Voices of Freedom Outside the South: An Oral History Resource

“Walk to Freedom,” Detroit, Michigan, 1963 (Tony Spina: Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

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.

Detroit

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

Helen McQueery: employment discrimination; first woman and first Black person to work as a photographer at Detroit Free Press

Rev. Wendell Anthony: 1963 Detroit March for Freedom; NAACP; high school organizing

Brenda Peek: People’s Tribunal on the Algiers Motel murders; post-1967 uprising survey

Rev. Lonnie Peek: police brutality; Association of Black Students at Wayne State University

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

Milwaukee

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.

Adolph Arms: open housing; 1968 Poor People’s March; Commandos

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

Mildred Harpole: Milwaukee schools boycott; Freedom Schools

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

Rochester (NY)

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).

Loma Allen: Baden Street Settlement; housing; cleavages in the Rochester movement

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

Dr. Walter Cooper: NAACP; Young Turks; police brutality; Nation of Islam

Charles Granston: FIGHT’s “ex offender,” drug prevention, and housing work

Clarence Ingram: Rochester Business Opportunities Corporation; FIGHTON

Darryl Porter: gangs; FIGHT and leadership; Malcolm X

Pauline and Charles Price: 1964 uprising and police; discrimination

Raymond Scott: leading FIGHT; 1971 Attica prison uprising

Seattle

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.

Vivian Caver: gender and organizing; human relations councils; open housing

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

Bishop John H. Adams: Central Area Civil Rights Committee; church leadership and the movement

Walter Hubbard: housing discrimination; Catholic Interracial Council; unions

Ivan King: McCarthy-era repression; CORE; Urban League

Second, the Seattle Black Panther Party History and Memory Project contains Oral History Videos with former Panthers. Members founded the Seattle BPP in 1968 and kept it going until 1978.

Aaron Dixon: Black Student Union; Seattle SNCC; BPP social programs

Mark Cook: prison organizing

Jake Fiddler: BPP’s message and lessons

Ron Johnson: Watts uprising; police accountability; BPP survival programs

Garry Owens: Martin Luther King, Jr.; BPP survival programs; burnout

Bobby White: colorism and school; Ministry of Information; police brutality

Elmer Dixon: high school organizing; police harassment of BPP in Seattle

Michael Dixon: gender and the BPP; BPP’s relationship to Black Student Unions

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.

Byllye Avery: reproductive rights/health; National Black Women’s Health Project

Frances Beal: SNCC; Third World Women’s Alliance; reproductive rights/health

Linda Burnham: New York; reproductive health/rights; Black Women United

Marian Kramer: Detroit; CORE; welfare rights

Loretta Ross: Washington, D.C.; Howard University; reproductive rights/health; National Black United Front; City Wide Housing Coalition; National Black Women’s Health Project; sexual violence

Barbara Smith: Cleveland; school desegregation; CORE; Boston; National Black Feminist Organization; Combahee River Collective

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Say Burgin

Say Burgin is an assistant professor of history at Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Her essay on George Crockett is forthcoming in a collection with NYU Press. She is also the co-developer, along with Jeanne Theoharis, of the ​educational website on Rosa Parks. Follow her on Twitter @sayburgin.​

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