crew. We are not to be saved by Abraham Lincoln, but by the power behind the throne, greater than the throne itself” (Douglass, 1863). In the same vein, C.L.R. James (1938) stated that the enslaved Africans in Haiti learned through hard experience not to trust their leaders to carry out the revolution needed to achieve independence from the French empire. While the figure of General Toussaint L’Ouverture, “one of the most remarkable men of a period rich in remarkable men,” towers over the transatlantic war to end slavery in the Americas, James urges his readers to understand, “Yet Toussaint did not make the revolution. It was the revolution that made Toussaint. And even that is not the whole truth” (James, 1938).

W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R James, Frederick Douglass, and other activist intellectuals understood that placing the African Diaspora at the center of global history was a way of anchoring Black labor, identities, and social movements to demonstrate that people of African descent were integral to the emergence of democracy in the modern world (Kelley, 1999). Realizing that he was delivering one of the final speeches of his life, Frederick Douglass asked his enthusiastic audience at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago to view their experiences as one of the great epics of world history. As Douglass recounted pivotal moments of the abolitionist movement, his “spectators” became active participants in the creation of a global origin narrative of liberation from the grassroots:

Speaking for the Negro, I can say, we owe much to Walker for his appeal; to John Brown [applause] for the blow struck at Harper’s Ferry, to Lundy and Garrison for their advocacy [applause], We owe much especially to Thomas Clarkson, [applause], to William Wilberforce, to Thomas Fowell Buxton, and to the anti-slavery societies at home and abroad; but we owe incomparably more to Haiti than to them all. [Prolonged applause.] I regard her as the original pioneer emancipator of the nineteenth century. [Applause.] (Ortiz, 2018)

As Douglass well knew, history was one of the nation’s fiercest battlegrounds. At Emancipation Day celebrations, African Americans invoked memories of building the nation’s wealth to emphasize their claims on citizenship while white Americans doctored history to claim that Black people had done nothing to earn a stake in the society. Prominent academics produced a white nationalist literature heavily influenced by eugenics and social Darwinism (Gould, 1983). Slavery was presented as a benevolent institution and Reconstruction after the Civil War as a tragic descent into “Negro Misrule.” Public school books in Florida taught that newly freed African Americans acted like buffoons. A typical primer read: “Many of the negroes [sic] loved their old masters and stayed on the old plantations, but others wandered away. Some thought that because they were free, they would never need to work anymore, so they dressed up in their best clothes and went to picnics and had a good time” (Fairlie, 1935).

African Americans countered this propaganda by sharing and passing down oral traditions of achievement and striving through family circuits of memory; this is the paramount theme in Pauli Murray’s autobiography Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family. The future civil rights attorney and minister grew up in the West End neighborhood of Durham, North Carolina in the early twentieth century. While achieving a modicum of economic success, Pauli Murray’s community experienced a tremendous amount of anti-Black racism in a city known as “The capital of the Black Middle Class.” The future NAACP lawyer noted, “…the somber fact remained that until the three Negro schools of Durham in my childhood—West End, East End and Whitted—all burned to the ground mysteriously one after the other, the colored children got no new buildings” (Murray 1999). Refusing to let fear paralyze her, Murray drew on the stories that her elders told her to instill a pride that carried her through a city cemetery spiked with Confederate flags in order to plant a solitary Union banner on her grandfather’s grave every Memorial Day. The story of Murray’s grandfather Robert Fitzgerald’s service in the Civil War, indeed the service of a quarter of a million African American soldiers in freedom’s cause, was nowhere to be found in the history textbooks of Durham—or of any town in the South—in those days. It was a history that Pauli Murray’s family had to teach and pass down to each other via oral history. There was no other way to tell the story.

Unfortunately, most Americans have no access to these historical memories. The result is a troubling disconnect between centuries-long struggles against white supremacy and efforts today to challenge systemic racism at universities, workplaces, and the broader society. This is why the craft of oral history is more important than ever, especially in the age of Black Lives Matter. Oral history done well establishes dialogues between past and present via intergenerational conversations between elders and younger people that can pierce the veils of silence and obfuscation that protect systems of power and hegemony.

Take for instance the issues of racism and racial re-segregation. Too often, a mere mention of the terms racism and segregation elicits hurried remarks by teachers, politicians, and others to the effect: “That’s just the way things were back then and thank heavens that we’ve advanced beyond that.” This Orwellian effort to protect the present from the past is self-defeating. In 2002, Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Leonard Pitts, Jr., asked “Is there really a need to defend the idea that the evil of that day [the segregation era] impacts the struggles of this one? I can’t imagine any intelligent observer would think there is.” Pitts, however, understands that there are many Americans who religiously claim: “But slavery ended a long time ago,” asserting that racism has been on the demise since Emancipation. “If I could,” Pitts continues, “I’d buy each of those people a copy of the new Remembering Jim CrowRemembering is a book and, more important, a two-CD set, of oral history straight from the mouths of those who came of age in the segregation era. Witness testimony from men and women reared in the days when drinking water came in black and white” (Pitts, 2002). These witnesses, according to Pitts:

…talk about lynching, of course, the bestial mob murders to which whole families flocked as entertainment. And they discuss the registrars who conspired to rob black people of their right to vote, the mendacity of the sharecrop bosses, the facilities that were separate, yet never equal (Pitts, 2002).

Leonard Pitts suggests Remembering Jim Crow as an antidote for those who ask, “Why is race still an issue?”

I was a co-editor of Remembering Jim Crow and, as a graduate student, I conducted many of the oral histories that appear in the book. The interviews featured in Remembering Jim Crow were done primarily by graduate students during the 1990s as part of a National Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored oral history project based at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies titled “Behind the Veil: Documenting African American Life in the Jim Crow South.” This effort was launched by a consortium of scholars from Duke as well as Historically Black Colleges and Universities including North Carolina Central University, Clark-Atlanta University, and Jackson State University. According to the project’s initial brochure, the major goal of Behind the Veil (BTV) was to “recover the documentary base for understanding the experience of Jim Crow before this invaluable opportunity is lost.” Directed by the historians William H. Chafe, Raymond Gavins, and Robert Korstad, BTV interviews also generated primary historical data instrumental in creating new college-level curriculum on African American Studies, courses on oral history, documentary photography and other fields. The entire Behind the Veil collection, consisting of approximately 1,300 interviews, family photographs, and other documents, is housed at the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American Documentation at Duke University Libraries.

I brought these experiences in coordinating the BTV project to the University of Florida when I became director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPOHP) in 2008. In the remainder of this essay, I will tell the story of the making of the Joel Buchanan Archive of African American Oral History at the University of Florida. I will discuss the many facets of oral history that have made it an integral aspect of African American Studies scholarship and praxis. This essay will also consider some of the obstacles that SPOHP has encountered along the way in creating this collection. The Joel Buchanan Archive (JBA) has recently surpassed 1,000 oral histories with African American elders in Florida, the Gulf South, the Mississippi Delta, and other parts of the United States. These interviews are now being used by students, scholars, filmmakers, and playwrights in senior theses, dissertations, documentaries, books, and stage productions. The historical information generated by the interviews has provided original content for new African American Studies courses in high schools, colleges, and universities.

Students, staff, and volunteers at the Proctor Program began gathering, preserving, and promoting oral histories with African American elders in earnest during the spring academic semester of 2009. In retrospect, this was not the most promising time to launch an oral history project. Upon arriving at the University of Florida, the first official message I received from the Dean’s office at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences was that SPOHP’s equipment and staffing funds were being cut 90% due to budget pressures generated by the Great Recession. (These funds have never been restored.) My position, as well as that of SPOHP’s office manager, were both protected from the cuts.

Machen stands behind a UF podium with his hand on Buchanan’s back. Machen is smiling, while Buchanan looks to the side of the camera.
Figure 3.1: UF President Machen presents Black History Award to Civil Rights Movement Icon Joel Buchanan at SPOHP’s “Florida Black History Program,” 2009. (SPOHP)

It was at this inauspicious moment that Gainesville civil rights movement icon Joel Buchanan (Figure 3.1) requested a meeting with me to discuss organizing a major interview initiative on African American history. I had first met Mr. Buchanan in the summer of 1996 when I traveled to Gainesville to do oral history interviews for my doctoral dissertation. This dissertation, which eventually grew into my first monograph, Emancipation Betrayed, focused on the Black Freedom Struggle in Florida. Joel (as he preferred to be called) literally took me under his wing and introduced me to a remarkable array of people in Gainesville’s African American neighborhoods. Joel welcomed me into the fraternity of local historians, archivists, and Black storytellers in Alachua County. He took me to meet Reverend Thomas A. Wright (Figure 3.2), then pastor of Mt. Carmel Baptist Church and a legendary activist who helped organize the St. Augustine civil rights movement in the early 1960s.

Wright stands in front of a white door and red brick wall. He is looking at the camera and smiling.
Figure 3.2: The Reverend Thomas T. A. Wright, pastor of Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, is a legendary activist who helped organize the St. Augustine Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s. He relocated to Gainesville when he was forced to flee St. Augustine in fear of his life. (SPOHP)

Joel shared with me the story of how he had been in the first cohort of four courageous Black pupils who integrated Gainesville High School in 1964. (Rev. Wright often drove the students to school in the mornings.) Journalists have often romanticized the experiences of African American children in cities like Little Rock, Arkansas, who were the first to attend historically all-white schools. In contrast, Buchanan emphasized the terrible psychological costs paid by Black students of his generation, who were insulted by white students, staff, and faculty and told that they did not belong in white-majority public schools.

Joel gave me a crash course on Gainesville’s importance. He proudly called the city, “The key to Black history in the entire state of Florida.” He was a great storyteller, and his narratives always had a purpose. Some stories were designed to explain the enduring power of racism in the United States. In contrast to many scholars who taught that “race relations weren’t as bad in Florida as in other states,” Buchanan was the first person to tell me that Florida had the highest per-capita lynching rate in the country, a statistic I later verified through quantitative research for Emancipation Betrayed. Joel Buchanan also told stories designed to heal terrible divisions in a town and campus suffering from UF’s denial of its origins as a university built upon the exploitation of Black workers and the dispossession of Native Americans. Joel told me on many occasions that his goal as a historian was to teach all of us how to treat each other with dignity and respect.

Joel Buchanan was also an excellent organizer. As a librarian at UF’s Smathers Libraries Special Collections Department, he brokered several discussions between SPOHP, library staff, and then-UF President Bernie Machen about the prospects of beginning an oral history project with an intensive focus on African American life and experiences in Florida. Joel insisted that the work begin with a focus on local Black history, and President Machen agreed with this emphasis. In the course of these dialogs led by Joel, a research agenda began to take shape. According to my notes of a meeting that included Joel Buchanan, Bernie Machen, and me on January 30, 2009:

Dave sits behind a framed photograph of her younger self in an army uniform. She wears a blue striped shirt and necklace, and she looks at the camera.
Figure 3.3: SPOHP Narrator Korean War Veteran Ernestine Dave. (SPOHP)

An overarching theme of the research proposal is to interview African Americans who came of age in the era prior to Brown v Board of Education. (However, we will also pose questions relevant to the 1960s and 1970s as well. One area of obvious focus is the various ways that African Americans encountered UF as staff, students, etc., etc.) Along with the oral histories, an emphasis will be on collecting extant papers, documents, and ‘ephemera’ related to Black History and getting those to the archives before they are lost (Ortiz, 2009). This included two female Korean War Veterans, Ernestine Dave and Dorothy Marshall, narrating their experiences (Figures 3.3. and 3.4).

Marshall holds a framed photo of herself as a child. She is sitting in a folding chair and looking at the camera.
Figure 3.4: SPOHP Narrator Korean War Veteran Dorothy Marshall. (SPOHP)

Equally important, when I asked Dr. Machen if UF’s support for this endeavor “…would extend to a financial commitment he did not flinch. He invited me to submit a brief proposal to the President’s Office. So, here we go!” (Ortiz, 2009). Along the way, critical research partners such as Jim Cusick and Carl Van Ness from Smathers Libraries and Marna Weston, a doctoral student at UF, joined what became known as the African American History Project (AAHP). Marna became AAHP’s first graduate research coordinator. His stature as an organizer and educator in Alachua County was key to the initiative’s successes. The Office of the Provost has provided steady funding for AAHP since the fall semester of 2009. This funding has allowed SPOHP to hire graduate students as well as undergraduates to do the interviews as well as to transcribe and to produce podcasts, mini-documentaries, and public programs on African American history.

Screenshot of Nelson mid-word in front of a background of the United States Capitol Building. The Senate Seal is stamped on the lower-right corner.
Figure 3.5: U.S. Senator Bill Nelson was one of the panelists at the AAHP launch event in 2009, “Florida Black History: Where We Stand in the Age of Barack Obama.” (SPOHP)
Mickle, wearing a red patterned suit jacket, sits on a panel, looking forward and beyond the camera.
Figure 3.6: Evelyn Mickle, first Black graduate of the UF College of Nursing, was also a panelist at the AAHP event. (SPOHP)

Drawing on the traditions of community engagement and activism shared by African American Studies and oral history, AAHP’s launch event was a public history program titled: “Florida Black History: Where We Stand in the Age of Barack Obama,” held on March 17, 2009 at Smathers Libraries East. The event was co-sponsored by a wide array of campus and community-based organizations. We designed the event to honor the African American historical tradition of encouraging maximum public participation while avoiding the pedantic practices of university events where a single speaker lectures to an immobile audience. High school and university students gave interpretive dance, choral, and written performances steeped in Black history. UF rising senior Khambria Clarke recited James Weldon Johnson’s “Fifty Years,” a poem written in 1913 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. In front of an audience of over 300 people, Joel Buchanan moderated a panel composed primarily of African American informants who discussed issues of systemic racism at the University of Florida and the broader society. Speakers included US Senator Bill Nelson via a recorded video (Figure 3.5), Mrs. Evelyn Marie Moore Mickle (Figure 3.6), the first Black graduate of the UF College of Nursing, and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee veteran and UF African American Studies professor Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons (Figure 3.7). An energized audience punctuated each presentation with applause and acclamations (Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, 2009).

Simmons, wearing a patterned shirt and sunglasses, looks forward and beyond the camera from behind another figure, who is raising a hand.
Figure 3.7: UF Professor Dr. G. Zoharah Simmons, a national Civil Rights Activist in the 1960s-1970s, provided her perspectives on the AAHP Panel. (SPOHP)

This bridge-building open event proved to be the ideal vehicle for the Proctor Program to launch AAHP. Subsequently, Black history public programs featuring interviewees and involving town-gown partnerships have helped us to maintain the project’s momentum and accountability to African American communities that sustain our work. In addition, the university’s willingness to begin an oral history project critical of its own history has been vitally important to the initiative’s successes. African Americans who have toiled for generations as the university’s essential workers are used to a university environment where issues of racism and inequality remain unaddressed and ignored. In contrast, “Florida Black History: Where We Stand in the Age of Barack Obama,” began with panelists questioning the institution’s commitment to equality and social mobility for all. This spirit of self-criticism helped us to form key partnerships with African American churches, neighborhood associations, museums, labor unions and other organizations who in turn helped to recruit AAHP’s initial cohort of interviewees (hereinafter referred to as narrators).

After a decade of field work and over 1,000 interviews completed, this classroom-ready archive is bursting with paradigm-shifting testimonies. The Joel Buchanan Archive of African American Oral History features family histories of slavery, resistance to segregation, anti-Black racial violence, the creation of African American businesses, the founding of churches, and educational achievements during legal segregation. Narrators recount the first time they dared to vote in the 1960s, as well as their initial thoughts on learning that Barack Obama had been elected President of the United States. Interviews with veterans of the historic Tallahassee Bus Boycott, organizers of the 1964 St. Augustine civil rights protests, founders of the Deacons for Defense and Justice in Louisiana as well as activists with Mississippi Freedom Summer have challenged our understandings of the origins of the modern Civil Rights Movement. Columbia Oral History Program student Benji de la Piedra wrote an overview of the collection after attending SPOHP’s three-day public symposium, “From Segregation to Black Lives Matter,” in 2019. Benji observed that the Joel Buchanan Archive is especially strong in narratives of “Life under Jim Crow, including institution building, educational philosophies and methods, food security, community based-healthcare, support and service organizations, displacement and dispossession, labor, armed self-defense, and tactics of resistance…” (de la Piedra, 2019).

Dixie, in a blue checkered shirt, sits with her hands on the arms of a rocking chair, looking at the camera.
Figure 3.8: Laura Dixie, known as the “Mother of the Tallahassee Movement,” spoke at the SPOHP Symposium: “From Segregation to Black Lives Matter,” in 2019.
Giovanni stands behind a microphone in front of a white background. She wears glasses and looks beyond the camera with a hand touching her chin.
Figure 3.9: Renowned Poet Nikki Giovanni was featured at the symposium in 2019.

Narrators including Laura Dixie (Figure 3.8), known as “The Mother of the Tallahassee Movement,” Congress of Racial Equality leader Patricia Stephens Due (Figure 3.10), and author Nikki Giovanni (Figure 3.9) highlight the central roles of African American women in politics, protests, and the arts. Mrs. Dixie was a rank-and-file organizer of the Tallahassee Bus Boycott and the founding union president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), for healthcare workers in Tallahassee. Mrs. Dixie carried out both open and subtle struggles against segregation. She recalled:

I had a long fingernail file and they had these signs also where … they had the patients segregated. They had a white wing, black wing, white bathroom, colored bathroom, white eating dining room, colored dining room, and so I took my fingernail file and went ’round and unscrewed every one of those segregation signs off the door (Ortiz 2017).

Due sits at a table, holding a pen and signing a book. She is looking up and focusing beyond the camera.
Figure 3.10: The symposium also featured Patricia Stephens Due, prominent leader of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a major civil rights organization in the 1960s.

The Joel Buchanan Archive (JBA) also features stories from the first generation of African American students at the University of Florida, the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, as well as narratives of Black and Latinx intersectionality, among many other topics. Most of these testimonies are transcribed and “text searchable” in order to make them easier to adopt for use in classrooms, podcasts, blogs, scripts, and other outcomes. In addition to interviews, the JBA collection consists of scores of Black history-themed public programs, university seminars on African American studies, conference presentations, and Black History workshops across the country. Elements of the JBA archive especially useful to educators and to students in Black Studies include the two-day symposium and celebration of the 50th anniversary of African American Studies at UF (Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, 2020) as well video footage of “From Segregation to Black Lives Matter,” the three-day national academic conference that SPOHP organized to formally open the JBA collection in 2019. The first panel of this conference featured four former SPOHP graduate research assistants and interviewers who discussed the topic: “Conducting the Oral Histories: Challenges, Impacts and Legacies” (Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, 2019). Many of these aforementioned symposiums, interviews, and workshops are already being used by high school teachers, university instructors, public radio producers, and filmmakers to create new African American Studies-themed classes, podcasts, and documentaries.

The Proctor Program has provided the institutional base of the Archive of African American Oral History from the outset. Founded in 1967 by UF University Historian Dr. Samuel Proctor, SPOHP has long specialized in gathering, preserving, and promoting oral narratives from individuals from all walks of life. The program’s oral archives, housed at the University of Florida Digital Collections (UFDC), include one of the nation’s foremost collections in Native American history, extensive testimonials on environmental and water issues in Florida, student movement organizing, as well as the National Women’s March on Washington Archive. As an interdisciplinary research center, SPOHP has worked assiduously with colleagues and students from African American Studies, Women’s Studies, Anthropology, Latin American Studies, African Studies, Journalism, Performance Arts, and many other fields to conduct and to support ethnographic fieldwork throughout the world.

The Proctor Program practices a community-based model of oral history encouraging students to conduct research projects outside of the campus where they listen to elders, organizers, and groups that are engaging in a broad array of struggles (Figure 3.11). SPOHP’s social justice-centered approach holds that all learning is experiential. Drawing from the methods of Italian oral historian Allesandro Portelli, SPOHP teaches students to learn from the neighborhoods they work in rather than studying them as if they were examining people through a microscope (Portelli, 1997). The most important oral history skills taught in SPOHP workshops include the art of listening, humility on the part of the interviewer, and—to reiterate a central point drawn from African American history—the ability to approach the interview as an open-ended discussion where narrator and interviewer are engaged in the dialogical or mutual creation of knowledge.

Photo of a videocamera capturing a man in a red suit sitting at the head of a table. Students sit on either side of the table, turned to the man.
Figure 3.11: SPOHP students interview Anthony Ray Hinton at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama in 2015. Mr. Hinton’s story was told in 2019’s Just Mercy.

The Proctor Program has received numerous national academic accolades including the Oral History Association’s Stetson Kennedy Award for outstanding achievement in using oral history to create a more humane and just world, as well as the Society of American Archivists’ Diversity Award for SPOHP’s relentless pursuit of community knowledge, local voices, and academic transformation, and has created a monumental program that has impacted the lives of countless people in Florida and across the nation. The Doris Duke Charitable Trust conducted an external review of SPOHP in 2020. The report concluded, “The program’s social justice research methodologies are the focus of scholars and oral history programs across the globe” (Duke Charitable Trust, 2020).

In the Black Lives Matter era, well-planned oral history projects may enable institutions of higher learning to better address the forces of systemic racism including economic inequality, mass incarceration, housing discrimination, and (in some colleges) declining enrollment of African American students and students of color. Accustomed to acting rather than listening, universities often ignore the roles they play in exacerbating systemic racism—by paying workers low wages, promoting the clustering of student housing in working-class neighborhoods adjacent to campuses, and robbing towns of precious revenues by taking property of off tax rolls. In turn, these behaviors lead to intergenerational poverty, gentrification, and the displacement of African American and Latinx neighborhoods.

Morini interviews a woman who has her hands folded in her lap. The two sit across from each other in front of two microphones.
Figure 3.12: Ryan Morini, a founding member of the Joel Buchanan Archive (JBA) research team conducts an oral history interview in Baker County, Florida.

Oral history dialogues in the form of interviews, public programs, workshops, and other formats may illuminate dissenting voices and show academic institutions how to fight inequalities. This is where oral history and African American Studies’ traditions of emphasizing civic engagement meld. SPOHP’s former interim director, Dr. Ryan Morini (Figure 3.12) notes that the Proctor Program’s public programs do not merely present information, but instead strive to create space for dialogue, exchange, and a sense of collective ownership over the historical narrative among audience members. He concluded that these critical spaces for public dialog “might be achieved by putting local community members or activists on the same panel as credentialed scholars…Or it might be done by honoring someone who the university community should know about…someone who will wake up a student audience” (de la Piedra, 2019).

Filer stands, looking at the camera. She is wearing a purple patterned dress adorned with a flower corsage.
Figure 3.13: Vivian Filer has guided the JBA project since its inception. She is the Chair and Director of the Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center (CCMCC) in Gainesville.

Vivian Filer (Figure 3.13), a longtime civil rights organizer in Gainesville, often plays this role during SPOHP public programs. In a panel focusing on town-gown relations held during the 50th anniversary celebration of African American Studies at UF, Filer and other discussants called upon the university to stop promoting gentrification in adjacent neighborhoods and for students to be more engaged in community organizing. Other panelists called upon the university to promote sustainable economic development, career opportunities for local people, and living-wage jobs. Audience members pointed out that UF has conducted numerous studies on economic inequality over the years; however, none of these studies has led to action or changes in university behaviors. This fruitful exchange reminds us of the positive benefits of authentic public dialog.

The Joel Buchanan Archive features numerous oral history interviews with generations of African American staff, faculty, students, and alumni who founded and sustained programs at UF that have promoted diversity and inclusion for all. Notable narrators include legendary African American Studies lecturer, filmmaker and community activist Dr. Patricia Hilliard-Nunn, Dr. G.W. Mingo, founder of the UF Upward Bound Program, Mrs. Evelyn Mickle, the first Black graduate of the UF College of Nursing as well as Betty J. Stewart-Fullwood a student organizer during the Black Thursday protests. Dr. Stewart-Fullwood returned to the university to serve students for three decades as a beloved lecturer, counselor and director of the Student Enrichment Services Program at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

As UF’s African American History Project enters into its second decade, where do we go from here? As the program’s reputation has grown, SPOHP has become increasingly active nationally in supporting efforts at historical truth and reconciliation initiatives arising from incidents of anti-Black lynching and racial pogroms. SPOHP is participating in several historical endeavors to commemorate the victims of lynching and anti-Black violence. These include the City of Ocoee, Florida’s 100th Anniversary of the Ocoee Election Day Massacre and the Elaine, Arkansas Legacy Center’s project to document the 1919 Elaine Massacre. Since 2009, the Proctor Program has provided support for continuing efforts to educate students and individuals about the 1923 Rosewood Massacre. SPOHP staff, students and volunteers have provided research support for the Alachua County Remembrance Committee and the City of Newberry’s Newberry Six Remembrance Project. Both of these collaborations are connected with the Equal Justice Initiative’s efforts to memorialize the victims of anti-Black violence and to use these histories to inform reform efforts within the nation’s deeply flawed criminal justice system.

The Joel Buchanan Archive of African American Oral History has built upon traditions of African American Studies that emphasize community-based research, democratic dialogue, the importance of documenting “ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” as well as the centrality of social-justice oriented research. This collaborative initiative has demonstrated the power of oral history to contribute to discussions of how to challenge systemic racism by privileging the voices of Black elders and others who have battled white supremacy their entire lives.


Chapter 3 Study Questions

  1. “The African American struggles from slavery to freedom in American history have helped to create viable and enduring Black institutions and communities in America.” Discuss.
  2. What is the significance of oral history and oral traditions in African American Studies and in American history?
  3. Discuss some of the methodological approaches to the study of popular culture, drawing from W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, and James Baldwin.


Baldwin, J. (1952). Go Tell It on the Mountain. Doubleday & Company, pp. 102-106.

Baldwin, J. (1965). Going to Meet the Man. Dial Press, pp. 119-122.

Chafe, W., Gavins, R., Korstad R., Ortiz, P. (Eds.). (2001). Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South. New Press.

The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. (2020). Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, University of Florida, p. 3.

Du Bois, W.E.B. (1935). Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880. Meridian Books.

Fairlie, M. (1935). History of Florida. Kingsport Press.

Garnet, H. and Royster, P. (1848). The Past and Present Condition, and the Destiny, of the Colored Race. [Address to Female Benevolent Society]. Electronic Texts in American Studies (Paper 13). University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/etas/13

Gould, S.J. (1983). The Mismeasure of Man. W.W. Norton.

Harper, F.E.W. (1858). Bury Me in a Free Land. Academy of American Poets. Retrieved from https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/bury-me-free-land

Heard, E.J., and Wilson, A. August Wilson on Playwriting: An Interview. African American Review, 35(1), 93-94. https://doi.org/10.2307/2903337

James, C.L.R. (1938). Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. Vintage Books.

Kelley, R.D. ‘But a Local Phase of a World Problem’: Black History’s Global Vision, 1883-1950. The Journal of American History, 86(3), pp. 1045-1077. https://doi.org/10.2307/2568605

Kelley, R.D. (2003). Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Beacon Press.

de la Piedra, B. (2019). Dispatch from Florida: A Celebration of African American Oral History in Gainesville, in The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program: From Segregation to Black Lives Matter, p. 4.

Levine, L. (1978). Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. Oxford University Press.

Murray, P. (1999; 1956). Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family. Beacon Press.

Ortiz, P. (2005) Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida From Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920. University of California Press.

Ortiz, P. (2009, January 30). Notes from meeting with Joel Buchanan and Bernie Machen. In author’s possession.

Ortiz, P. (2017, December 6). Laura Dixie: Remembering a ‘Mother of the Movement.’ Retrieved from https://www.facingsouth.org/2017/12/laura-dixie-remembering-mother-movement

Ortiz, P. (2018). An African American and Latinx History of the United States. Beacon Press, p. 31.

Pitts, L. (2002, February 23). Recalling Jim Crow Like it Was Yesterday. The Miami Herald, p. 1E.

Portelli, A. (1997). The Battle of Valle Giulia: Oral History and the Art of Dialogue. University of Wisconsin Press.

Rediker, M. (2007). The Slave Ship: A Human History. Penguin Books, p. 284.

Robinson, C. (Ed.). & Kelley, R.D.G. (Foreword). (1983; 2000). Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. University of North Carolina Press.

Samuel Proctor Oral History Program. (2009). Florida Black History: Where We Stand in the Age of Barack Obama [Video]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mkeBwBeKY7A&t=2658s

Samuel Proctor Oral History Program. (2019). From Segregation to Black Lives Matter [Video]. http://ufl.to/tu

Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (2020). African American Studies, Year 50 at UF: Community Celebration [Video]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NP1BmkFUo14&list=PLzMFflzfI0ESQ-YvZ2HuRGsnA_gE_NsOO


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

African American Studies: 50 Years at the University of Florida Copyright © 2021 by Jacob U'Mofe Gordon and Paul Ortiz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book