Some of my most exciting moments as an educator have been seeing how students engage with oral histories from the civil rights and Black Power movements. In my class, “The Civil Rights Movement: North and South,” the well-known Eyes on the Prize companion Voices of Freedom often fosters the richest questions and deepest connections from students. Its strong southern focus, however, leaves movements in the West, Midwest, Rustbelt, and Northeast relatively voiceless.
Meanwhile, students, scholars, and archivists have carried out innumerable oral history interviews with Black folks in the North who found themselves displaced by “urban renewal” and fought against (see Voices of Rondo: Oral Histories of Saint Paul’s Black Community), who unionized in the midst of deindustrialization (see Detroit Lives), and who developed pathbreaking feminist projects (see How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective).
These and other oral history collections stand to contribute markedly to our understanding of the trajectory, tactics, critiques, and goals of Black freedom movements outside the South. They may also be some of our best entry points for engaging students on these questions.
Below, I lay out an oral history companion to the movement in the North. Because large cities like Los Angeles and New York feature relatively heavily in the scholarship on the movement outside the South, this companion focuses on four mid- to large-sized urban centers: Detroit, Milwaukee, Rochester (NY), and Seattle. In addition, oral history interviews from leading Black feminists and gender warriors are included to ensure that the full breadth and richness of Northern Black politics in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s comes into view. Each interview is accompanied by just a few of the key organizations, people, and issues that these oral histories touch on.
The Detroit 1967: Looking Back to Move Forward online exhibition of the Detroit Historical Society contains a wealth of materials, including over 450 interviews in its “Stories” section—all of which touch on narrators’ memories of the July 1967 uprising. Below is a small cross section (with both transcripts and videos) of the interviews, most of which were conducted in the last five years.
Marsha Music: Black Bottom neighborhood; housing; urban renewal; music
Brenda Peek: People’s Tribunal on the Algiers Motel murders; post-1967 uprising survey
Mike Hamlin: labor; League of Revolutionary Black Workers; Inner City Voice newspaper
Rev. Dan Aldridge: People’s Tribunal on the Algiers Motel murders
Frank Joyce: Northern Student Movement; People Against Racism; League of Revolutionary Black Workers
Joann Castle: Catholics and the movement; Mike Hamlin; Control, Conflict, and Change Book Club
The March on Milwaukee Civil Rights History Project, from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, features 19 interviews carried out in the mid-1990s. The fights for open housing and school desegregation in the nine oral histories listed below give a complex sense of 1960s Milwaukee.
Mary Arms: July 1967 uprising; NAACP Youth Council; Commando-ettes
Loretta and Cecil Brown: CORE; school desegregation; Milwaukee United School Integration Committee
Rev. B.S. Gregg: school desegregation; Milwaukee United School Integration Committee
Reuben Harpole, Jr.: employment discrimination; media coverage of 1964 school boycott; Central City Teacher Community Project
Gwen Jackson: NAACP Youth Council; school desegregation and improvement
Peter Murrell Sr. and Eva Ruth: school segregation, prejudice, and quality; “busing”
Wesley L. Scott: Urban League; school desegregation; media; We-Milwaukee
The Rochester Black Freedom Struggle Oral History Project provides transcripts (and some audio and video files) of numerous interviews carried out since 2008. Several interviewees were involved in founding one of the city’s most powerful Black organizations in the 1960s—Freedom, Integration, God, Honor, Today (FIGHT).
Constance and John Mitchell: housing; running for office; 1964 uprising
Marvin Chandler: pre- and post-1964 uprising; FIGHT; Council of Churches
Horace Becker: Kodak’s employment discrimination; Kodak-FIGHT agreement
Charles Granston: FIGHT’s “ex offender,” drug prevention, and housing work
Clarence Ingram: Rochester Business Opportunities Corporation; FIGHTON
Pauline and Charles Price: 1964 uprising and police; discrimination
Raymond Scott: leading FIGHT; 1971 Attica prison uprising
The University of Washington’s Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project contains multiple collections, two of which contain rich oral history collections that have been assembled in the last 15 years.
First, numerous Video Oral Histories of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Central Area Civil Rights Campaign projects detail the work of several local groups’ struggle against housing, schooling, and employment discrimination.
Dorothy Hollingsworth: Head Start; Christian Friends for Racial Equality; school desegregation
Jean “Maid” Adams, Joan Singler, and Bettylou Valentine: CORE; “shop ins” at grocery stores; employment discrimination
Marion West: providing housing for Black students at UW
Charles V. Johnson: school and employment discrimination; NAACP
Jake Fiddler: BPP’s message and lessons
Ron Johnson: Watts uprising; police accountability; BPP survival programs
Elmer Dixon: high school organizing; police harassment of BPP in Seattle
Leon Hobbs: Being a veteran in the BPP; creating a health clinic
Mike Murray: arming the BPP; police harassment and brutality
Mike Tagawa: being a “foot solider” in the BPP as a Japanese American member
Voices of Feminism Project
Smith College’s Voices of Feminism Oral History Project contains several interviews with leading Black feminists/activists in the 1960s, 70s, and beyond. Most were conducted by Loretta Ross, a pioneer in the Black women’s health movement, between 2003 and 2014.
Linda Burnham: New York; reproductive health/rights; Black Women United
Barbara Smith: Cleveland; school desegregation; CORE; Boston; National Black Feminist Organization; Combahee River Collective