Introduction to Oral History

The motivation behind The Foot Soldier Project is to discover and document the many “foot soldiers” of the civil rights movement who may not have been widely recognized or acclaimed. Although their efforts have not been well documented or widely publicized, their courage and contributions have nevertheless transformed our nation. The Foot Soldier Project has collected and compiled research that includes books, historical papers, artifacts, intellectual and social histories, and documentaries. Interviews played a central role in creating the documentaries “Foot Soldier for Equal Justice” and “Hamilton Earl Holmes: The Legacy Continues.”

The interviews and documents collected to complete the documentaries are examples of oral history. Author Donald E. Ritchie describes oral history in his book, Doing Oral History-A Practical Guide: “Simply put, oral history collects memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews” (p. 19). He continues: “An interview becomes oral history only when it has been recorded, processed in some way, made available in an archive, library, or other repository…” (p. 24).

Why Collect Oral History?

History has often been written by scholars based on accounts of famous, rich, or powerful people. Oral history, on the other hand, has included interviews with ordinary people. The focus of oral history can be on an organization such as the University of Michigan’s study of black-owned hospitals in Detroit. Oral history can also describe events such as desegregation or the Vietnam War. Other oral historians focus on a specific time period (as with the WPA Federal Writer’s Project) or region (such as the Southern Oral History Program).

Historical documents and books cannot tell us everything about our past. They also neglect people on the margins of society – ethnic communities, disabled and unemployed people for example – whose voices have been hidden from history. Oral history fills in the gaps and gives us history which includes everyone. Ritchie describes the reason for doing oral history is “to ask questions that have not been asked, to collect the reminiscences that otherwise would be lost” (p. 46).

History is not only what is found in textbooks or on websites. History is all around us in the memories and experiences of older people. People you know may be able to remember historical events like World War II, the Civil Rights movement or the first landing of man on the moon. Unfortunately, because memories die when people do, if we don’t record what people tell us it is history that is lost for ever.

Click (Word DOC) or (PDF) for the complete Oral History Lesson Plan.