In 2015, the Wisconsin Historical Society launched a project to record the oral histories of elderly members of the African-American community in Madison. Instead of collecting the stories themselves, Michael Edmonds, director of programs and outreach, decided to teach black high school students how to do it. This way, the historical society could collect important stories for future generations and simultaneously get young students excited about history.
In November, the historical society hired three student interns: Dija Manly, Jaylin Allen-Wallace and Shaneece Taylor. Their first months in the program were spent learning about archiving, oral history best practices, audio recording techniques and black history in Madison.
In March, the three students began interviewing 17 Madison residents who have been living in Dane County since the 1980s. The interviews will be included in an online oral history digital collection, soon to be launched by the historical society.
Manly, a student at La Follette High School, came to the Cap Times office to tell us about her experience.
Tell me why you applied for the project in the first place.
I’ve always been really fascinated with history, and in particular, African-American history. So the idea of being part of a group where I could actually gather history myself and learn it — because usually I’m used to just hearing about things through documentaries or books — but I could hear first-hand accounts of really big things that were happening in Madison regarding African Americans, that was amazing to me.
There was a lot of training that went into this. When you finally got to your first interview with a Madison resident, how did you feel?
I was so excited! I was like, “This is my moment, this is what I’ve been waiting for!” My first interview that was with Cynthia Walton-Jackson, and honestly I got out of it so much more than I thought I would.
I kind of always assumed that I had a pretty good understanding of what was happening in Madison regarding racial tension. But hearing it from her perspective, not only did it tell me that things that are happening in Madison right now have been happening for like the past 50 years, but I just learned so much about the specifics of what was going on.
I mean, in school they kind of teach you only one side of Madison history, and it’s kind of like that we’re these amazing liberal people, and that we’re like the Berkeley of the Midwest, or you know, something like that.
There were a few people who told us that there is nothing wrong with Madison at all. And obviously, we didn’t necessarily agree with that, just from our own experiences, but I think it was valuable getting that side of the perspective too. With that, we heard the good things about Madison and we got to hear what made people feel like they were safe. And then from the other people, we got to hear what we can work on.
You mentioned stories that showed you the other side of what you had learned in school. What are some examples of that?
East is known in Madison for being a more diverse school. In my first interview with Cynthia Walton-Jackson ... she said that when she was going there, there were only like 10 black people at the school. All the black kids sat together and ate together, and whenever you had a black kid try to, you know, separate from that group, the white people wouldn’t reciprocate. The white students were kind of like, "No, stay back in your place; stay with them over there."
From that, you got to hear about the fact that being diverse isn’t the same thing as being integrated. Back then, it wasn’t diverse at all, so that’s one thing. But even now, I think it’s important to acknowledge the fact that even though we have a bunch of different groups coming together at our schools, they don’t necessarily interact with each other.
Most of the people you interviewed were older. Has this changed the way you interact with older people at all?
I remember going into it, I was kind of afraid. I was afraid to ask an offensive question, and I’ve been taught to have a lot of respect for them and just to generally not bother them. But I think I learned from this that older people want to tell their stories, because they want to improve future generations; they want the world to be a better place than it was for them.
I think the people we were interviewing told us a lot more than they might tell a regular interviewer, because we were young black girls, and I think they wanted to teach us lessons. So I think in the future I probably am going to ask a lot more questions of older people.
What do you want the general public to know about this project?
I want the public to value what we have done through this project, because we did gather information on a much less discussed side of Madison history. So I would want them to rather than just be like: “Oh, this is another project. That’s cool, but we’re not going to look at it,” I would want them to actually go and listen to these interviews and try to broaden their own understanding of the world.
I think it’s really important to showcase people of color doing well, especially during this time when we’re mostly talking about the achievement gap and things like that. This is us, and we were, with help, able to conduct an entire oral history project with residents of Madison. I’m not trying to toot my own horn, but I’m definitely proud of us for what we have achieved.
Has this project helped shape the direction of where you see yourself going in your future career?
I mean, I’ve always been really firm on the fact that I want to be a neuroscientist when I grow up. What I’ve been doing the past few months, I love it. It’s fun and it’s interesting. If neuroscience doesn’t work out, this is what I’m falling back to.
One of the things we were talking about at the historical society is that it can become a lot more diverse. I think that's in part what they were trying to achieve with this project; they were trying to grab a young generation, right now, and show them all the things that they can possibly do with history and hopefully inspire them to go into a field like this. So in the future, we have more representation of different kinds of people, so the history isn’t necessarily whitewashed history, but it’s history that we think pertains to us and that is important to us. It’ll probably make for a lot more well-rounded history books as we progress.
What was your favorite part of the project?
I loved the oral history project and conducting the interviews — that was probably my favorite part. But my second favorite part was, before any of the interviews took place, Jaylin, Shaneece and I, we would all sit there and would discuss our own experiences as black girls in Madison.
More than just a thing for gathering information for the public, it was also a really important learning experience to us, because afterwards we would go back and we would discuss everything that was said. We would talk about how it might still pertain to us today, or if it was one of those statements we didn’t necessarily agree with, we would talk about why we don’t agree with that. It just helped us have a more well-rounded worldview, and I think now from this we understand a lot more of why people think what they do or why people might do what they do. And I think that’s priceless.