DOING ORAL HISTORY
The following essay offers students and teachers basic tools and methods for conducting, interpreting, and using oral history narratives. First, the essay gives a brief historical overview to the World War II Farm Labor Project and the McCarthy Era Vanguard closing episode, and a discussion of the historical themes that are central to these two stories. Drawing on examples from the Farm Labor Project and Vanguard interviews, the essay then discusses oral history theory, methodology and utility.
Table of Contents
Historical Background - The World War II Farm Labor Project
Historical Background - The McCarthy Era Vanguard Closing
Oral History Theory and Methodology:
A) Preparing for an Oral History Interview
B) Conducting an Oral History Interview
C) Interpreting an Oral History Interview
“I came home exhilarated. I had had a marvelous summer although I realize I’m not doing much for the war effort. It was a marvelous part of the college experience. I could never have done that if it hadn’t been though the college. It heightened my enjoyment of college. And I met very special people. It was a socially significant lark which as a city kid I never would have had that experience.” France Koral
In this short reflection on her experience picking beans on a farm in upstate New York during World War II, France Koral highlighted some of the key aspects of the Farm Labor Project. This “socially significant lark” gave her, a young woman from a working-class city family, a chance to get away from home, have a college-sanctioned and chaperoned adventure. While Koral’s ultimate contribution to the war effort may have been minimal, her foray into rural America proved to be socially significant in unexpected ways, as the participants recount.
Through the edited narrative of France Koral and other Farm Labor Project participants, this oral history website tells the story of Brooklyn College students who responded to the World War II farm labor shortage by volunteering to spend their summer as farmworkers. By 1942, the call to military service and relatively well-paying defense work had depleted the pool of local farmworkers in upstate New York. In addition, the gas and tire rationing made it more difficult to transport migrant workers from great distances. Recalling that New York City students had been sent upstate to do farmwork during World War One, Brooklyn College administrators organized with their colleagues at Hunter, City, and Queens Colleges, and sent students to Dutchess County to assist in the summer planting and harvesting. The next year, Brooklyn College worked with the New York State Farm Manpower Service and helped staff one of its thirty “Farm Cadet Victory Corps” camps with college students.
Beginning with the summer of 1943, the college added a curricular component to the project and students were required to take one course for credit. Course offerings ranged from literature to geology and rural sociology, and were intended, when possible, to take advantage of the rural setting and the college’s faculty. Recruiting for the summer of 1944, the college appealed to prospective students to aid in the national drive for increased food production with the slogan “Feed a Fighter in ‘Forty-Four.” By the end of the war over five hundred students from Brooklyn College had experienced the hard work of farming, and other features of rural life. The majority of these students, like Frances Koral were the children of Jewish working-class immigrants, raised during the Great Depression, grateful that the city enabled them to attend college, tuition free.
Historical Background - The McCarthy Era Vanguard Closing
“It was an environment by that time of intimidation, of repressiveness, of the school authorities trying to flex their muscles against the students, and of the students responding, many of us, by being even more assertive, in your face. But overall, there was an atmosphere of fear. And I felt it myself. After yet another letter from the school authorities threatening me, I decided that it was better for me to leave Brooklyn College at the end of my third year.” Rhoda Karpatkin
For Rhoda Karpatkin, another child of the Depression, it was also a great financial achievement to be able to go to college. The youngest of twenty one cousins, she was the only one to attend college. Arriving at Brooklyn College at the end of World War II, Karpatkin experienced a vibrant college campus made all the more so by the returning veterans taking advantage of the GI Bill to complete their education. Like Frances Koral, Karpatkin’s college experience was shaped by the political climate of the times. McCarthyism, coloring most every aspect of American life, was also affecting the lives and choices of college students in the post-World War II era.
Karpatkin and her fellow student journalists, narrate in the Vanguard segment of the website the story of working on the Vanguard, Brooklyn College’s student newspaper, when President Harry Gideonse, the college president, shut it down. As they describe, the closure of the newspaper in 1950 was the culmination of a series of conflicts with President Gideonse over the fundamental issues of freedom of the press and civil liberties. These battles were fought against the backdrop of a domestic Cold War that was heating up on federal, state and local levels. President Truman’s 1947 Executive Order 9835, a loyalty-security program for federal employees, further legitimized the investigations of New York State’s Rapp-Coudert Committee that had been pursuing and purging supposed Communist and other left-leaning and liberal teachers and professors since 1940. President Gideonse, an ardent anti-Communist, had welcomed the Rapp-Coudert Committee onto the Brooklyn College campus in the early 1940s, and encouraged its investigation of some twenty faculty members. In the early 1950s, Gideonse supported the investigations of the Internal Security Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee (SISS) which took up where the Rapp-Coudert Committee left off.
Like the college’s faculty, the Vanguard student journalists subscribed to a wide range of political perspectives and affiliations. What they shared, however, was a fierce commitment to academic freedom and freedom of the press. As Karpatkin explained, “And I believe that as passionately today as I did when I was a student, that one of the saving graces for a democratic society today is its free press.”
The two stories that unfold on this website, the Farm Labor Project and the challenge to civil liberties with the closing of the Vanguard, are distinct and separate. Students of World War II may be particularly interested in the narratives about the Farm Labor Project and the insights these stories impart about life on the home front during the war. Those researching the domestic Cold War will find yet another case study of the pervasiveness of McCarthyism in the Vanguard section of the website. Readers of the post World War II Vanguard saga will also find evidence to support Bill Taylor’s assertion, “It was just an incredible period of creativity and ferment. And that’s not the way people generally think about the ‘50s.”
Read together, however, several themes emerge that bridge the two periods and two stories covered here. Student activism is a leitmotif in both narratives. Both groups were self-selected activists -- one group choosing to participate in the World War II Farm Labor Project and the second on staff at the college's student newspaper. Their oral histories, however, reveal that they were activists in the context of a general climate of student activism. Students engaged in college activities and student organizations, and in political parties representing a variety of ideological perspectives. Their activism ranged from being part of the Student Council, as Marion Greenstone explained, to canvassing for progressive city politician Vito Marcantonio, as Gene Bluestein described. The extent of student activism provides a corrective to the popular and scholarly perspective that student activism on college campuses was a phenomenon primarily of the 1960s. “We were involved in everything” said Marjorie Brockman.
Readers of 20th century American immigration and ethnic history will find in these oral narratives insights into the experiences of the children of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Both sets of storytellers reflect on growing up during the Great Depression and New Deal era, and comment on the significance of attending college, often the first in their families to do so. Embedded in the narratives is evidence of the dynamic of cultural dislocation and accommodation as was the case, for example, in Frances Koral’s memory of eating creamed chicken for the first time, a dish that defies Jewish dietary laws. Similarly, Geri Stevens, a refugee from Belgium described how a friend decided to give her the nickname Geri as nobody at high school could pronounce Gizelle, her birth name. The history of women and gender relations is an important theme in both episodes. As young men left college to enlist into the armed services, it was predominantly women who participated in the Farm Labor Project. Their experiences and insights support interpretations that during the WWII era, women’s roles and opportunities expanded. Narrators who were students during the war reflected on the advantages and disadvantages of going to college with so few male students. As Marjorie Brockman noted, with so many men off to war there were far fewer prospects for dating. Yet, “we were freer to do our thing politically than we would have been.” Harry Baron also noticed that women students had greater opportunities during the war. “They were in command” at the Vanguard, he described. Many narrators in the Vanguard segment commented on the “veteran’s world” that epitomized life on the campus after the war. Students felt the impact of going to college with returning soldiers in a variety of arenas. As Al Lasher described, even on the sports teams he was playing and competing with ex-GIs who were in “great physical condition.” Finally, education researchers will find information and anecdotes about life on a public college campus during World War II and the postwar years, ranging from academics to social relations.
Oral History Theory and Methodology:
The edited narratives and accompanying documents model the process of doing and using oral histories. In addition to the edited narratives, we have included two sample oral history transcripts, one from each historical period: The interview transcript of Marjorie Brockman, a participant in the World War II Farm Labor Project, and the transcript of Bill Taylor, a student reporter with the Vanguard at the time it was shut down. These transcripts are nearly verbatim accounts of the recorded interviews and thus provide readers with the opportunity to read a complete interview and to analyze the interview method. The transcripts illustrate the “messy” nature of oral history testimonies. The process of telling a life-history is often not a linear one. The narrators’ and interviewers’ verbal stumbling, grammatical inaccuracies, interruptions, and tangents are part of the historical record. But it is this “messiness,” integrated with the content and conversation that gives readers an accurate representation of the oral history document. Examined in tandem with the edited excerpts, the interview transcripts also enable readers to study how oral history narratives are used to tell a historical story.
We have also included sample audio excerpts of nearly every interviewee. Through the audio, listeners gain richer and deeper images of the storytellers. The audio excerpts heard in conjunction with the transcribed excerpts demonstrate that certain qualities and emotions can only be conveyed aurally. Finally, the fact that the written excerpt is not always identical to the accompanying audio segment reveals yet another aspect of the oral historian’s craft.
A) Preparing for an Oral History Interview
The interview questions in the transcripts hint at the work that went into planning for the interview. To prepare for an interview, the oral historian conducts background research into primary and secondary documents of the period, does a brief preliminary interview with the narrator, and develops a question outline. For example, to prepare for the interview with Marjorie Brockman, we read a range of primary documents about the Farm Labor Project available at the Brooklyn College Library Archives including recruitment materials, reports on the Project generated by the college, and issues of the “Bean Stalker,” the newspaper written by students participating in the Project. (We have included some of these primary documents in the “Teaching” section of the website.) In addition, we drew on historical overviews of the Great Depression era, and life on the home front during World War II. These materials provided useful background information about the Project, and also highlighted the areas that could only be filled in by the first person experience.
B) Conducting an Oral History Interview
A range of practitioners and theorizers have noted that the oral history interview is a dialogue. From Studs Terkel, the elder statesman of oral history, to Alessandro Portelli, the Italian historian who interrogates the very nature of the dialogue, oral historians acknowledge the impact of this dialogue. The interactive character of the process affects the content, chronology and style of stories told. In the interview itself, the interviewer draws from her outlined questions, background research, and knowledge of the historical period; and practices the art of listening. The interviewer must listen hard to the stories told, expected and unexpected, to the pauses and silences, and find ways to ask difficult questions and follow the narrators’ lead down surprising paths.
The interview with Marjorie Brockman is a case in point. Early on, before even getting to the intended focus, her involvement with the Farm Labor Project, the interviewers pursued Brockman’s reference to her “left-wing friends.” This led to a description of her experiences living in the South after college, and being involved in radical politics, labor organizing and civil rights in the late 1940s. Brockman reaches her stride in the process of remembering when she tells the story of sitting in the black-side of the Durham, North Carolina bus station with an African-American woman with whom she has traveled to a political conference in New York City. This story, told with detail and emotion, demonstrates the benefits of allowing an oral history interview to veer from its course. The interview question guide illustrates the thinking and research that went into preparing for the interview. (See question guides in the “Teaching” section.) The transcript, however, demonstrates the extent to which an interview deviates from the guide and underscores that the interview is truly a dialogue.
Reflecting on his interviews with intellectual Isaiah Berlin, Michael Ignatieff wrote, “He told me everything, but only when I learned to ask the right questions.” Implicit in Igantieff’s comment is the contingent quality of the interviewer-interviewee relationship. Who the interviewer is and the context in which the interview is conducted will affect the narrators’ remembrances, what she chooses to tell, and how she relays the story. As this project was integrated into an undergraduate course on “Oral History: Theory and Methodology” (see course syllabus in the “Teaching” section), the interviewers included both historians skilled in oral history methodology and students of history learning oral history interviewing for the first time. The interviewers trained and in-training encompassed diverse identities: women and men, working class and middle class, immigrants from the Caribbean, African-American and ethnic white, orthodox and secular Jews and Christians, gay and straight, young and middle aged, activists and politically unengaged along the political spectrum. None of the interviewers knew the interview subjects prior to the interviews and no one interviewer’s identity mirrored that of the interviewees. In other words, at first glance it appeared that there were no obvious “insiders” among the interviewers. And yet no one resided in a pure state of “outsiderness” either; we discovered that interviewers and interviewees shared various characteristics.
Common to the student interviewers and the interview subjects was the identity of being Brooklyn College students, albeit in different decades. This shared identity created a bridge across time, age, and ethnic and racial differences. Myron Kandel, involved with the Vanguard in the late 1940s, identified with his student interviewers and noted his ongoing commitment to Brooklyn College, “a school that has new waves of first generation people. I’m obviously prejudiced, being part of the first generation, but it seems to me people have made sort of disparaging remarks about the new types of students and the new waves that came from various places, some of them different colored skins or different backgrounds, and so on.”
Differences between interviewers and narrators, however, can sometimes function as a distraction and can result in the interview subjects shifting the focus of the central narrative. For example, one older Jewish narrator who was being interviewed by two black women students, responded to questions about his extracurricular activities as a student at Brooklyn College in the late 1940s with descriptions of his involvement in the 1960s civil rights movement and his reflections on race relations past and present. While not anticipating that the interview would go in this direction, the interviewers listened well and facilitated the unfolding of the unexpected. This example underscores what oral historians have described as the true value of oral history narratives: “It’s not the song, it’s the singing.”
The physical context of the interviews also shaped the narratives. Most of the interviews were conducted in the homes of the interview subjects. Often the interviewers invited their narrators to talk about photographs and other primary documents that were part of their personal collections. One pair of student interviewers faced the challenge of conducting an interview with a time-pressed judge in his noisy chambers. And several interviews were conducted in the classroom as demonstrations. In these cases, the interviews had a performative quality to them as the narrators were speaking to a group of students. In fact, more than one of the interview subjects were also teachers and there were moments in these interviews when the narrators eagerly impart information in a professorial style.
C) Interpreting an Oral History Interview
With two sets of oral history interviews, the Farm Labor Project and the Vanguard newspaper interviews, we had the opportunity to model different interpretive options. In the case of the Farm Labor Project interviews we chose to present fuller life histories. The experience of working on farms as part of the World War II home front effort is the center of the story. However, we included far more family background and post-student life history than in the Vanguard segment. In contrast, the edited narrative about the challenge to civil liberties in the story of the Vanguard has a more thematic approach. The two sets of stories lent themselves to this interpretive decision. While the Farm Labor Project participants appreciated that their experience was interesting and unusual, the Vanguard student journalists consistently described that episode as life changing. Vanguard was an “iconic story,” a term coined by oral historian Linda Shopes to describe a defining moment in a narrator’s life history account. Individual iconic stories surface in most of the life history interviews, but the experience of working on the Vanguard during the period it was shut down by the college president was significant for all the narrators.
In addition to editing the oral narratives to tell historical stories with different emphases, we also chose and ordered excerpts that would highlight several interpretive features of oral history:
• the ways in which oral histories can subvert and challenge official versions of historical events;
• the iconic stories within oral testimonies that form individual and collective memories and are key to finding meaning in a particular historical episode;
• the slipperiness of truth in oral histories and the importance of mining the multiple truths in the historical record;
• the ways that memory is shaped by the present.
The edited narrative of the Farm Labor Project presents a re-interpretation of the official written record of the Farm Labor Project. Brooklyn College advertised the Farm Labor Project to its students as a patriotic response to wartime labor shortages. “Feed a Fighter in ‘44” was one of the logos. What emerges from the students’ stories, however, is less about patriotic duty and more about the adventure of leaving the city and their families, many for the first time. As Marion Greenstone described, “it seemed like a great opportunity to get out of New York, to get away from the family and to be in the country.” Once in the country, these predominantly Jewish women and men from urban working-class backgrounds discovered that they were as foreign to the farmers as the farmers were to them. The students’ encounters with migrant farmworkers heightened consciousness of racial and economic injustice in the United States. And in general, they learned that farming was hard, backbreaking work. “I lost some of my romantic feeling about rural life,” stated Marjorie Brockman. As the Farm Labor Project students recounted, the war was barely a backdrop to their farming adventure. Elliot Levine stated quite frankly, “I’m almost embarrassed to say that my recollections of the Farm Project have very little to do with the fact that we were at war.” Any sense of contributing to the war effort was shattered when they learned that the peas and beans they were picking were often dumped in the river. These interviews offer a far deeper, richer, more accurate and more subjective -- account of the experience than was documented in the projects’ official reports. This is a fine example of oral histories’ complicating the record of this episode, and deepening our understanding of life on the home front during World War II.
Iconic stories, those that are imbued with special meaning, are apparent in both historical episodes. Often told with impressive detail and emotion, they can signal an important moment in an individual’s personal history or a group experience. “Wherever we were, we sang because we all could harmonize by ear. I took the melody,” begins Phyllis LeShaw. “I made my debut as a harmonica player…” recounted Elliot Levine. We placed these two personal iconic stories next to each other in the Farm Labor Project episode as both narrators relayed with enthusiasm incidents that related to their passion for music, and their current identities as professional performers.
Within the Vanguard narrative, the story of Professor Harry Slochower emerges as iconic in the collective memory of the interviewees. Student after student remembered this professor. They recalled his assignments, teaching style, and political ordeals. Yet why did he remain so prominent in the consciousness of these narrators fifty years later? Certainly one explanation is that Slochower’s history as a victim of the domestic Cold War helped place their own encounters with local McCarthyism within a broader historical context. Like Slochower, they too were historical actors who challenged the attack on civil liberties.
In the edited scripts we juxtaposed differing versions of the chronology that led to the Vanguard journalists losing their charter and ultimately being locked out. Was it the article about ROTC on campus or President Gideonse overriding the elections of Professor Clarkson to the chair of the history department that resulted in student suspensions? As Rhoda Karpatkin admitted, “I’m embarrassed that I can’t remember which one triggered that.” The narrators’ honest admissions about the inevitable loss of memory with the passage of time is in fact a useful warning to oral historians, a reminder that the oral history as primary document cannot stand alone in the historian’s construction of events. Having said that, the mistaken dates, inaccuracies and even contradictory accounts are themselves interesting and useful evidence for historians to mine for deeper meaning.
Readers of oral history texts can find in contradictory stories insight into the ways that narrators make sense of their pasts, painful and joyful. Juxtaposing different truths was also a strategy for enabling narrators’ voices and personalities to emerge. In the “Youthful Adventures” section of the Vanguard episode, both Gene Bluestein and Herb Dorfman describe their experiences in the 1940s with teenage gangs. Bluestein recounts when “the guys decided to buy guns” he and a good friend figured “that you could get killed that way so we left.” Describing a gang fight over a girl, Dorfman asserts, “No such thing as a gun or a knife or a stick or a rock in those days. You used fists.” The opposing impression about the availability of weapons among youth in the 1940s is not resolved in this historical account. Yet the differing versions suggest one narrator is romanticizing a more innocent past and the other glorifying his unruly youth.
The edited excerpts also include explicit references to the ways in which the act of remembering a historical moment is shaped by the present as well as the events that succeeded that moment. More than once, for example, Ann Lane of the Vanguard narrative places her student activism and the attack on civil liberties within the context of her 1960s activism. “Were we scared?” she asks in response to President Gideonse attack on the newspaper. “Probably we thought it would be wonderful if they did something dramatic to us. By the ‘60s I knew going to jail was not a good thing to do, was not a happy experience, but at that point I was nineteen years old, eighteen years old.”
Taken together these oral histories, clips from the lives of individuals, demonstrate the intersection of public and private history. They underscore that the narrators are historical actors, influencing their times while being affected by the historic events of their day. Furthermore, the narratives offer insights into what affects historical change. For as the narrators describe, their actions and choices were motivated by a range of concerns and identities. They were children of immigrants and refugees and of the New Deal who “were dragged to the parades” every time Roosevelt came to town. They were youthful, studious, playful, “gangsters.” They were intellectually engaged, socially conscious, artistically inclined, ambitious, tentative. Their historical memory, shaped by the present and the interviewers, also reflects the current identities they inhabit. Their accounts are rich and complicated because they are remembering their student adventures and experiences from the position of grown-ups, seniors, professionals, parents, grandparents, artists and activists. These oral documents, layered and unique, expand, deepen and change the historical record.