Black History and Culture is a special edition of 15 features devoted to the history and heritage of African Americans in Pennsylvania, from the American Revolution to World War II, published December 1977.

In July, 1977, I concluded a series of oral history interviews with elderly members of the Black com­munity in Chester, Pennsylvania. Sponsored by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission as part of its oral history program, I secured approximately twenty­-five hours of taped interviews from twenty respondents. The average age of the interviewees was probably seventy years. They came from all walks of life. Many of the re­spondents were born in Chester, while others emigrated to the community. usually early in life, from areas such as Georgia, the eastern shore of Maryland, and Delaware.

This brief essay will review the procedures and tech­niques employed in gathering the interviews. The first problem was selecting the interviewees. I began by dis­cussing the project with the Rev. Daniel Scott, pastor of the Bethany Baptist Church in Chester for thirty-seven years, and I secured from him a list of those who might agree to be interviewed. I contacted each of these indi­viduals by telephone, reviewed the project with them, and requested an interview. For a variety of reasons which are familiar to most practitioners of oral history, a number of these individuals were hesitant about participating in the program. Finally, Mrs. Tiney Bradford, a remarkable woman who had emigrated to Chester from Georgia early in this century, consented to an interview, and the project was under way.

At the conclusion of the taping with Mrs. Bradford and at the end of all subsequent interviews, I asked the narrator to recommend people who might also agree to participate. In addition, I met with a reporter from the Delaware County Daily Times, who published a brief but widely read article about the project, which produced unsolicited inquiries from people who wanted to con­tribute. An editor of the newspaper also supplied names of potential interviewees and allowed me to examine the clipping file for information on a number of these people.

Armed now with a healthy list of possible contributors and aided by the publicity generated by the article, which seemed to encourage people to participate, I was able to schedule a number of additional interviews. But still the project moved at a distressingly slow pace. Interview dates were frequently cancelled, often on short notice, individuals were difficult to reach, and the setting of a mutually agreeable appointment time was hard to arrange.

Then I interviewed Mr. George Raymond. Born and raised in Chester, Mr. Raymond was president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). active in Chester politics, and a widely respected member of the community. His own story, recorded on three hours of tape, provides an exceptional insight into the life of the community through the experiences of an intelligent, sensitive, courageous man. Equally important, he became an enthusiastic booster of the project and offered to help me learn about the “real Chester.” From that time on the interviewing proceeded at a dizzy pace. He arranged interviews with individuals from all corners of Chester, personally introduced me to the respondents, assisted during the taping, and helped me to till blanks in the information or questions. In large measure he is responsible for the success of this project, and I am deeply indebted to him for his unstinting efforts.

A fairly traditional interview technique was used with each respondent. I introduced myself and the project, talked for a time about the value of oral history, and answered any questions from the interviewee. Then I set up the cassette recorder in a location suggested by the con­tributor and opened the questioning with an inquiry about the respondent’s recollection of his or her early life and family. Subsequent questions followed a chronological pattern tracing the individual’s life through the years to the present day. Important or sensitive topics, such as the Chester race riot of 1917, local politics, or patterns of discrimination, were probed deeply at the appropriate time in the interview. Occasionally circumstances required that I interview two people, usually a husband and wife, simultaneously. Most interviews were concluded in an hour (I used C-90 tape) although a number ran longer. The usual problems of noise and interference were en­countered and mastered without much difficulty. Each interview concluded with the signing of the Historical and Museum Commission’s official permission form and a request for any materials which the person might want to donate to the project.

While the quality of each interview varies, overall each provides a revealing glimpse into the life experiences, atti­tudes, and perceptions of Chester Negroes. Scholars interested in writing “history from the bottom up” will find the tapes particularly useful. The tapes are now housed at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

 

Dr. John Turner received his Ph.D. from Columbia University, and has taught at Adelphi University and West Chester State College. His articles have appeared in New York History, The Historian, The Dictionary of American History, Pan-African Journal and New-York Historical Society Quarterly; he is the co-editor of Riot, Rout, and Tumult: Readings in American Social and Political Violence (Greenwood, 1978).