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African American Oral Histories: The HistoryMakers Digital Archive

African American Oral Histories: The HistoryMakers Digital Archive

Written by Trey Smith
August 25, 2010

How might students develop nuanced views of history and be inspired to uncover the histories of their own communities? Online digital archives of oral histories might just help teachers answer this question. One such archive created by The HistoryMakers provides a students and teachers with an online collection of African American oral histories that are compelling and thoughtfully cataloged.

According to the organization’s website,

The HistoryMakers is single largest archival collection of its kind in the
world.  Our goal is to complete 5,000 interviews of both well-known and
unsung African American HistoryMakers.  In doing so, we
want to include the stories of individual African Americans along with those of
African American organizations, events, movements and periods of time that are
significant to the African American community.  To date, our oldest HistoryMaker is 105 years old and the youngest is 29 years old.  We have done interviews in over 80 cities and towns as well as in the Caribbean, Mexico and Norway. Our collection presently houses 8,000 hours of African American testimony on videotape.

While the video included with this review of the digital archive is stored on YouTube, this video does not capture the ingenuity of the HistoryMakers digital archive. Teachers and students must first register–for free–to view the archive’s features.

One of the features of the archive is that each video has been transcribed. As the video plays, the screen highlights text in the transcription that matches the speaker’s pacing. Students may focus on the speaker or follow along with the text. This feature can be incredibly useful when the speaker makes references to people or places unknown or unintelligible to the listener. The transcribers also filled in full names when speakers makes references that are abbreviated because of personal knowledge and experiences.

The search features seem simple at first glance. However, there are a number of options hidden within the site. Begin a search and start digging from there. One of the most ingenious aspects of the archive again relates to the transcriptions. Searches that focus on words and phrases allow the viewer to watch a video from the point at which the speaker uses a searched word or phrase. There’s no need to watch an entire interview. Instead, skip directly to the searched phrase or word. Furthermore, students and teachers can search not only for terms directly spoken by the interviewee but also for inferential references that have been indexed by the archive organizers.

Screenshot of search screen

Below is a screenshot of the search results for the phrase “Harlem Renaissance.” The search returned 30 interviewees and 49 stories in which individuals referenced the Harlem Renaissance.

Screenshot of search

The titles of interview segments attempt to capture the essence of each interview clip. Click on a any title to view the interview segment that includes a reference to the Harlem Renaissance.

Below is a screenshot of the video and transcript of an interview with the late Dorothy Height.

Screenshot of Height interview

Each video includes a transcript as well as links to related interviews, tags, and themes.

There are a number of possible uses in the classroom. Students can gain access to the archive and include them in research for a novel, time period, biography, or theme. Teachers might use a clip to kick off a writing assignment, illustrate a point, provide context for lesson or text, or encourage students to conduct similar interviews. The archive bespeaks the importance of capturing and considering oral histories of communities and time periods for future generations.

Part of the above description I originally submitted to the
NWP Walkabout Blog on 20 July 2010 from my personal blog post on 6 July 2010.

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