Intro: In this post OHMA alum Benji de la Piedra (2014) recounts his experience of attending the From Segregation to Black Lives Matter: a Symposium in Celebration of the Opening of the Joel Buchanan Archive of African American Oral History at the University of Florida. In this essay he reflects on the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program that centers Black experiences and heritage.
On the road from Little Rock to DC, I took a detour and drove down to Gainesville, Florida. There I met Mario Alvarez and Alissa Funderburk, with whom I’ve partnered to develop the Columbia Life Histories Project since 2016. With generous help from OHMA to cover our accommodations, we spent three full days attending From Segregation to Black Lives Matter: A Symposium and Celebration of the Opening of the Joel Buchanan Archive of African-American Oral History at the University of Florida. Organized by UF’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPOHP), the symposium was free and open to the public, and was attended by over 200 people.
It was a momentous occasion. On the second morning of the symposium, SPOHP officially unveiled the Joel Buchanan Archive, a collection of over 700—and counting!—oral history interviews with African American elders throughout Florida and the wider Gulf South. (To be sure, the vast majority of narrators are Floridians.) Named for a native son of Gainesville who dedicated his life to the preservation of Black history and memory in Florida, the Buchanan Archive is a monumental achievement that demands our attention. Its contents are already revolutionizing the study of American history, and its design, as far as I’m concerned, sets the standard for large-scale, democratically oriented oral history work.
As demonstrated by the symposium’s programming, the Joel Buchanan Archive’s development fundamentally animates SPOHP’s entire civic and educational enterprise. The heart of the archive is UF’s African American History Project (AAHP), which is currently in its tenth year of operations. “Funded primarily by the UF Office of the Provost,” according to the symposium’s online program, “this research initiative [AAHP] has resulted in over thirty public history panels and programs, ten university seminars on African American studies, scores of student conference presentations and community-based oral history and Black History workshops across the country.”
As I am now approaching my fourth year of work on African American oral history in Little Rock, and preparing to take up the mantle of oral history education at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR) in Spring 2020, I have been asking myself incessantly since the symposium started: How can we replicate this model, documenting the life and community histories of African American elders, in Arkansas? And how might a project in Arkansas learn from, or even partner directly with, SPOHP’s fieldwork activities in Florida and the Mississippi Delta?
After the symposium ended, I was lucky enough to stay in Gainesville with my brother, who is finishing his last semester at UF. So I visited the SPOHP office for an afternoon, conversing with director Dr. Paul Ortiz and associate director Dr. Ryan Morini, to begin answering these questions. I was surprised to learn from Dr. Morini (who also serves as AAHP coordinator) that the vast majority of AAHP interviews were conducted by doctoral students from various departments at UF, whose dissertations topics weren’t actually about Black Florida history. But by providing these students with graduate assistantships at SPOHP, AAHP allowed them to gain crucial transferrable skills in all aspects of oral history project design and execution, which were integral to their overall education and scholarly training. (The success of this pedagogical model is proven by the consistency of SPOHP alumni earning professorships at leading universities around the country.)
As for its content, AAHP has taken and continues to take a relatively ad-hoc approach—a characterization that Dr. Ortiz told me, as we walked from his Black/Hispanic History seminar to the SPOHP office in Pugh Hall, he “actually kind of like[s]”. The list of AAHP narrators is not determined a priori, but rather follows opportunities as they arise, usually provided by African American elders who suggest peers, neighbors, and kinfolks who ought to be interviewed. Again, with the help of graduate assistantships, SPOHP interviewers can afford the time and expense of following such leads wherever they take them. Because, as Morini explained, “If you’re working on Black history in Gainesville, pretty soon you’re into Ocala history, which takes you into Micanopy history, which then takes you to St. Augustine, and so on.” These AAHP interviews are then aggregated with several other discrete collections put together by SPOHP—over the years and still today—to create the Buchanan Archive, providing a panoramic view of Florida’s many intertwining Black histories.
AAHP’s digital humanities curation and event-based programming are developed in a similarly organic fashion, based on what Dr. Morini described as the imperative to “make sure that people can experience the public-ness of the archive.” He explained that AAHP’s public programs do not merely present information, but instead strive to create a space for dialogue, exchange, and a sense of collective ownership over the historical narrative among audience members. This might be achieved by putting local community members or activists on the same panel as credentialed scholars. Or it might be done by using the event as an opportunity to identify and solicit future narrators for AAHP. Or it might be done by honoring “someone who the university community should know about,” Morini said, “someone who will wake up a student audience.”
In debriefing after the symposium, Alissa, my deputy on the Columbia Life Histories Project, noted that she was impressed by the manner in which the symposium visibly bridged the University of Florida’s constituents with local community members who would otherwise not be there. She was certainly correct. The symposium’s three-day program made clear that SPOHP is committed to cultivating a more inclusive and historically accountable City of Gainesville and University of Florida, and that oral history work has a foundational role to play in this process.
On the first day of the symposium, we were treated to a video-recorded screening of Gator Tales, a full-length stage play based on interviews with the first Black students to attend UF in the late 1960s. We then heard remarks from two of these former students, about their experiences of UF, of being interviewed, and of watching their testimony performed by professionals before an audience. On the second day, SPOHP screened two documentaries-in-progress, created by a team of undergraduate student-fellows, which are also based on interviews housed in the Joel Buchanan Archive: The Making of the Institute of Black Culture at the University of Florida and The Making of the Institute of Hispanic-Latino Cultures, “La Casita” at UF. On the third day, Albert White, one of the UF alums portrayed in Gator Tales, gave a detailed and impassioned lecture about Lincoln High School, the traditionally Black school in Gainesville that was suddenly closed by the city—taken away from the community that built and cherished it—over Christmas break of 1969, under the disingenuous guise of moving towards integration.
This third day of programming did not take place in the same Library East lecture hall as the first two days, but rather at the A. Quinn Jones Cultural Center, which is located in the very same building that used to be Lincoln High. Born in 1893, A. Quinn Jones was a trailblazing Black educator who became Lincoln’s first principal in 1923 and was responsible for its tradition of excellence-against-odds. During lunch, across the street, many of us visited the A. Quinn Jones Museum. It resides in the same house where Mr. Jones lived most of his life, and tells in compelling detail the story of Lincoln High’s educative success and communal promise.
During this visit, I met the Museum’s director, Desmon Walker. I shared with her just how much that day’s programming resonated with the work that I’ve been doing in Little Rock. Specifically, learning about Mr. Jones and Lincoln High made me think immediately of Herbert Denton Sr., father of the pioneering Washington Post journalist whose biography I am writing. Both Mr. Denton and Mr. Jones personify a crucial, under-acknowledged archetype in Black American history and culture: the old school, no-nonsense public educator who did whatever it took to bring out the best in his students and his community. Much like Lincoln High, Mr. Denton’s Carver Elementary also stood as a shining example of Black educational excellence in the face of racial apartheid. And also like Lincoln, Carver eventually fell victim to malicious, one-sided white compliance with court orders to desegregate—not by being closed, but by having its longtime faculty corps gutted, which paved the way for the Little Rock School Board to turn Carver into a dumping ground for white teachers who had been underachievers or problem cases in white schools.
After briefly relating this information to Ms. Walker, I explained how important my work on African American history and culture has been to my own life’s journey as a first-generation American of color. I also shared with her my worry that within our lifetimes, everyone who ever called themselves an American Negro will pass away, and that this country will never achieve its democratic values if that heritage is not documented and honored by the public. With a warm and weighty candor that reminded me of the elders I go to church with in Little Rock, she named my sensitivity to matters of engaging seriously with Black history, saying that it was apparent to her even in this very brief conversation. Ms. Walker encouraged me to keep and to cultivate that sensitivity, to let it guide why I am doing this work, and whom I am really doing it for.
I left that encounter exceedingly grateful—of course for the validation and encouragement, but more importantly for the reminder that my work in Arkansas has indeed made me part of a movement. This movement, I believe, is predicated on the idea that one Black community’s historical distinctiveness, when told in its fullness, can reveal truths that cut across lines of time, place, and demographics—the truths of an entire nation.
As I reflect on the political implications of everything that the SPOHP symposium presented—much of which I have not even mentioned—I find it especially relevant that Dr. Ortiz is a leading scholar of the Florida folklorist (read: oral historian) Stetson Kennedy. Although I never heard Kennedy’s name during the symposium, I still felt compelled upon leaving Gainesville to revisit a 2014 essay by Ortiz, published in the Oral History Review, about Kennedy’s interview-based body of work. In this essay, Ortiz writes, “Kennedy’s experiences in the WPA’s Florida Writers Project in the Great Depression put him in contact with grim realities of American life. Kennedy’s interviews with the people who toiled in phosphate mines, turpentine camps, and orange groves taught him that ‘American Exceptionalism,’ the belief that American society is uniquely democratic and exempt from tyrannical practices, was a fraud.”
Reading this sentence, I was struck not only by its truth, but also by the indelible challenge it presents to the romantic philosophy of the WPA Writers’ Project. The men who comprised the Federal Writers’ Project national masthead—especially B.A. Botkin—encouraged field interviewers, nationwide, to gather narrative material that would foster what Jerrold Hirsch calls “a cosmopolitanism that encouraged Americans to value their own provincial traditions and to show an interest in the traditions of their fellow citizens.” Despite its solidly pluralistic foundation, this cultural outlook still expresses an Exceptionalist view of American history.
In my OHMA thesis, I treated this outlook in a pretty wide-eyed manner. And although I still orient my work towards the promise of Botkin’s idealism, Ortiz’s writing on Kennedy’s oral history work reminded me that there is of course more to the American story; that serious, honest encounters with communities that Botkin called “the folk”—or conventional parlance today calls “diverse”—are bound to complicate such idealism by illuminating facts of abused power and terrible violence. As Ortiz writes, Kennedy “proved through decades of writings based on oral history fieldwork that the nation’s democratic promise had been repeatedly hijacked by racists, corporate interests, and unjust laws.” Instead of toothless self-congratulation, Kennedy’s oral history work offers us a demanding, oftentimes damning, assessment of American Exceptionalism’s oppressive roots and fruit. “Stetson Kennedy posited that America’s history was tragic,” Ortiz writes, “because he experienced this history through interviewees who shared with him stories of deprivation, cruelty, and a loss of dignity in places from which most of the nation’s writers had safely insulated themselves.”
When it comes to the Joel Buchanan Archive, interviewers and listeners alike will have to refuse such insulation, too. The Archive’s 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”—substantiate one of Dr. Ortiz’s remarks at the symposium’s opening session: “Oral history interviewing is not a safe space.” Conducted in the mold of what Ortiz describes as Kennedy’s “embrace of tragedy and his avoidance of maudlin sentimentality about working-class life,” the Buchanan Archive’s interviews will provoke in generations of students and citizens, for decades and maybe even centuries to come, the same insight that Ortiz perceives Kennedy holding in common with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn: “that American civilization is made up of an indivisible mix of grit and catastrophe.” In short, the Buchanan Archive’s unveiling is a major milestone in the history of Black Studies—a field whose central questions and insights are indispensable to real American greatness.
All of this resonates deeply with my desire to build civically transformative collections of interviews: with African American elders in Arkansas, and with members of Columbia University’s academic community who are committed to making the institution more equitable. This goes not only for content, but also for design. Because as I mentioned earlier, SPOHP has consistently built avenues towards public engagement and pedagogical use of the Joel Buchanan Archive at the same time as it has built the archive itself. As I have been slowly plotting the evolution of the Columbia Life Histories Project into the Columbia Life Histories Lab—a collaborative, community-based model that I also intend to initiate at UALR—and working with Alissa to make the oral history and documentary archive of Black Studies at Columbia our flagship collection, my encounter with SPOHP could not have come at a better time. It reminded me why I chose to become an oral historian in the first place. And it put me in touch with colleagues whom I will now be learning from—and, I hope, building with—for a very long time.
 From the symposium program: Joel Buchanan (1948-2014) was a beloved civil rights activist, historian and librarian in Gainesville and at the University of Florida. Joel was an indispensable member of the community, a tireless speaker who gave countless lectures and informal talks to elementary, high school and college students about the histories of segregation, the civil rights movement, and Gainesville. Joel used history to share his dreams of a better future for all. Joel guided generations of high school, college and university students in the completion of their class projects and dissertations. The naming of this collection is meant to pay homage to Joel Buchanan’s vision of history and social justice.
 From the Archive’s website: “The Buchanan archive contains interviews from numerous different projects at the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, including the African American History Project (AAHP) which began in 2009 through the efforts of Paul Ortiz, Marna Weston, and Joel Buchanan; the Fifth Avenue Blacks collection (FAB) created by Joel Buchanan in 1981; the Mississippi Freedom Project (MFP) which derives from SPOHP’s annual trip to the Mississippi Delta to interview Civil Rights Movement veterans; the Oscar Mack Project (OMP), detailing the remarkable story and legacy of Oscar Mack and his family; the Underground Railroad collection (URR) which includes interviews with Black Seminoles and Gullah-Geechee elders and leaders; the Civil Rights in St. Augustine collection begun by David Colburn in the late 1970s; the St. Augustine African American History collection (SAAH), begun by Raja Rahim and Annemarie Nichols in 2016; and many more.”
 Paul Ortiz, “Tearing Up the Master’s Narrative: Stetson Kennedy and Oral History.” Oral History Review, Summer/Fall 2014 (41:2), p. 279-289.
Jerrold Hirsch. Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers' Project. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2003. p. 7.
Benji de la Piedra is an independent oral historian and writer currently based in Little Rock, Arkansas. He is at work on the biography of Herbert Denton Jr. (1943-1989), a pioneering African-American journalist at the Washington Post. He currently works as director of the Columbia Life Histories Project in New York City, and as an oral history audit-editor for the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. Previously, he worked as oral history trainer and volunteer coordinator for the DC Oral History Collaborative in Washington, DC, and was a 2016 fellow of the Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability. A graduate of Columbia University’s Oral History MA program, he was awarded the Jeffrey H. Brodsky Oral History Thesis Prize for his master’s thesis, “That Something Else: B.A. Botkin, Alessandro Portelli, and Ralph Ellison on Democratic Pluralism and the Dialogical Encounter.” Benji teaches and consults on community-based oral history projects around the United States, and speaks and writes regularly about American history and culture, with an emphasis on Black intellectual expression. In the Spring 2020 semester, he will teach the Oral History Methods course at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock.