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New oral history project seeks to collect, preserve the stories of African American Berkshire residents

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ChrisEngelsma
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Wikipedia

Three Berkshire County institutions are joining forces for a new oral history project to preserve the stories of the region’s African American community.

The Clinton Church Restoration Project, the Berkshire County chapter of the NAACP, and the Housatonic Heritage Oral History Center at Berkshire Community College are teaming up on the new endeavor, titled “Quilting Our History: African American Voices of Wisdom and Memory.”

“These three entities are going to start a countywide search for individuals, African Americans, to tell their stories about living, working and growing up in the Berkshires," said Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts professor emeritus Dr. Frances Jones-Sneed, a member of the Clinton Church Restoration board and chair of the Berkshire NAACP’s education committee. “There was a similar project in the 1990s that I was the humanities scholar on out of the Berkshire County Historical Society. And we did about 22 interviews at that point in time. And then, two years ago, the NAACP with BCC, Berkshire Community College, Oral History Center, did maybe 10 more interviews.”

Project representatives will fan out across Berkshire County to find and train participants.

“What we hope to do is to offer oral history classes for young people – high schoolers, and college-age students – to train them to be oral history takers, so that we can indeed go out this summer to interview as many African Americans that we can find and who would be willing to participate in this project,” Jones-Sneed told WAMC.

She says that the new project will build on the unexpected success of past efforts.

“When we did the African American Heritage Guide back in the 2000s, we found references to people that we didn't even know who were in the Berkshires or who lived in the Berkshires during that period of time," said Jones-Sneed. "And indeed, I think that's what we found in the 90s. You know, we found Mrs. Mae Brown, who was the first teacher, the first African American woman to teach in the county down in South County, and she mirrored Margaret Hart, who taught, was the first Black teacher in Pittsfield. And then there would be Elaine Gunn of course, who also was an early teacher in South County. And so we found these people who were kind of the first in the area, but nobody had ever stopped to kind of tell their stories.”

The scope of the project goes beyond just interviews and shared memories.

“We’ll also ask them for any kind of family memorabilia that they would like to share with us, like the family Bible," said Jones-Sneed. "When we did it in the 2000s, we asked people for quilts, and family photographs and that kind of thing. So that it's just not an interview, necessarily, directly with that person, but trying to get their family histories- How they came to the Berkshires, why they stayed in the Berkshires, what kind of work they were doing here, the full range of kind of questions we want to get to. And then what we want to do with this information is to put it together to try to bring to light the story of African Americans in the Berkshires and what they've been doing so that we can make them more visible, their lives more visible.”

The final product will be an accessible archive where people can easily immerse themselves in the world of African American Berkshire County.

“UMass Amherst has an online database of difference where all of the oral histories will be stored. And so researchers and other people can go online, to read the transcripts, as well as listen to the audio recordings of this history one way or the other,” said Jones-Sneed.

The project hopes to begin sending its findings to UMass in 2023.

U.S. Census data shows an estimated 5,000 African Americans live in Berkshire County.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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