Now Hear This! Oral Histories at the Historical and Museum Commission

Oral History Feature is a series of articles drawn extensively from interviews with individuals who participated in or have personal knowledge about historic Pennsylvania events.

Something very healthy is happening in the field of American history which will profoundly influence future writing and thinking about our past. Oral historians are helping to change our sense of the social fabric of the country. In fact, it is difficult now to measure the meaning of our nation’s and Pennsyl­vania’s past, or the quality of American life, solely in terms of the experiences of a single region, race or ethnic group. No longer is it possible to think America has a single “way of life,” for oral historians have uncovered the various ethnic and work cultures and tradi­tions which have molded different at­titudes toward education, political participation and work. The many oral histories which now exist prove that Pennsylvania’s, and indeed America’s, social life is too complex to be described in absolute terms.

These oral historians are asking important questions: Why did most im­migrants and workers perceive America, and especially Pennsylvania, as a land of opportunity and equality? What was it like to grow up in places like early twentieth-century Chester County, Pennsylvania, or to be a fe­male or non-white in Pittsburgh over sixty years ago? What are the historical origins of present patterns of religious and family life? Why did people settle in ethnic ghettos in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh? What role did kinship net­works and local group ties play within the population of Pennsylvania’s cities? How did workers organize a union?

In addition, oral historians are helping to supplement the written records of prominent political and business leaders which, up to now, have been the main sources for recon­structing our past. Oral histories help to preserve much that might otherwise be lost, particularly now with the in­creased use of the telephone and the decline in letter writing and the keeping of diaries. Oral history tapes pro­vide us with unusually intimate glimpses and frequently contain “in­side information” about political and business dealings and leaders which is often missing from the written record. They help to unveil notable men and women and portray them as human beings with very real character strengths and weaknesses. These oral history interviews contribute to a better understanding of how great or famous Americans are molded, how they rise to prominence and how they influence our lives.

 

I

Aware of the immense value and potential of oral history, the Pennsyl­vania Historical and Museum Commis­sion (PHMC) has collected approximately 1,000 taped interviews from over twenty oral history projects con­ducted throughout the Common­wealth over the last decade. Most of these interviews are with “common” people, predominately elderly from varied backgrounds: European immi­grants and their descendants; southern black migrants; Hispanics; coal, steel and factory workers; urban and small-town Pennsylvania Dutch; WASP’s; and women domestics, secretaries and teachers. Also within this comprehen­sive oral history collection, however, is a substantial number of interviews with professionals and members of Pennsylvania’s political, economic and intellectual elite.

The oral histories in the collection represent the diversity of life in Penn­sylvania. Tapes of certain projects contain interviews from the coal-patch towns of Washington, Luzerne and Lackawanna counties; the large and medium-sized cities of Pittsburgh, Scranton, Bethlehem, Harrisburg and Philadelphia; and the small towns and villages of York, Chester and Tioga counties. Some of these oral history projects were initiated and supervised by PHMC personnel; some were begun and conducted by other individuals and institutions with only conceptual and technical guidance from the Com­mission. A third series of interviews, in classrooms and communities, was run independently of the PHMC.

Although each oral history project formulated its own questionnaire to suit its particular needs and goals, al­most all of the oral histories are bio­graphical. Most interviews are life. history narratives, beginning with questions about the interviewee’s early life and family background with subse­quent questions following chronologi­cally, tracing the narrator’s life to the present. The particular aspects of the narrator’s life which are touched upon or emphasized (childhood, family life, religion, education, work experiences, political and social activities) depend upon the focus and goals of each project. The quality and length of each interview varies, of course, de­pending upon such factors as the nar­rator’s talkativeness and memory, the interviewer’s training and skills and other intangibles, such as the moods of the narrator and interviewer and the relationship which developed between them at the time of the interview.

These oral histories are a valuable resource for those interested in any area of Pennsylvania and, indeed, in American social and political history. The collection contains a wealth of in­formation about European immigrants (Poles, Slovaks, Italians, Germans, Czechs, Serbs, Croatians, Greeks, Jews, Carpatho-Rusins, Russians, Irish and Scotch-Irish); their migrations from Europe to America and Pennsylvania; their problems of settlement; their work experiences; their neighborhood and community life within large cities and the preservation of their tradi­tions. There is interesting oral testi­mony by blacks about sharecropping and tenant farming in the South; their settlement and creation of northern urban communities in cities like Pitts­burgh and Harrisburg; and the preservation of distinct black cultural tradi­tions. These interviews further reveal inspiring stories about black Ameri­cans’ courageous struggles against racism, discrimination and segregation.

Also in the collection, women talk about their lives as housewives and their impressions of marriage, mother­hood and other wider social roles. The tapes further disclose the restricted avenues of opportunity for women, the conditions and wages of women’s work and their relationships with men both at home and at the workplace.

Anyone consulting these oral histories – scholar, high school teacher or local history buff – will discover rich material on such topics as farm, fac­tory, mill and mine work; strikes; rural life and folklore; barns and barn building; and material about many histori­cal events such as World Wars I and II. the Great Depression, the New Deal, the 1919 Steel Strike in Pittsburgh and the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, especially the creation of the United Steelworkers Union.

Another section con ta ins interviews with many Pennsylvania local and state politicians, state government offi­cials and newspapermen who either associated with these officials or were active during their administrations. Among the prominent figures inter­viewed are former Governors Arthur James, John S. Fine, David Lawrence, George Leader and William Scranton, and former United States Senators Joseph S. Clark and Hugh Scott. The oral histories contain detailed informa­tion on the lives and careers of these politicians and government officials; important political elections, conven­tions and intra-party battles; the en­actment of laws; and the operation of state government departments and bureaus, and municipal governments.

 

II

At present, the PHMC staff has pro­cessed the bulk of the tapes and a por­tion of the collection has been tran­scribed. Many of the oral histories have been summarized and indexed, making use of the tapes relatively easy. For some projects, such as those con­ducted in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Chester County, summaries and tran­scriptions are more complete. Collateral materials (diaries, photographs and relevant articles) are also available for some of the interviews. A majority of the tapes and transcripts are open for research; others may be used under special conditions.

The PHMC’s Division of History is compiling a comprehensive guide to its oral history collection. Completed sec­tions of the guide are now available for use by patrons researching these oral histories at the state archives in Harris­burg. In the near future, the PHMC also will publish a pamphlet on the oral history collection describing each project and reviewing the major histor­ical topics covered in the taped inter­views. In addition, the PHMC Oral History Office offers consulting and other services to institutions and individuals who are interested in launch­ing oral history projects or who want to write community histories based upon material from the oral history collection. Researchers using the material from the collection are also en­couraged to submit articles based upon that material to the Oral History Office to be considered for publication as Oral History Features in Pennsylvania Heritage.

Questions concerning the oral his­tory collection, or information about other materials that might be housed at the PHMC, should be directed to the Commission’s Oral History Office, Division of History, Bureau of Archives and History, Box 1026, Harris­burg 17120, or call (717) 787-3253.

 

Matthew S. Magda, a doctoral candi­date in American history at the University of Connecticut, works in the Oral History Office of the PHMC. Previously, he served as the Administrative Assistant and Chief interviewer for the Ethnic Heritage, Peoples of Connecticut Oral History Project.