Catherine A. Stewart: Looking Backward: On Memory and the Challenges of Oral History

Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers' Project, by Catherine A. StewartWe welcome to the blog a guest post by Catherine A. Stewart, author of Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project. From 1936 to 1939, the New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project collected life stories from more than 2,300 former African American slaves. These narratives are now widely used as a source to understand the lived experience of those who made the transition from slavery to freedom. But in this examination of the project and its legacy, Stewart shows it was the product of competing visions of the past, as ex-slaves’ memories of bondage, emancipation, and life as freedpeople were used to craft arguments for and against full inclusion of African Americans in society. By shedding new light on a critically important episode in the history of race, remembrance, and the legacy of slavery in the United States, Stewart compels readers to rethink a prominent archive used to construct that history.

In a previous post, Stewart addressed the ongoing need for conversation about slavery in America’s history. In today’s post, she recounts her experiences with oral histories both personal and professional.


Looking Backward: On Memory and the Challenges of Oral History

In memory of Stetson Kennedy

My mother and her only sibling, my aunt, are losing their memories. Though their short-term memory has all but disappeared, their shared memories of childhood still remain vivid. One of their neurologists described the brain’s storage of memory and the onset of dementia as a file cabinet, with the most recently filed folders disappearing first, and the ones stored long ago as the last to go.

As a historian interested in public and private memories of slavery and the Civil War, this image has helped me reflect on the memories of elderly ex-slaves, whose memories and the story of collecting them through oral history interviews are at the heart of my book, Long Past Slavery. By the 1930s, most of the former slaves interviewed by employees of the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project were in their nineties; some were over one hundred years old. This last generation to bear witness to the experience of enslavement would have been slaves for twelve to fifteen years at most, and many were freed at the age of seven or eight. Their memories of childhood were memories of slavery, and their experience of slavery was that of children.

A childhood game my mother and aunt still recall with pleasure was one they invented called “People Riddles.” In the dark, lying across from each other in their twin beds in their shared bedroom, after my grandmother had turned out the lights and forbidden further talking, they would whisper clues about the friends and acquaintances they both knew, telling signs that would identify the person to her equally observant sister: “This person rocks back in his chair in school,” my aunt would state; “Billy Hawking,” my mom would answer with glee. Doing oral history is a bit like playing “People Riddles,” but backwards.You know the person’s identity, but you look for tell-tale signs and clues to help you understand and evaluate the stories they tell you, and if you’re wise, you also observe how your subject is seen through eyes other than yours, refracted through the perceptions of those who know your subject better and closer and more fiercely than you ever will.

During my research, in the hopes of gaining further insight into the Florida Writers’ Project of the WPA, the relationship between white and black employees on this New Deal project, and a former project employee, the writer Zora Neale Hurston, I sought an oral history interview with Hurston’s former colleague, the folklorist, author, and activist Stetson Kennedy, with encouragement from the Director of the Center for Florida History at Florida Southern College, Mike Denham. I wrote Mr. Kennedy a formal letter, and received his invitation to visit him at his home, Beluthahatchee, in St. Johns County, Florida. On my arrival in St. Augustine, the eighty-nine year old Mr. Kennedy declined to meet with me until I had been screened by his fiancée, sixty-five-year-old Sandra Parks (they would wed in 2006). Of course, both he and she were too polite and too kind to put it that way; rather, I was encouraged to speak with her and then we’d see about arranging the interview. (This vetting may have been the result of the generous Mr. Kennedy’s encounter with the unscrupulous authors of Freakonomics, although Kennedy maintained his customary sense of wry humor about the affair.) What seemed like an impediment to my objective was a mitzvah instead.

Ms. Parks proved to be an invaluable local informant who not only put me up in her guest room, but arranged my interview with Mr. Kennedy, along with individual meetings with local experts on Hurston and African American history in St. Augustine. Ms. Parks proved that the advice given in the 1930s to Federal Writers’ Project employees for interviewing local informants is still relevant to the practice of conducting oral history research today. Without her extensive and impressive connections, along with her advice on how to approach various informants (don’t arrive empty-handed, and be prepared to socialize over lengthy meals while they make up their minds about your trustworthiness), and the gifts she provided me with to smooth the way, I don’t think I would have been granted the rare opportunity to spend several days with Stetson Kennedy, and the privilege of using his personal archival collection at Beluthahatchee.

Ms. Parks, a former city commissioner, human rights activist, and the owner of Anastasia Books, took me on a tour of St. Augustine that included the house Zora Neale Hurston rented while she taught temporarily at Florida State Normal and Industrial Institute, and the former site of the college grounds. Ms. Parks had her own fascinating stories to tell of growing up in segregated St. Augustine, and of the time Hurston came into her father’s record store to purchase a Billie Holiday recording.

For me to prove my mettle to Ms. Parks, she insisted that I dress up in her eighteenth-century British women’s costume and march in St. Augustine’s parade with the other historical re-enactors in the annual “Night of Illumination” that commemorates the British occupation of St. Augustine from 1763-1784. During this parade, I met a woman from south Florida who travels around the South in order to participate as a Confederate widow in Civil War re-enactments. As we marched, I smiled and waved to the tourists, and watched as her scowl intensified (proving Tony Horwitz’s point in Confederates in the Attic that farbs—“far be it from authentic”—like me are anathema to those who consider themselves hardcore “living historians”).

The following day I drove to Stetson Kennedy’s house (on the outskirts of Jacksonville), which has been designated as a historic site; Beluthahatchee is the name Kennedy gave his lakeside home in honor of Hurston’s definition that refers to a Shangri-La, a mythical place of forgiveness “where all unpleasant doings and sayings are forgotten” (Hurston, Go Gator and Muddy the Water, edited by Pamela Bordelon). Here Kennedy conducted his political campaign as a write-in candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1950 on the platform of “total equality.” Woody Guthrie also stayed at Beluthahatchee as a guest of Kennedy’s, writing songs and working on his autobiographical novel, Seeds of Man.

I took Mr. Kennedy out to breakfast, where I dined on grits for the first time. Afterwards, back at Beluthahatchee, I began videotaping my interview with Mr. Kennedy. When he became tired, he handed over boxes of his own archival materials on Hurston and the Florida Project for me to peruse while he napped. I also got to browse through the collection of unpublished songs Guthrie had composed during his stay at Belutahatchee. In addition to the oral history Mr. Kennedy provided, he generously allowed me to go through the archival papers he had not yet deposited in any library collection. (After his death in 2011 they became part of the collection at the University of Florida’s P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History.) He even insisted that I use his Walgreens senior citizen copy card so that I could xerox relevant documents for only four cents a page. On a day when he could not meet with me as planned, Kennedy told me he would leave the door to Beluthahatchee open, so I could spend more time digging into his files. When I arrived, the front door had been left literally wide open, welcoming me in, despite Kennedy’s absence.

Mr. Kennedy also arranged for us to have a private tour of the Clara White Mission and Museum located in downtown Jacksonville. The Mission is still in operation today, providing meals and advice for 400-500 people daily. During the Great Depression, the Mission, while operating as a soup kitchen and social service center, was where the employees of Florida’s segregated Negro Writers’ Unit (N.W.U.) worked during the tenure of the FWP. As we drove into Jacksonville, Kennedy showed me the office building where he and the rest of the Florida Project’s white employees worked, about a mile from the location of the Mission. As he recalled more memories from those days, he told me that Hurston was the only black employee who ever set foot in their building, aside from the African American man who came to pick up the salary checks for the N.W.U.

The tour of the Clara White Museum provided a fascinating glimpse into other aspects of African American history in Florida. The museum began operating informally during the 1880s as a soup kitchen under the direction of Clara White, and was legally incorporated as a Mission house in 1904. Her daughter, Dr. Eartha White, bought the current building in 1932 and named it in honor of her mother. The Mission provided housing for a number of former slaves, as well as material, spiritual, and cultural sustenance to the black community of Jacksonville. Music lessons were offered to local children free of charge, and a member of Duke Ellington’s band donated his walnut pump organ for this purpose. Eartha White had sung and toured with the first black opera company in the 1890s, called the Oriental America Opera Company, directed by John Rosamond Johnson. White also managed a Negro baseball team during World War II. The Mission’s Museum also had on display a number of photographs taken by E. L. Weems, one of the first professional African American photographers in Jacksonville, whose work (over 10,000 negatives) is archived in Atlanta.

“Pull over!” Kennedy shouted, as we drove away from the Mission, pointing ahead at a historic Elks Lodge. “That’s where I gave my losing campaign speech!”

I saw Stetson Kennedy through the multiple lenses of various important people in his life—including his fiancée and future wife Ms. Parks, his long-standing, long-suffering housekeeper Marina, and Jilly-fish, the woman he considered to be an adopted daughter—along with my direct experience of him. And I learned that without love—not hero-worship or adulation, but love—of one’s subject in all his or her complexities, there can be no true understanding. Steadfast attention and close observation are a form of love that provide the key to “People Riddles,” just as they offer the best method for ameliorating the increasingly difficult puzzle of dementia. As Toni Morrison writes, “Facts can exist without human intelligence, but truth cannot.”

Catherine A. Stewart is professor of history at Cornell College. Her book Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project is now available.