StoryQuest: Many Different Truths
“Truth,” says historian and filmmaker Ken Burns, “is, we hope, a byproduct of the best of our stories. And yet, there are many, many different kinds of truths.” This summer, a group of Washington College students has been pursuing those stories among older African-Americans in Kent County to hear about their lives during the Civil Rights era. In the process, they’re also learning about those many different truths that complicate and deepen the larger story of a community.
“What’s been most interesting to me is asking people about what has changed and what hasn’t changed,” says Erin Cooper ’14, majoring in art and art history, and philosophy and religion. “There are still problems—jobs, education, lower expectations.”
“Hearing from the black elders about the downfalls of integration was interesting,” says Samantha Gross ’14, majoring in English and Hispanic studies with a minor in business management. “A lot of them claimed pre-integration education was much better, which you don’t expect to hear. This project is great because texts and facts can only tell you so much about history.”
The ongoing oral history project, called StoryQuest, is offered through the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience. The four-week summer workshop, led by Starr Center Special Projects Manager Nona Martin and Program Manager Michael Buckley, started with a week of study about gathering oral histories for research, as well as technical training on the equipment students used to record and present the interviews. Then came three weeks of traveling around Kent County meeting people and listening to their stories, with Gross, Cooper and Michael Derege ’14, a psychology major and business minor, taking turns as questioners and recording technicians.
Each interview had its own ebb and flow, so students learned about far more than just the Civil Rights period. They learned, for instance, that when the Rev. Mary Walker was a girl and her mother was very sick, she was hospitalized where all the blacks were at the time—in the basement of the hospital, which was perpetually flooded. “You could walk through the water, they would put slats down for you to walk on, I’ll never forget this for as long as I live,” Walker said during an interview at her home in Butlertown, an unincorporated town near Worton. “Her blankets and stuff was damp from the water. I don’t really know how those people survived as they did.”
They also learned that the place to hear the hottest live music was The Uptown Club, where acts like James Brown, Etta James, and Ray Charles performed. “Who in my generation knows it even existed?” says Gross. Likewise, she says it was eye opening to learn that the Prince Theatre, where her sorority formals are held, was once segregated (blacks only allowed in the balcony). “As a writer, these stories are providing all sorts of fodder for future projects. As a student, I can appreciate the place I attend even more now.”
The Starr Center, which began the oral history workshop five years ago, is partnering on the project with the Kent County Arts Council, Historical Society, and the Diversity Dialogue Group. “The goal is to increase awareness about where we live, to re-enchant our students about the richness and diversity of ordinary people living extraordinary lives all around us, and to give them tools so they can become involved in shaping our future,” says Buckley, whose radio interview series “Voices of the Chesapeake Bay” inspired the workshop. This fall, the project will include a partnership with the Cater Society of Junior Fellows and the Library of Congress Veterans History Project to record the stories of WWII veterans from the Heron Point Retirement Community.
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