A conversation with Dr. Monroe Fordham.
He outlines the methods he and others developed to form dynamic partnerships with non-academicians and their quest to gather, preserve, and present authentic local histories. Fordham illustrates the importance of significant endeavors such as programs to conduct workshops in the community on preserving historical materials and sponsored essay contests to involve school children in their own histories. He summarizes the value of the program when he says, "What is going to get your history included is somebody deciding that it is important to gather those source materials from which people can do research and do writing." In this way, anecdotal historical accounts become part of the knowledge base.
While the focus of Dr. Fordham's project is primarily African American history, the model of what can and should be done for community participation applies to preservation of the history of any group. It is an unpretentious model that provides for the collection and preservation of material in a manageable, minimalist approach that can be implemented at little expense and with little training. We are very happy that you are willing to talk with us about the project you developed over the years to collect documentation for the African American community in Buffalo. What we are particularly interested in exploring is your point of view about the project, how you got started, its basic objectives and anything that can contribute to a broader understanding of its purpose and the philosophy behind it, some of your successes and failures. (Words in italic identify interviewers Dr. Jean Richardson, Dr. Nuala McGann Drescherand Mr. Paul [DeWald.).sup.1]
MF: I will talk first about how we got started. Back when I graduated from the University of [Buffal.(UB).sup.2] in 1973, I was looking around, for a research project that would engage me for a few years, in the short term. I decided to do local history because of the proximity of sources and how inexpensive it would be to do.
I further decided to do local church history, the history of the African American church. I was going to focus on the twentieth century. And, I decided to do oral history as a beginning, not with the idea of building an archive, but with the idea of building some materials from which I could examine and explore the impact of the church in Buffalo. I decided to begin the interviews with a lady by the name of Mrs. Alberta Nelson.
Mrs. Nelson was about ninety years old. She was a member of the church that I attended and was very active in it. Her mind was very fluid and she had been involved in the history of the A.M.E. Bethel Church of Buffalo for a long time. So I set up the interview with Mrs. Nelson and went over to meet her. When I did, I also met her husband, who was also about ninety years old, maybe a little older. During the interview with Mrs. Nelson, we discussed church activities and her involvement with the church. We worked for about an hour and I intended to go back and do additional interviews with her.
But, when I got through interviewing Mrs. Nelson, her husband came up to me and said that I might want to interview him. I did not think much about it because he wasn't a churchman. He was not active in the church; he was not even a member as far as I knew. As I got ready to leave, he said 'do you want to set a date for interviewing me?' I said 'maybe we'll just talk to you now about what I might interview you about. What is it that you have been involved with in relation to the church?'
He said that he had been born in Louisiana in the late [19.sup.th] century and very early he had been orphaned and went on his own as a teenager. He went to Tuskegee Institute. Immediately things began to click and I got a little more interested. He went on to say that he went to Tuskegee Institute and when he got down to Tuskegee he became active as a Pullman car porter which he did for a few years. Then he decided to go to medical school. He applied to and was accepted at Boston University Medical School where he went in between the years he was a Pullman porter. When he got his degree, he decided to come to Buffalo and set up his practice. By then we were in the early 1920s. He met Mrs. Nelson, they got married, and he did set up a practice in Buffalo. And, over the years, he had started a grocery co-operative.
Dr. Nelson had started a grocery co-operative in the 20's?
MF: Yes. He started a co-operative in the 20's. He had been associated also with the Rochdale Co-operative [Society,.sup.3] which came out of England. So he was influenced to start one through them and through the work of Marcus Garvey. The cooperative he established operated from the 1920's up to 1966 or '68. He told me a little more about things, and by then I had forgotten all about the church.
I then asked him, "What did you guys do with the records of the co-operative? Did you ever keep any of them?" And, he said he had all the records of the co-operative out in his garage. Right then I was too excited to even talk anymore. So I said, "Can I have a look at the records?" He said I could.
It was dark by then, so I said, "Well. I will come over here on Saturday and look at them." I went back that Saturday and went up into the attic of the garage and there were fifteen or twenty boxes of papers, correspondence, financial ledgers, membership rolls, stock certificates, and receipts. I mean, they even had cash register receipts from the weekends when he balanced the co-operative grocery store bankbooks. I couldn't believe it. I almost immediately forgot about the church and I never interviewed Mrs. Nelson again. I didn't interview Mr. Nelson on tape, which I am sorry about.
I went back over there and took Ralph [Watkins.sup.4] with me. Ralph had been a graduate student at UB with me. As students, Ralph, Lillian Williams and Henry [Taylor.sup.5] and I would talk about some of the problems connected with Afro-American history and historiography. I was just overcome by what we had found. To make a long story short, Ralph and I decided to organize and index the records. It was getting toward winter so we didn't have much time. We worked outside the garage and then when it got cold, we decided to move all the records into my basement.
Now I had a real problem. I had all these records and I had to figure out what we were going to do with them; how we were going to make them available to people to use. We were onto something big. I decided putting them on microfilm would allow us to put them in a library and make them available to people. I talked to 3M, went over options for their equipment and they showed me what they had available. We ended up buying the equipment from 3M and putting it in my basement.
Over that winter, Watkins and I organized, indexed and microfilmed the records and that is really how we got started. We did not start out with the intention of building an archive. I just started out with the idea of doing interviews for local history, but one thing led to another.
Over the next spring we met with Frank [Mesiah.sup.6] who had the Nathaniel Dett [papers..sup.7] Nathaniel Dett was one of the most noted African American composers of the early twentieth century. He had been a music teacher at, I think, Hampton Institute. And, he had a lot of compositions of his own. So, now we had another collection to film.
Then Leroy [Coles.sup.8] decided to turn over all the papers from the Urban League to us to film. So, we thought, "Well, this is going to get bigger than we ever thought it was." At this point we decided to start a local historical society because that way we would have a basis for financing all this stuff and a basis for going to the local library in the effort to set up an archive. We didn't have lots of money. So, that's really how we got started with the archive.
We founded the Afro-American Historical Association of the Niagara Frontier in Lillian Williams' dining room or living room. Lillian, Melvin Watkins, Frank and Shirley [Harrington.sup.9] and I were the group initially involved. Later we brought in more people from the community to be on our board. Now that we were assembling all this material, from which people could do research, we had to try to figure out a way to get them interested and have a reason to do the research. For this reason we founded the Journal of Afro-American Life and History in New York State. We thought we could generate enough articles from around the state to start other local communities and people doing research on Afro-American history, if there was somewhere for them to publish their material ... if they had a forum.
We published the first several issues of the Journaloursehes. I did the typesetting over at the Buffalo [Challenger,.sup.10] which they allowed me to use on weekends because they weren't over there. They used to let me in every Saturday and Sunday morning. The guy who had the key lived upstairs and he slipped me in and we'd set the type on their old 'Compu-graphic.' After we'd set the type, we did the printing ourselves. Melvin Watkins had a printing press in his basement and we printed the first several issues there. We assembled them up in his dining room. We had pages all over everywhere. Finally, his wife gave him an ultimatum: He was going to have to go or the Journal was going to have to go. So, that's when we went out and started publishing the Journal at a local printing house. We have been commercially printed ever since.
We really did not start out with the intention of starting an archive, although the four of us had been at UB and we knew the importance of having an archive. We knew the importance of preserving source materials. But we did not start out with the idea that we were going to do it. We just knew it had to be done, and it has gradually evolved.
You mentioned that you and your graduate school colleagues talked about problems of doing African American history. Can you identify and articulate some of those particular problems?
MF: Well, we were all in the same program at UB and we all came in about the same time. So we were all taking about the same courses. Dr. [David] [Gerber.sup.11] was our mentor and in his classes we were doing a lot of reading of literature on Afro-American history and of course we talked about that literature and other topics in his classes. But sometimes after class we would be over at the [Rathskeller.sup.12] and would continue our discussion about things that we had been talking about in class, or maybe even some things we hadn't been talking about. We'd talk about basic problems of historiography; we debated some of the arguments about the literature that was out there. And this was how we really fleshed out the need to do local history, although we didn't plan to do it. We'd talk about the need to create more sources because we were all facing the problem of what to do our dissertations on and there wasn't a lot of material that we could draw from. We knew that this was something that needed to be done. So, when all of these things started to develop, it was clear. We could see the need. We could see the connection with things that we had talked about earlier.
Lillian Williams had once said to me that she was told that she couldn't do her dissertation in African American history because there were no sources. This program that you evolved has helped meet that particular need so that no graduate student will ever be told they can't do African American History because there are no sources.
MF: True. Over the years, over the past 28-30 years, we microfilmed, I think, about 50-60 collections of materials that are now over in Buffalo State College Butler Library archives with a copies at the Monroe Fordham Regional History Center (Buffalo State College, History Department) and the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library's North Jefferson Branch, Center for Local Afro-American Research and History. We have gotten all kinds of collections: the Urban League papers, the NAACP papers, the papers of numerous individuals like Dan Acker, prominent in the black community. We've got both local African American [newspapers.sup.13] on microfilm. We have a lot of materials that undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral students can draw on in doing research. In fact, local people have already used some of it. Some people from Pittsburgh have used the YMCA papers. And a guy wrote a Master's thesis on the B.U.I.L.D). [Collections..sup.14] A Master's thesis by an UB student was done on the Colored Musicians [Unions.sup.15] and one of our students did something on the Colored Musicians Union as [wel1..sup.16] We've got several graduate degrees already at the Masters level and other people are beginning to use them. So, you are right. These sources are available and in time we hope that this will be something that will attract graduate students to this area. It will give them a reason to want to come to UB and Buffalo State to do their graduate work because there will be a reservoir of materials here than they can draw from.
You've also gone into the community and made your local history project known out there. You state at one point that the idea of local history was foreign to most people and you had to take steps first to draw the community into this project.
MF: When we started out, people were skeptical about turning records over to us. We had to overcome that problem. We began to do that with a newsletter [publication..sup.17] In the newsletter, which comes out twice a year, we have stories on local people and on different things that had gone on in the community. Organizations came to send us notices about their meetings and about their dinners. We set up a Speakers Bureau where Sharon [Holley, .sup.18] myself, and several other people in the community would advertise that we were available to speak at various organization functions and that we won't charge a fee. So, if you wanted a speaker for a meeting, we'd come to you and talk about: "How to Do Genealogy," "How to Do Local History," "The Benefits of Local History," and a few other stock topics that we had lectures on. We sought, in this way, to educate community groups about the process that we were engaged in. We would take the opportunity to tell them about what we were doing and advertise the Association. We would say "You don't have to pay us anything, but if there are people in your organization who want to join our Association, you can do that." And we'd hand out applications for membership. We'd get more members than we would have if we had charged them for the speaking engagement. So we picked up lots of members from organizations who were convinced that we were doing something worthwhile.
We've done a lot of other outreach activities as well. Like the Carter Woodson essay contest. We used to have a radio program. I would go to professional conferences, like the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. I would tape twenty-minute interviews with people who had been on the panels, as many as I could get. Sometimes I would come back with fifteen or twenty taped interviews of people from these panels, talking about their own work. We would then take the interviews and give them to Sharon. Freddy [Patrick.sup.19] who was also an Association board member, agreed to give us thirty minutes on WBLK every Sunday night. Sharon would go on and talk for about five to ten minutes about the newsletter, local history, the importance of what we were doing - just educating people about local history. Then we would play a twenty-minute interview taped from the conference. This went on for several years and we got lots of new members that way. We were educating people on what we're doing. Within about five years we were well known in the community. People knew who we were and had no reservations about turning their records over to us to microfilm. They didn't even call us in between the time that they gave them to us and the time that we returned them. They trusted us. We had credibility by this time, which was primarily what we were trying to do.
You mentioned two things that I would like you to follow up on. One is the Carter Woodson essay contest. The other is the North Jefferson Branch Center.
MF: Well, first of all, the North Jefferson Branch Center: After we started microfilming and we had about six collections, we had to figure out a way to make these collections available to people who wanted to use them. That after all, was the idea. The purpose of what we were doing was to make these collections available to the academic community to exploit. There were some librarians on our Board of Directors, Melvin, Sharon, and some other people. They suggested, "Why don't we approach Bill Miles, Deputy Director [of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library] in charge of branches, about starting a center in one of the branch libraries?" That branch could be designated as the official center for local Afro-American life and history. Plus, they would catalog our materials and make them available in a place with lights, warm heat and everything. We bought a microfilm-viewing machine, 16mm, so people could actually use the stuff. Bill agreed to designate the North Jefferson branch library as the Center for Local Afro-American Life for history and research. That is how that came about. The Library Board officially designated that branch for the center.
I understand that they are going to update it. They are going to rebuild it, and it's going to have state of the art computer technology, a real nice place for the research. All of our microfilm is stationed [there..sup.20]
The Carter Woodson essay contest evolved because we wanted to get school children involved somehow in what we were doing. Hoping to get the young people involved gradually, we started a youth membership in the Association. Dues were only $2, so that children could afford to join. We knew that the future of all this was going to be determined by educating, not only the present generation of adults, but also the generation of young people as well. The Carter Woodson essay contest is open to fourth through twelfth graders, and we have various topics every year. We give prizes of $25, $50 and $75. We work with the Buffalo Hoard of Education and the Catholic schools in advertising the contest. Any student can get involved, because we always designate a topic that white students as well as black students can write about. For example, white students can interview someone that they know on these topics that are always about African Americans in Western New York. We have done this for about twenty-five years. In fact, out twenty-fifth anniversary was a big event. We invited all the people who had been winners over the years to come back. The North Jefferson Branch Library auditorium was packed. Well, it's packed every year with parents who come to see their children present their essays. We have had some outstanding essays on various topics. And, then the winning essays in every category, first, second and third place in the three age categories, are read.
We usually print them in the April issue of the newsletter. What we judge to be the best essay we show off again in May at another program we started, the Afro-American Family History Dinner. Madeline [Scott.sup.21] is in charge of that. She worked to develop it. This dinner is a forum for local people who do genealogy. Over time a large number of local people have gotten involved in genealogy, so we said: "Why don't we give them an opportunity to share their work?" Now, every year we highlight a person who has been doing genealogy by inviting them to be the featured speaker at our local history dinner. We usually have it at a church or a place in the community. We just do it at cost, not to raise money. It is part of our promotion. The program is limited to the featured speaker and the presentation of the best essay from the Carter Woodson contest. From the time that we started, the dinners were always sold out.
This was another vehicle that helped us to gain credibility and helped us educate the community to what we were trying to do, to the philosophy that we were putting forth about local history. Our featured speaker was an example of "somebody who's actually doing it." Right now we have a waiting list of people who want to present at our dinners. Eventually we may have to have two presentations rather than one. Often the presenters show slides and they have a table where they display the things they have done in local history. It is just an exciting thing for lay people, people who are not professional historians, but who are interested and have been involved in history.
Because of these efforts, there is another offshoot of our work. The Afro-American Genealogical Society has been established. They are not connected to us directly but they were organized as a result of our programs. One of the big projects that they're undertaking is the collection of obituaries from the local community. They have gone to printing presses, to churches; everywhere they can go, to get obituaries or programs from funerals. When they get about three thousand, and they have gotten about 2500 so far, they will be indexed alphabetically and we're going to microfilm the [run..sup.22] Then when they get a second three thousand, they will be integrated with the first and we're going to microfilm them again so that everything will always be in alphabetical order. This project will make it possible for people doing genealogy to look at our collection and see if anyone related to them is in our microfilmed genealogy collection.
We have just tried to spawn lots of things that we are not necessarily in charge of. But that is the point. We don't want to be charge. Our objective was to inspire people to do it themselves, to get involved, to claim ownership. If we went out of business tomorrow, a lot of these things would keep going because now the common community is doing them. Some of the private organizations have local history themes like we do. So now there are a lot of things going on that we started, but we don't control. And like I said, we don't want to, because that's the point. We want this to be Something that is bigger than what we are.
Monroe, can I ask you a question? People don't keep journals so much anymore. They don't write their history. I think that goes across the board for the whole country. When you started this, did you have a sense that part of the thrust here was to introduce, reintroduce maybe, to a new generation of people the idea, the notion of at least writing it down, or capturing that moment in history?
MF: That was one of our primary objectives: to get local people conscious of the importance of local history. When we talked to most people and told them about local history we asked, "Why don't you at least preserve your records?" They said, "Well, I have never done anything important." That is the way they thought when we started, but now young people and old people as well know the importance of this. That's what we tried to educate people on - the importance of doing family history, the importance of keeping records, the importance of doing genealogy, the importance of all this so that they would then get involved and do it. And so we didn't think we'd ever get put out of business, we just narrowed our focus to a few things that we could do. Microfilming, publishing the Journal and the newsletter are the things that we do on a regular basis. And the family history dinner, and the Carter Woodson essay contest are two more. A lot of other things are going on, things that we started but we're not responsible for any more. But they continue. So, you're right. We wanted to make people aware of the importance of local history, because local history, even in the history profession, has been like a stepchild. It has been something that you don't get any credit for. If you do research and publish in local history, you don't get much credit. But if you do the Garvey movement. Booker T. Washington, Du Bois ... I mean, those are the big topics, the glamour topics everyone thinks you are doing REAL history. But somebody's grandmother may have been one of the first blacks in Buffalo to start a hairdressing business, well, that grassroots work may be more crucial than anything that we can do on Du Bois. This kind of work identifies new sources of material and we are not merely re-cycling the same thoughts that someone else has been doing.
Nobody's done some of these topics that our microfilmed papers are on. Those things are just crying out to be researched. And that is another thing we are interest in doing: trying to create resources so that the next generation of Afro-American historians, people like Jean [Richardson] and Felix [[Armfield].sup.23] and people who are just coming along. New scholars won't have to keep re-cycling and re-debating and re-arguing the same thing, W.E.B. and Booker T. I mean you can only do so much on that. What we wanted to do was create more sources for younger people. We thought that our archive would be a reason for young people to want to come to Buffalo State College and UB eventually. Maybe not now, but in another twenty years people are going to want to come here because this will be like their [Schomburg.sup.24] on local history. But, we honestly do not know where this is going to be in a few years.
Have you found that the multitude of projects that you've identified here have actually created, in young people or in community members, a sense of community identity?
MF: Oh, no question about it. Most of the subscribers to the Journal are local people although we have a lot of libraries; most of the national ones and those in New York State which carry the Journal. However, most of our readers are just bus drivers, nurses, and teachers and people like that. And these people write articles for us too. What we have done with such submissions is a part of the same philosophy. Some of the articles submitted would be turned down by other journals. However, we read the article and if it has any possibilities, we work with the person in developing and fine-tuning it so that it's something that they can publish. These may not be professional stories, but the authors may be doing primary research on topics that nobody else is working on. For example, there is a young woman doing some research on Bennett [Smith..sup.25] She started out with the idea of doing an analytical history of Smith but the article really didn't hang together that well as interpretation. She tried to argue that Bennett Smith was almost totally responsible for all the political consciousness and all the things that have happened in Buffalo politically since the 1970s. After reading the article, we told her "Look, the article doesn't hang together like that, but it's the best biographical sketch that anyone has ever done on Bennett Smith. So, if you redo the article by fine-tuning it, maybe leave out some of those things about how important he was ... I mean; don't worry about trying to judge his significance right now. If you just concentrate on the facts of his biography, then you would have made your contribution to the literature because he has been a major figure."
The significance would speak for itself. ...?
MF: Right. We told her, "Whether Bennett Smith is fully responsible for what has happened politically in Buffalo, some people from the NAACP voter registration and the Grass [Roots.sup.26] organization would take issue with that. Some people from various other organizations might think they're the most important. Some things you don't want to argue because you don't want to get side tracked. The important point of your work is that you pulled together the best biographical sketch that anyone has ever done: more detail on Bennett Smith, and that is a service. That is a real contribution to the field.
So we don't turn down, well, we turn down some articles but we try not to turn down work that comes from lay people without first trying to work with them on how to fine-tune their articles, this is an extension of the kind of teaching we do at the College. That's what I think Jean and Sharon and Felix talked about in local history. Our job is trying to help people figure out how to do local history. Right now we've got more articles for the Journal than we'll be able to publish in maybe three or four years. This shows you how important local history is becoming, not only in Buffalo, but also around the state. People are seeing 'there's a reason to do this': it's a refereed journal, and so professionals can get credit for doing an article for it. The Journal has been a major vehicle as far as getting people more involved and it's been a major vehicle for generating more research around the State,
One time, when I was at the National Archives Academic Conference, a young lady from Richmond, Virginia came up to me and wanted me to send her greetings to you, (This surprised me because most people think I am from UB, that there is only one place in Buffalo. So, I was grateful to you, because they knew the right place because of you!) What she said was that you had inspired a similar program for the Chinese-American community in Richmond. I wonder if you can comment on how this process that you have developed here is replicable and whether people other than in Richmond, VA has picked it up.
MF: Well, I think our project is the ideal prototype for any group of people who feel that they have been left out of history. And lots of people have been left out: working class people, common everyday people, and some ethnic groups. Lots of groups feel that they have been by-passed by the local historical societies and groups doing local history. Due to the way that those groups are funded; they often tend to be more interested in the materials for people who are going to make a generous contribution to the agency.
We figure what we're doing is the ideal prototype for any of those groups, primarily because you can start out without lots of money. You can start out without having an archive where you can place your stuff. You won't have to pay the rent and you can do like we did: contract with the public libraries because they are more than happy if it is going to expand circulation. They're more than happy to work with community groups in branch libraries to house their materials; so too with the microfilming. Today, because of computer technology, anybody who wants to can publish a newsletter or some scholarly publication. Almost any group which wants to can replicate what we're doing. And lots of groups have
When we first began this work, I used lo cooperate with the State Archive and other organizations around the State, talking to groups that were interested in doing this kind of project. We used to advertise all the time, not only in Buffalo, but outside the City as well. Everyone who subscribes to the Journal gets a newsletter or anyone who wants it, can get it. Over time these newsletters have led people to contact us for help. For example, we had a group from up near Utica say "Why don't you come up and talk to our genealogy group?" So, groups outside the locale, African Americans and others, have done that. I think we've worked with a group from Chinatown in New York City interested in doing some of the things we were doing. I don't know if they started a journal, but actually, community groups can replicate most of our programs. And it won't cost you any money to speak of. We started out with no money. We started out with no membership but we built the membership. We've been able to build what we've got through all of these things that I have talked about, the community outreach things. And you can just think of lots of things to do that fit the cultural environment that you are in. And you can build what we've built in Buffalo. Anyone can do it: Chinese-Americans, Korean groups, ethnic groups, religious groups, working class people, and unions. "Build it and they will come."
When we got non-profit status, you'd be surprised at the number of people in the community who joined the organization. We started out with a five-dollar membership but people asked us, "Why don't you charge more?" So, we added a fifteen-dollar membership. Some people suggested that, for tax reasons, people would give more money if you ask them. We added a twenty-five dollar membership. Still, people said, "Well, we would join with more if you asked for it." We put in a hundred dollar membership. We now have about twenty or thirty people who subscribe at that level and donate the money for the endowment fund. So, right now, money is the least of our problems. We've got enough money to do almost anything that we want to. And it's all just from memberships - people contributing. Sometimes people send us two or three hundred dollars and don't want a membership. They just want to write it off. They're going to get taxed or they are going to give it away. So they just write it off at tax time. It surprised us but we get lots of contributions from organizations and individuals just because of our tax-exempt status.
It took us years to build up credibility but anybody can do it. We still only charge $8 a year for the Journal, which is what we started out charging. In thirty years we haven't changed the price. We don't have to and we don't want to because our goal is not to make money, but to get the Journal in the hands of lots of people. Effective January 1999, Ethnic Newswatch put the Journal online. Ethnic Newswatch is the best source for periodicals, newspapers, and journals that pertain to ethnic and racial groups in the country.
It is now possible to get the Journal in any library, online, full-text. This helps our circulation too because somebody may access us online but they'll want to get the Journal in print too. So, the library subscriptions are up. We are doing better than you could imagine. We never dreamed twenty or thirty years ago, when we started that it would evolve in the way that it has. But, as I said, this is testament to the fact that the need for this kind of service is there, not only among African Americans, but also among lots of other groups bypassed by written history in the past.
Unfortunately, until relatively recently too many of our professional colleagues think that history is limited to the work of past politicians, generals and kings and do not think about the community impacted by decisions made by those politicians and kings. What you are doing is documenting that community experience, right?
MF: One of the things we've told people, one of the things we highlight when we go to groups, is that while it may be true that racism is a reason why African Americans are not in the mainstream or American history, but if you eliminate racism that would not solve the problem. To solve the problem you have got to create sources from which people can do research and that is what is going to get you in the mainstream of history. It's not the elimination of racism alone. You're going to have to do more than that. Even if racism ended totally tomorrow, if there are not sufficient sources from which to write and work, you're still going to be left out. The people who get included are the people whose story is based on sources. And that is true of all groups.
1 am sure that you and Jean have been trying to talk to working class people, to unions and ethnic groups about the importance of the kind of things that we're doing. It's what most people in community history have been trying to do for the broad spectrum of groups. We're just an example of a group that has done it. I think that other community historians can see what can be done with nothing.
One of the things that strikes me is that this work really opens history to more than just high profile people we typically think of in history. I am wondering about your impression, having gone through this thirty-year period. What is your sense of how it might alter - maybe it started out with a racial foundation, but it doesn't seem to be staying in that area very long. I was just wondering about your thoughts as an historian because this is opening up some new avenues and we haven't been there before.
MF: Well, I think people in community history have been preaching the same gospel all the years I have been in academia. Local history is extremely important. It just happens that I was interested in Afro-Americans, but there is nothing racial about the principals that we've shown will work. The only racial thing is that I've decided to apply these principals to my narrow area of special interest, Jean might apply it to some other particular group. Working class people, ethnic groups, labor unions, and some people might apply it to churches. But it can work with any community. It does not have to be racial. Any local group that feels that they have been left out does not have to spend a lot of time talking about it. They can spend some time doing the things that will guarantee their inclusion.
Working class people say, "We have not been included because the historical society only wants the history of prominent, important people." Some ethnic groups say, "Well, nobody wants the history of Catholics," or " No one is interested in women's history." Simply saying: "We have been left out because. ..." is not going to get you in. It's not going to get you included. What is going to get you included is somebody deciding that it is important to gather those source materials from which people can do research and do writing.
When we go out and talk to community groups, we have a pyramid [included at end of article] that helps visualize this. On the bottom of that pyramid are things like archival materials, correspondence, letters, and news clippings. On the next level of the pyramid are the professional historians, who use these basic materials to write books and articles for scholarly journals. The next level includes newspapers and television shows, which rely on what the scholars and historians say in order to write stories or do documentaries. That's the level of history that most people will read, the top level. That is the level of history most people interact with: not history books, not the primary sources. They read about the Underground Railroad in the Buffalo News. The people who write for the Buffalo News probably did their research from things scholars had done and the scholars did their research from the primary materials. It is a pyramid.
On the top of the pyramid is where your finally gel your history. What is at the top depends on what is at the bottom. If there is no bottom layer, then there is nothing for the historians to work with. So, there is not going to be any history of other folks in Buffalo like Lillian Williams did for the African Americans because she had the [sources..sup.27]
There will be a history of W.K.B. Du Bois. Booker T. Washington. Marcus Garvey, because they left materials to work from. We think we are shaping the direction of Afro-American historiography in the next generation because the direction historians will go in will be determined by what we do in local history today. The next generation will build on what's already been established and they are going to establish more things at the lower level. Then it's going to bubble up to the top. But, you can't get to the top unless you have something at the bottom.
This pyramid illustrates that racism is not the only thing that is keeping the top empty, It makes clear that there is nothing at the bottom and that is why it is empty. So, even if you get rid of racism that is not going to get you in up there. What you have got to do is get a base of resources. That is central to what we've taught over the past twenty-five or thirty years. We articulate this basic theme in talking with community groups about the importance of local history.
You mentioned that you started this whole project with an oral history interview situation. Have you continued through the years to do a regular supplement to your archival collection?
MF: We haven't done that because with all of these collections available to microfilm, the journal, the newsletter, and the family history dinner, we have just been overwhelmed. It does, however, appear that the next generation of historians is interested in doing this because it's still possible to add that piece and it needs to be added.
One thing Sharon Holley hopes is that as educators we can train local groups to record their own oral history and her idea appears to be very much a part of your philosophy.
MF: Right. Local groups just contribute what they think is important to what we have been trying to do. Maybe the next generation will think of something all together different. I think each generation has to make that call for themselves. If this new generation does oral history and can create a vast archive of oral history transcripts about the organizations that we've put on film, then that is just going to add to what is out there.
I wouldn't have been able to do half of the things I have done if the Buffalo State College and the history department hadn't provided support.
In fact, most of the microfilming has gone on at Buffalo State and was done by students. In addition, Ed Smith, who was chairman of the department at the time, agreed even to buy microfilm equipment for the project. So, whereas Watkins and I started out working in my basement and obviously, I could only do this on weekends, now I could do it around the clock. I could depend on students who could keep on filming. Finally, it got to the point where I didn't have to do a lot of the extra work. I could have students do it. Butler Library at Buffalo State as has been equally supportive.
When I look back on it, there are two crucial links that I see to the success of the project we have been talking about. One link is that you have got to have a community organization that is committed to collecting and preserving the record. The second link is a marriage with a college or library willing to work with them to provide them with the resources, the expertise and the support they need to do it. Great things are possible. If you can get a branch of the college and the local community group hooked up together with the kind of scholars and resources in the college that know what needs to be done and the community group that is willing to help do it, that's the key. I think that's what we tried to bring out. This work is going to go on when I'm gone ... even when all of us individuals are gone from the scene. Local history developing in the community will have been so institutionalized that it's going to have a life of its own. There is a reason for Buffalo State to be involved, and there's a reason for the community) to be involved. If these two groups understand that, then something happens. Any group can do that. Any group can hook up with the college. Any group can start a community organization. Those two things are key to doing what we've done, and anybody can do it. That would be the thing I would leave with you in this interview. That anybody, any group, can do it. There are no reasons for groups to complain about what hasn't been done in the past. Any group can put its energy into to it and getting it done.
(1.) Monroe Fordham, interview by Jean Richardson, Nuala McGann Drescher Paul DeWald, Buffalo, NY, 25 October 2000
(2.) Stale University of New York at Buffalo commonly referred to as SUNY Buffalo.
(3.) The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, one of the first consumers' cooperatives, founded in 1844 in Rochdale, England, by twenty-eight Lancashire weavers. They opened a grocery store that was so successful that they were able to establish a cooperative factory and textile mill. See Joseph Reeves. A Century of Rochdale Co-operation. 1844-1944 (London: Lawrence and Wishart. 1944).
(4.) Ralph Watkins is now Professor of Africana And Latino Studies, Stale University of New York at Onconla.
(5.) Lillian Williams is now Associate Professor and Chair of African-American Studies, State University of New York at Buffalo; Henry Louis Taylor is now Associate Professor of American Studies, Director of the Center for Applied Research, State University of New York at Buffalo.
(6.) Frank B. Mesiah is President of the Buffalo Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
(7.) Messiah was involved in a project with the state government seeking I start a Black history museum in Niagara Falls, similar to the Turtle-the Native American Museum at Niagara Falls, NY (now defunct).
(8.) Leroy Coles is Director of the Buffalo Affiliate of the National Urban league.
(9.) Melvin Watkins is presently Branch Manager of the Kenilworth Library of the Buffalo and Eric County Public Library; Dr. Shirley Harrington is retired from the Buffalo Public School system.
(10.) The Buffalo Challenger is a locally owned and operated African American newspaper which publishes once a week.
(11.) Dr. David Gerber, Professor of History at SUNY Buffalo.
(12.) The Rathskeller was the "pub" in the basement of the old Student Union on the Main Street Campus, SUNY at Buffalo which was a popular gathering place for students to discuss subjects which student always discuss, academic and political.
(13.) Buffalo Criterion and previously mentioned Buffalo Challenger
(14.) B.U.I.L.D. (Build, Unify, Independence, Leadership. Dignity) is a local civil rights organization.
(15.) Richard McRae. "Musicians Association Local 533 of the American Federation of Musicians: and Its Role in the Development of Black Music in Buffalo, NY" (MA Thesis, SUNY Buffalo, 1993).
(16.) William Kayatin, Jr., "Breaking the Color Line: The Merger of Locals 43 and 533 of the American Federation of Musicians-How it affected Local 533, Buffalo, NY" (M.A. thesis, Buffalo State College, 1995).
(17.) Historically Speaking is published by the Association in April and October.
(18.) Sharon Holley is Director of Urban Services at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library. She is past President of the Afro-American Historical Association of the Niagara Frontier.
(19.) In addition to the Sunday evening show Frederick Patrick was weekday morning announcer for Buffalo radio station WBLK.
(20.) The new North Jefferson library renamed the Frank Merriweather Library is scheduled for completion 2005.
(21.) Madeline Scott is president of the Afro-American Historical Association of the Niagara Frontier and active in the NAACP, Buffalo Branch.
(22.) The first run has been completed and is available at Butler Library Archives, North Jefferson Library and the Monroe Fordham Regional History Center.
(23.) Felix Armfield is Assistant Professor of History at Buffalo State College.
(24.) The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is housed in the Harlem branch of the New York City Public Library. This collection is the largest collection of African American materials in the nation and was the result of the single-minded devotion of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg to the preservation of priceless artifacts and documents.
(25.) Rev. Bennett Smith, minister of St. John Baptist Church-the wealthiest and largest Black church in the city, is one of the city's leading civil rights and political activist. See Sherri L. Wallace, "Buffalo's 'Prophet of Protest': The Political Leadership and Activism of the Reverend Dr. Bennett W. Smith. Sr." Afro-American in New York Life and History 25 (July 2001): 7-43.
(26.) "Grass Roots" is a local African American political organization.
(27.) Strangers in the Land of Paradise-The Creation of an African American Community, Buffalo, NY 1990-1940 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999).
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|Publication:||Afro-Americans in New York Life and History|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2011|
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