“You can’t get something like that from another source.”
This is how Megan DeFries describes listening to oral histories of slaves sharing their hardships and firsthand experiences in a racist South during the Civil War. As she explains, in the 1930s during the Great Depression, federal writers began a project to document former slaves to allow them to tell their story and add a humanistic view to official records.
By piloting the recently launched Duquesne University Oral History Initiative (OHI), DeFries aims to give the same opportunity to those living on the margins in communities throughout Pittsburgh.
By Daniel Priore
“It is one thing to document the passing of a law, and what it is intended to do,” DeFries says. “But then, if you go to the people who are actually affected by the law, you can learn a whole new perspective on it.”
OHI, similar to most oral history projects, is designed to strengthen written history by creating, collecting and preserving both audio and video recordings of people who have lived past events.
DeFries says living on the margins can be anyone who is living in poverty or deprived certain rights and privileges. She mentions, for example, oral historians around the country are recording stories of immigrants on their experiences with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA).
Tom White, Duquesne’s archivist, who is also working on OHI, says marginalization can also include people undergoing neighborhood gentrification. This is the process where struggling urban areas are renovated and infused with businesses and more wealthy residents.
“On the surface it may look like businesses are expanding, but people do lose their homes, and this is an impact which is often not talked about or reported,” White says.
OHI will offer oral history workshops and training sessions at Duquesne and in surrounding communities and also help fellow areas with their oral history projects. For example, DeFries is joining OHI resources with Inclusive Innovation Week; a city of Pittsburgh initiative bringing together local businesses and organizations to promote diversity and equity. DeFries and OHI will participate in recording perspectives of younger and older residents in Lawrenceville about changes in their neighborhood.
“This will go beyond institutional history,” DeFries says. “We want to either do the documentation of these stories or empower others to document their own stories.”
White says this engagement underscores the importance of oral histories because it adds layers to future historical records.
“People deleting their emails is just one example where the online record will go away,” White says. “They don’t always think to back things up and the effects it will have on the gaps in history.”
Oral history is both the oldest and most modernized type of historical record keeping, according to the Duquesne Gumberg Library’s website. Historians have grown from using tape recorders in the 1940s to digital technologies such as video cameras in the 2010s. However, the process is lengthy.
An oral history project can take years to complete because it involves more than just interviewing a subject, DeFries explains. It requires extensive prep work ranging from finding willing participants to conducting research into a region, historical events and individuals.
“And then there is no telling how in depth of a answer someone will give once we get to talk with them,” DeFries adds.
During an interview, it is proper practice for oral historians to give narrators as much time as they need to respond to a question. According to the Oral History Association’s (OHA) website, most interviews last about two hours and interview questions should prompt a reflection instead of a commentary about a historical event. All interviewers should use the best recording devices at their disposal, OHA’s website also mentions.
For OHI, DeFries says the goal is to conduct interviews with a blend of both digital technology and traditional note taking. This helps with long term preservation and offers easier access, she adds. Video and audio files will be shared online while transcriptions will be added to the University Archives.
OHI is not the first major oral history project for DeFries at Duquesne. She continues to work on the Spiritan and Veterans oral history initiatives; each which have seen plenty of participants over the last four years. She says these projects not only tell interesting personal stories but also can shed light on the marginalized and raise awareness for their struggles.
“With Spiritans, it is parts about how they serve communities confronted with difficult situations and how that enhances their faith,” DeFries reflects. “It is really captivating to hear how they are called into situations most people cannot image whether it is living through a civil war or having to support starving children or AIDS.”
Spiritans are a Roman Catholic congregation of priests and lay brothers, and Duquesne University is the only institution of higher education founded by Spiritans in the country. Part of Duquesne’s mission statement, built under Spiritan vocation, is to serve the community by being attentive to those on the margins. This allows OHI to fit right in with the goals of everyone on the campus, White adds.
OHI is still just getting off the ground and will require more resources and funding to be as widespread in the community as DeFries and White hope it to be. However, they are confident OHI will succeed in going beyond traditional record keeping.
“The written record is not necessarily any more accurate to the oral record,” White jokes adding that other archivists maybe mad at him for saying so. “There is no unbiased source and everything is framed a certain way, so it is important to recognize history as wide range of perspectives. Oral history projects open the door to deem everyone’s perspectives equally.”