Collecting Oral Histories Of Jim Crow

Decades ago, Duke University students and professors did more than 1,000 interviews with African-Americans who lived through the Jim Crow era. Guest host Tony Cox speaks with two professors involved with the project. (Advisory: This segment contains language that may not be suitable for all audiences.)

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TONY COX, HOST:

I'm Tony Cox and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. In a moment, we'll celebrate Story Corp's annual National Day of Listening. The thing this year is thanking teachers and one of our regular Barber Shop contributors will speak with his favorite teacher.

But we begin with the tradition of storytelling, shedding light on a difficult time in this nation, the Jim Crow era from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s. It represented an oppressive racial cast system that was legal in nearly a dozen southern states. Things like Whites Only signs in public spaces or signs that forbid animals and negroes were commonplace.

With many of those who lived through this period, either up in age or passing away, history professors and students at Duke University move to capture stories like this one from John Harrison Volter of Louisiana.

JOHN HARRISON VOLTER: The lower class of Caucasians were recruited into the Ku Klux Klan by farmer rich plantation owners who saw a way to gain some of their property back, the act of giving each free slave so many acres of land, and then the Ku Klux Klan scared them off. But, you know, you see, these poor whites that was the body of the Klan didn't gain nothing.

COX: More than 1,000 such interviews make up a collection titled "Behind the Veil," documenting African American life in the Jim Crow south. It is thought to be the largest single collection of Jim Crow oral histories in the world.

Here to talk with us about this project are Robert Korstad, a professor of public policy and history at Duke University, who helped edit the project, and Leslie Brown, an associate professor of history at Williams College. She was involved in the project as a graduate student at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies.

Welcome to the both of you.

ROBERT KORSTAD: Thank you.

LESLIE BROWN: Hello.

COX: Professor Korstad, we're going to listen right now to a portion of an interview with a man named Maurice Lucas of Renova, Mississippi in the heart of the Delta. He was elected mayor in 1995 and, in this clip, he recounts how whites intimidated blacks through lynching. I would like to warn our listeners, of course, that there is language that some may find offensive. Here it is.

MAURICE LUCAS: They hung black folk for stealing white folk cows and everything else, whatever white folks desire, because they tried my uncle. It must have been in the '40s, but they went to Chicago and got Uncle Jim. Jim killed a man right out here from Renova. But there's a white lady that owned the plantation (beep). She went to court with Uncle Jim. The judge said, hang him or let him go free. (Beep) that white woman stood up and said, don't you hang Jim. That's my good nigger. They let Uncle Jim go free. That's the damn truth. These white folks. These white folks do their thing, man.

COX: Now, that's (unintelligible) Korstad. The history of lynching wasn't as well documented at the time of this research as it is today, of course. Did you learn anything from these oral histories that you had not anticipated?

KORSTAD: Well, I think we did hear a lot of stories about racial violence and that was always very difficult, I think, for the people who were doing the interviews and as we were working with the interviews. I think we got confirmed a lot of things that we had, you know, assumed from our study and preparation.

I think what was probably more surprising was the stories of resistance and the stories of all the unusual and complex and very creative ways in which African Americans responded and resisted white domination and these stories came up time and time again of people both resisting with the use of violence or threatened violence when whites attacked them or threatened them. But it was also in more subtle ways in which they were able to talk back, to change the behavior of whites through, you know, skillful negotiation.

I think that we came away from this project with a much more complex understanding of what life behind the veil was like, that's life in black communities and families, and also of the relationships between African Americans and white southerners.

COX: The Jim Crow era spanned, of course, from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s. So what prompted a group of historians to come together and develop this project in the 1980s and what did you think you could accomplish?

KORSTAD: Well, very little scholarship or very little archival collecting had been done on this long and informative period between the end of reconstruction, really, and the birth of the Civil Rights Movement. And so we were real concerned that future historians weren't going to have the kinds of first person voices that had become so important to our work to study this important era in American history.

COX: Professor Brown, you conducted some of the interviews as a research assistant and project coordinator. What kinds of challenges did you encounter doing this type of research at that time?

BROWN: I'm the child of black southerners, so many of these stories, I had heard before, but to turn around and to hear them as an adult and to hear them as an historian was really moving for me and moving for many of those of us who were involved with the field work of the project.

COX: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox sitting in for Michel Martin and we are talking about Duke University's project to collect oral histories from the Jim Crow era. With me, history professors, Robert Korstad and Leslie Brown, who worked on the project.

Let's listen to another interview. This one is from a woman named Cleester Mitchell (ph) of Brinkley, Arkansas. She was born in 1922 and she tells of the daily humiliation of Jim Crow. Here she is describing how she was treated in stores.

CLEESTER MITCHELL: If we went to a grocery store and a certain lady come in the store, a white lady come in the store or anybody white, if they was waiting on you, they'd just push your stuff back and said, come on, Miss So-and-So, and you might be walk 10 miles to get this dime worth of something that your parents sent you at, but that was like the law of the day. You just got back. You know, you understand, it wasn't anything you could do about it, but it did not bother us like it would today. It wouldn't have the same effect on us because we was raised to expect this and everything. They taught you this.

COX: Professor Brown, how reliable are anecdotal stories like these?

BROWN: Well, they're very reliable. As we pointed out earlier, we collected over 1,000 interviews and almost all of these interviews told the same kinds of stories of daily humiliation, of insults by whites, of being pushed aside in stores, not being served. And we heard so many of them and we knew it had to be true and we had already seen it in the laws, but to hear people actually experience the law or, as Mrs. Mitchell points out, the absence of law or the absence of enforcement of law was the surprise for us, how extensive these everyday humiliations really were.

COX: Cleester Mitchell talked about being raised to expect this. Was that something - apparently, it is - that you found that black people generally were taught to expect. How were they taught that?

BROWN: Well, they were taught that in everyday kinds of settings. They were taught that at the dinner table, in conversations. They learned it in church. They learned it in school. When they had confrontations with whites outside and came home to talk about them, they had several people in the family who would tell them what they had to do, how they had to be quiet, how to talk back with their eyes, how to resist or to fight back without actually raising a hand or raising their voices.

COX: Professor Korstad, were there any whites interviewed for this project?

KORSTAD: We didn't interview any whites and that was intentional.

COX: Tell us why.

KORSTAD: We weren't interested, particularly, in the story and the history of race relations, but what we were most concerned with and I think felt the greatest need for documentation on was just what was life like on a daily basis. We, you know, interviewed industrial workers. We interviewed domestic workers, farm workers, professional workers, teachers, barbers, doctors. We were interested in the kinds of things that people did on a day-to-day basis. We were interested in the institutions they created, the churches, the social organizations, community centers, and what life was like in individual families.

I think one of the things that was somewhat surprising to me, and this was particularly true in rural areas, was the extent to which many African Americans had virtually no contact with white people.

The father of the house might do the settling up or go to the store, but the children often might be teenagers before they'd ever seen a white other than the landowner, perhaps. So we were after something about the texture of life and, in that sense, white perspectives weren't what we were interested in.

COX: Here's my final question. How eager were the people to participate in sharing their stories? I would think that, on one hand, Leslie Brown, this would be painful for them and, perhaps on the other, cathartic.

BROWN: We actually found a lot of enthusiasm for telling this history. This was a generation that was older. They knew that their time was passing and that this was an opportunity for them to tell, not just their children and grandchildren, but to tell other people in the United States and the world, the story of what their lives had been like.

So we would hold organizing sessions and dozens of people would come out and, in places, we had more people who wanted to be interviewed than we had time to interview all of them. People really embraced this project and felt that we have forgotten why we needed to have the Civil Rights Movement and wanted to leave with us a legacy to assure that such things would never happen again, that African American opportunities were something that people struggled for and that they hoped their children would appreciate, not just the struggle, but appreciate the need to hold onto those gains.

COX: Leslie Brown, as associate professor of history at Williams College and the author of "Living With Jim Crow: African American Women and Memories of the Segregated South." She joined us from Rhode Island Public Radio.

Robert Korstad is professor of public policy and history at Duke University. He joined us from that campus. They are both involved in the "Behind the Veil," documenting African American life in the Jim Crow South Project at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies.

Thank you both very much.

KORSTAD: Thank you.

BROWN: Thank you.

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