Storytelling school

More Than Words: Oral Storytelling Project Brings Black History to Life

Grady Wilson Powell Sr. grew up hearing about the moment in 1865 when his grandfather, born into slavery in Virginia, learned he was free. “The story is, according to oral tradition, my grandfather just grabbed a shirt and started walking south. He walked and walked until the sun went down.

Powell, a retired teacher, pastor and civil rights activist from Emporia, also has many stories from his own life. In May 2020, he shared some of them in a video interview for Teachers in the Movement, an oral history project at the University of Virginia’s School of Education and Human Development that explores how educators have contributed to the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.

With the melodious voice of a pastor — and an impressive amount of detail — Powell explains how he cut cartoons from the newspaper to spark conversations among his students about civil rights and social justice. He remembers participating in the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. He recounts how his daughters – including Sandra P. Mitchell, now a teacher at UVA, who coordinated the interview – desegregated public schools in Petersburg, and the toll that experience took on his family.

With each memory preserved on video, Powell adds to a long and rich tradition of oral storytelling in Black history – a tradition that Teachers in the Movement brings to a new generation.

Honor the oral tradition

From community storytellers, or griots, in West Africa to American icons like Toni Morrison, Rita Dove and Isabel Wilkerson, the spoken word has been a fundamental way of sharing cultural values, history and the lessons of history. blacks.

“Storytelling is a traditional cultural practice in black and marginalized communities,” said the project’s associate director, Alexis Johnson, a doctoral student studying the social foundations of education.

Informed by this history and eager to uncover the role educators played during the civil rights movement, UVA education professor Derrick Alridge launched Teachers in the Movement in 2016. The cultural significance of oral tradition guided the search since.

“We use the framework of the griot, the storyteller in African societies, to approach each interview,” Alridge said. The idea is to let the interviewees shape the narrative and share their stories on their own terms.

Since its inception, the project, part of the School’s Center for Race and Public Education in the South, has amassed a repository of 250 interviews and counts. Recruiting a team of graduate and undergraduate researchers, the project has expanded its reach to include a podcast, an annual summer institute for teachers, seminars for scholars on how to conduct oral history research, and more. again.

This Black History Month, project leaders reflected on what they have accomplished so far and how they have gained an even deeper appreciation of the academic, historical and cultural value of oral narration along the way.

Retention and record keeping

Written records are the traditional gold standard of historical research, Alridge said. But what about when these sources are limited or non-existent?

As for how teachers taught in their classrooms during the civil rights era, he said, written records are scarce. This is where oral histories become invaluable. Why they chose certain teaching materials, who their mentors were, how their students reacted to the lessons – without speaking to teachers directly, much of that historical insight would be lost.

Johnson has a favorite quote to describe the importance of recording these interviews now: “When an elder dies, it’s as if a library has burned down.”

The Teachers in the Movement team also uses archival documents to aid in their research, and some interviews have even helped them track down new primary sources. But oral history produces a resource of unique value. “You’d be surprised how much information you can get from asking teachers to think about that time,” Alridge said.

Alridge noted that the project complements several other outstanding oral history projects at UVA and Charlottesville. With each interview he and his team conduct, researchers move one step closer to their goal of helping establish AVU as one of the nation’s premier oral history research sites, preserving a rich archive information for future study.

Provide a counter-narrative

As it fills gaps in the historical record, the project also challenges the standard narrative of the civil rights movement.

Textbooks tend to focus on how the movement unfolded on the national stage, with familiar figures like the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks dominating the story. According to those responsible for the project, the full picture is much more complex and nuanced.

“When we examine the historiography of the civil rights movement, teachers are largely absent from scholarship with respect to their activism, or their roles are misrepresented, ignored, or overlooked,” Johnson said.

By documenting how educators have contributed to the civil rights movement through their pedagogy, mentorship, community work and more, these oral histories challenge and expand traditional definitions of activism.

“We’re trying to redefine what is meant by activism,” Alridge said. “It doesn’t just mean people walking and holding signs.”

Through oral history, the project contributes to a more holistic understanding of the progression of social justice movements. “They may not have participated in marches or protests, but what they were doing in the classroom was just as powerful,” Johnson said. “They were makers of history, though a textbook may never record their names.”

Bringing History to Life

Alridge is adamant that the project goes beyond record keeping. It’s about bringing the civil rights movement to life. And nothing brings history to life like hearing it directly from those who lived it.

From nuances of intonation and body language to the emotional undertones of the speaker’s words, the video format adds layers of meaning – and a certain humanity – to the content of the interviews. Learning history becomes an intimate and personal experience.

Alexa Rodríguez, a postdoctoral research associate working on the project, is teaching a course on the history of higher education at UVA this semester. In her program, she included an interview with Mary Frances Early, who talks about her experiences as the first black graduate from the University of Georgia.

There’s no better way for his students to connect with the emotional and human side of historical events, Rodríguez said.

“By hearing their stories firsthand, we can understand, respect, and honor their contributions to education, and at the same time gain a fuller sense of what happened in history.”

Glimpse the future

Rodríguez’s course is just one example of how the project’s resources are helping today’s teachers and students explore black history in the classroom. For current and future teachers, Alridge hopes these stories can be a source of inspiration for them, in addition to being used as teaching tools.

“We believe teachers today could be informed by hearing the stories of teachers who also taught in the midst of a very turbulent time in our nation’s history,” he said.

In this way, the project not only keeps the oral tradition alive; it uses the power of oral storytelling to help shape the future of teaching and learning black history.

Recently, Alridge and his team launched a website that hosts project information podcasts, student and teacher blogs and around 60 interviews. He hopes the site will be used by K-12 students, teachers, the general public as well as scholars and students.

“Listening to these stories, you hear the passion, the importance of education,” Rodríguez said. “You see the magnitude of the work and the impact of all these educators. To me, that’s one of the most amazing things about it all.