[Workshop Reflection] Community-based Oral History in Weeksville, Brooklyn

[For a full video of the talk, see here.}

Questions Asked:

Please tell us about your background and how you got to where you are.

Please tell us about what Weeksville is.

You touched on the idea of the movement creating the museum. It what ways, now that the center has been established, will the exhibits and programs continue to be movement based?

You touched on the idea of trying to make it a democratic place but how do you balance that with the sometimes bureaucratic process of running the center? Are there sacrifices that need to be made?

What does your audience look like? And are you trying to reach beyond the community?

What is Weeksville’s relationship to the surrounding community and how has it affected or been affected by change in the community?

What are other creative ways of preserving community history and what are impediments to it? What kinds of technology do you use?

Workshop Reflection: Weeksville Heritage Center uses Oral History to Preserve a Sense of Place

On April 25th, Jennifer Scott of the Weeksville Heritage Center, which preserves several homes that were part of the original Weeksville community, established in 1838 as one of the first free black communities in the country where blacks owned property, spoke to the OMHA students about the center’s use of oral history to encourage the democratization of this unique Brooklyn community’s history.

The community has always been an important part of the Weeksville Heritage Center starting with the preservation of the Hunterfly Road site in the 1970s, which was a concerted effort taken on by many residents of the area. The level of community involvement through archeology and preservation that could be seen in the fight to preserve the Hunterfly Road Houses is always rare, said Scott, but extremely rare in 1968, when this was happening.

Oral histories were collected in the early days of the preservation of Weeksville in conjunction with Medgar Evers College. Histories were collected from a wide range of community members, including many of the people involved in preserving the Hunterfly Road Houses and other Brooklyn residents associated with the place. Luckily, most of those histories survived and are now preserved.

The Center has started collecting more oral histories from community residents over the past few years. Scott said she sees the oral history collection as vital to understanding the place, helping to connect the people of the community to the historic location and giving these histories and memories a tangible location to be attached to.

Scott emphasized that one of the critical roles of oral history is to erode illusions  about people, places, and history. And for Weeksville, it has been a way to encourage a more democratic and inclusive view of this important but relatively unknown part of Brooklyn, New York, and American history.

Scott also said that the oral histories collected from those that were influential in preserving Weeksville have the benefit of showing the webs and networks of people that make things happen. In some ways, she said, it demystifies the process.

As for the future of oral history at the Weeksville Heritage Center, Scott believes that the past needs to be connected to the present and that oral history is a great way of doing that. She said she has used the collection of oral histories as a way of getting people re-involved in the project and that it is a great way of cultivating community involvement.

Scott said that they continue to experiment with new ways of presenting the oral histories within the exhibits at the Center and to rotate the histories used to make sure that every story is heard and available to the community and the greater public. Scott assured students that the Weeksville Heritage Center continues to look at new ways to make the oral history collection accessible and engaging. 

By OHMA Student Shannon Geis      http://shannongeis.net