After more than 50 years of celebrating Black History Month, the University of Florida has decided to make the memories of the Jim Crow days permanent record.
In January, UF’s Office of the Provost awarded the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, SPOHP, with a $150,000 grant for a three-year research project that involves conducting and transcribing interviews in Alachua County and surrounding areas with black Americans who came of age during legal segregation. Most of the interviews will be conducted by UF students and put into a database accessible to students all over the world.
“There’s a real need to document black history in this part of the country,” said Paul Ortiz, 45, director of SPOHP. “The people who can tell us what life was like back then are rapidly passing away.”
With Florida’s long history of segregation, it is critical to make a subjective record of the time before it is too late, Ortiz said.
“The bottom line is that people who came of age during Brown v. Board are starting to pass away, and only they can tell us what it was like to live back then,” he said. “It is a tremendous civics lesson that we can learn from them.”
The idea of the project came about from a collective need for the material.
“It definitely is not an idea that we came up with ourselves,” Ortiz said. “Teachers call us all the time to demand documents on African-American history.”
Even though there is no shortage of books on black history, there is no written record of people who experienced segregation first-hand. Participants in the program believe that preserving the memories of these individuals would be a good investment for the future needs of scholars, as well as a good wake-up call for those who take their civil rights for granted.
Sherry DuPree, one of the program’s interviewees and current professor at Santa Fe College, described her first voting experience in the days of segregation as a time filled with fear and intimidation.
“We drove our senior citizens to the polls,” DuPree said. “Many were afraid and would not go. They had been told that they would find their children, homes and land destroyed if they wrote their names on the ballot.”
But even long after segregation laws had been lifted, Florida was no easy state for minorities to reside in.
DuPree was the first African-American librarian hired and tenured at UF. She even got the approval vote from the library department staff, yet the university refused to give her this honor.
It’s the personal stories like DuPree’s that the oral history program aims to conserve not only for the benefit of future students, but also for the interviewers themselves.
“Students tell me that by doing these interviews they learn more about African-American history than they have learned in their whole lives from textbooks,” Ortiz said. “Students come back to us three to four years later and tell us that doing the oral histories interviews gave them a greater appreciation for the society that they live in.”
Douglas Malenfant, 25, a UF history senior and transcriber for the program, describes his experiences with SPOHP as “extremely rewarding.”
“Being part of this African-American history project has changed my perception of Gainesville’s importance in the Civil Rights Movement,” he said. “[It] has most significantly changed the way I look at the landscape of Gainesville. It is difficult to imagine that 40 years ago African-Americans in Gainesville were prohibited from patronizing many restaurants, bars and grocery stores, but that is the truth.”
“[SPOHP] offers history majors a rich diversity of testimonies that they can use to draw out the realities of segregation,” Malenfant said. “Political science majors can [also] benefit from contextualizing the importance of civil rights legislation and learn from the community organizers who fought some of this nation’s toughest battles for equality.”
As beneficial as these oral history records may prove to be, getting the information to the people is always a challenge.
“We do the interviews, but we also want to get the material out there,” Ortiz said. “We don’t want it to just sit on the shelf.”
The oral history program is having a series of seminars starting this month to get the word out. The series is themed “The History and Future of Community Organizing in America” and will run from Feb. 17 through April 14.
The seminars should raise awareness of the importance of the program among students, Ortiz said.
“We want to document the black history in Alachua County, and we want to make sure that it is preserved.”