Oral histories project captures the past

Campus Journal

Oral Histories

“What’s the story that you’d like to tell?” asked Jasmyne Kim ’17.

Two recording booths had been set up in the back of McCabe’s first floor, first over the course of this past Alumni Weekend, and then over the subsequent Garnet Weekend. Reference and Digital Projects Resident Roberto Vargas has been overseeing the project since its inception. With a handful of students, he began collecting oral histories from alumni. An oral history is a conversation or spoken recollection that is recorded and archived, for the purpose of providing a more personable access into relatively recent past events.

“I was here two weeks, I was 16. Al old boyfriend from New York was visiting and we were sitting on Parrish Lawn, on one of the big armchairs, as students do,” began Razak ’66, an alumnus whose first name is unknown.

The team emailed alumni about the event prior to these events, and included it on the program schedule for both of the weekends. Alumni wandered into the library to share their experiences upon signing off their consent to have their story shared if they wished. They were shown a list of questions that they could pick and choose from, although it was only used as a starting point for what hopefully became more of a conversation, between interviewee and interviewer.

“A middle aged man walked up to me, and he said, ‘Hi. I’m Shane, Joe Shane; I’m the vice president of the college. The secretaries and I have been watching you for the last half hour,” continued Razak.

The project is still in its beginnings, which those in charge are still explicitly aware of.

“Since this is a pilot, perhaps we’re still trying to refine it,” said Vargas.

This has not prevented the group from collecting an impressive range of stories. Mireille Guy ’15, who helped out during Alumni Weekend, recalled reminiscing alumni who met their spouses, smuggled alcohol, and made lifelong friends on this campus.

“One man came in he told me how there was a bench in the rose garden that had been commemorated to a friend of his who had died, so he sat on it reflecting,” she said. “He told me about how close he was to this person and how special it is that the bench was there.”

“‘You’re not doing anything that everybody isn’t doing. You’re not doing anything differently, but it’s parents’ day, and would you please, go back to the back of the college, go to Crum Creek, go be invisible,’” continued Razak.

The project’s initial goal, however, was to capture the voices of those minorities who may not have been heard when they were on campus — “specifically alumni who’d been here during the 60s and 50s and are minorities, ethnic or any type that hasn’t been captured fully,” said Vargas.

Hearing these individuals will ideally provide unheard-of insight into our institution’s memory, notably the elements of it we’ve tried to suppress.

“My boyfriend was white, and clearly on a day where Swarthmore had parents coming who might be donors, they did not want those parents to be worried about the possibility of interracial liaisons between their children and Black people,” continued Razak.

The project is one amongst many similar endeavors, both nationally and on campus. It took its inspiration in similar work by the Library of Congress and NPR. Since its inception, it has collaborated somewhat with a class that Professor of Education Diane Anderson taught last fall about oral histories. The class produced its own archive, which will be made accessible to the public next fall. Vargas also mentioned that 40 to 50 past oral histories collected in the 1980s have been found, and that distribution rules regarding these is currently being investigated. Its focus, understandably, remains on the specific experiences of underrepresented alumni.

“You know, I was 16, I was very grateful to be here. To have the vice president of the college walk up to you was a big deal. So we just quietly left,” continued Razak. “That was, I think, a measure of where the college was on race relations at that time.”

Vargas and the students involved have collected the stories with respect and gratitude.

“I felt it was really nice of them to share this stuff with me,” Guy said. “The fact that they were willing to take the time out of their day to record it, when they were only there for a weekend, was really nice.”

Part of the difficulty of collecting oral histories is that you never know what to expect from the participants reactions or stories. The team has to be ready for any delicate situation they may encounter, whether it is an emotional response on the part of the interviewee or themselves. So far though, the process has been approached with reverence.

“I tried to approach what they’re saying as something not only privileged but sacred,” Vargas said.

The stories shared with us by these alumni are unique insights into the realities of this institution that we have chosen to forget. Vargas is aiming to make the stories of those who have agreed to it available to the public soon by creating a website for them. For now, the recordings are a valuable and limited resource, which those who’ve interacted with it seem keenly aware of.

“I wish I’d remembered more of it,” Guy said.

In this moment of our campus’ history, as many of us seem to be remembering the events of 1969 or even 2013, it seems to be invaluable to have a growing archive of our peers describing the Swarthmore’s legacy that we remain unaware of.

“I’d like to tell the story of my time here because Swarthmore was influential in my life, although not necessarily for the reasons it was for many other students,” Razak had begun.


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