Oberlin Heritage Center Blog


Posts Tagged ‘Oberlin’

A Visit to the Norfolk Waterfront

Sunday, May 27th, 2018

By Melva Tolbert, Oberlin Heritage Center Volunteer

In keeping with the theme of freedom and the Underground Railroad, I recently visited Norfolk, Virginia which is rich in history and stories of freedom. After a stop at the Norfolk Visitors Bureau, I set out to find the Norfolk Waterfront. I ventured a couple of blocks to the Elizabeth River and found an Underground Railroad historic marker which denotes the place where many enslaved blacks sought freedom along the waterfront.

Prior to the Civil War, the waterways along the east coast served as a transportation mode that brought enslaved Africans and free blacks to the east coast. It also was the site for a busy commercial activity. This historic marker highlighted the story of George Latimer, an enslaved black man seeking freedom like thousands like him in the North. George and his wife Rebecca escaped by the waterways to Boston and he did not return to his owner.

George_Latimer_lithograph

George Latimer 
Thayer & Co. (Boston, Mass.)–Lithographer
New York Public Library Digital Gallery

Because such a large number of blacks were employed in the shipping industry (shipyards, boats, and steamships) they were able to quietly assist African Americans with securing transportation heading North. Additionally, whites, either for a fee or by aiding the efforts of the Underground Railroad movement, transported enslaved men and women out of the Virginia and North Carolina area. It is believed that thousands of people were able to reach northern cities and Canada through these heroic efforts. Much like the abolitionist of Oberlin, you could find men and women in another part of the country who were committed to the message of freedom and the network of the Underground Railroad (on water).

Link to Waterways to Freedom interactive map and historical information

A Visit to the Harriet Beecher Stowe House

Friday, September 8th, 2017

by Melva Tolbert, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer

As my husband and I recently traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio for a family reunion, it was a great opportunity to spend time visiting some historic sites in a city that was so active in the struggle for freedom. My brief time at the Oberlin Heritage Center (OHC) has helped me gain a greater appreciation of not only the local history of Oberlin, but the history that encapsulates some other communities in Ohio. I became curious of Cincinnati’s local history after touring the OHC Freedom Friend’s History Walk that touched on the connection between the seminary in Cincinnati and the early settlers of Oberlin.

After a few word searches, I found information on the Harriet Beecher Stowe House. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the classic novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, which depicts the horrors of slavery in the south. Additionally, I found information on the former location of the Lane Seminary which held debates on the issues of slavery. A historical marker sits in front of a Cadillac dealership that was the former site of the seminary. It is in walking distance of the Beecher House. As our visit to Cincinnati was winding down, I made my way towards Madison Avenue in Cincinnati to seek out the only remaining building that documents a turbulent time in Cincinnati’s history as well as our nation.

Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Cincinnati

Harriet Beecher Stowe House. Photographer: Nora Pritchett

The Beecher House is located in the historic Walnut Hills neighborhood of Cincinnati and served as the residence of Harriet Beecher Stowe and her father, Rev. Lyman Beecher, the president of Lane Seminary. When I arrived at the house, a number of adults and children were touring the first and second floors. Once you enter the house, you find yourself in a large foyer and facing a long hallway which stretches into the back addition. I was told that the first three rooms were the original structure of the house. The front room to the right, which may have served as the parlor, had a poster board presentation on the Rev. Lyman Beecher, the Lane Seminary, and individuals in the community including local abolitionists. Our tour guide spoke of a community that was benefiting economically from the commercial activity along the Ohio River and the conflict over not viewing slaves as equals. Many students at the seminary and local abolitionists found the conditions unacceptable and sought immediate emancipation for those enslaved. Lyman Beecher was portrayed as part of the former, which resulted in the turmoil at the seminary. A fourteen day debate on the issues of slavery ensued over the merits of emancipation versus slavery.

In the room that was considered the family dining room, a large timeline depicted the activities of the family, the Lane Seminary, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work and family, including her husband and children. Harriet had her own personal struggles with the issue of slavery which led to her writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She felt it was important to document the difficulties of slavery particularly as
people left the south for Ohio. In 1835, the timeline indicated that many students left Lane Seminary and traveled to nearby Cumminsville, Ohio and then unto Oberlin, Ohio to continue their studies and work towards emancipation.

My visit to the Harriet Beecher Stowe House led full-circle to another guided tour by the Oberlin Heritage Center entitled Scholars and Settlers, which led us through the early settling and growth of Oberlin College. This tour began at the corner of College and Main Streets in Oberlin and proceeded along the brick and paved walkway around Tappan Square. As our small group walked along College Street near the  Oberlin Conservatory of Music, I was pleasantly surprised to see the former location of the large wood dormitory that housed those early settlers from Cincinnati.

“Unyielding dedication”: Stephen Johnson on Richard Lothrop’s Legacy

Friday, July 22nd, 2016

by Hannah Cipinko, Oberlin Heritage Center Junior Intern

 

Untitled

Richard Lothrop (1925-2015), pictured with his cocker spaniel Rusty. [1]

Oberlin is well known for its historic qualities, its strong sense of community, and high amount of community involvement. In this post we will explore the legacy of an extraordinary historian and community member, the late Richard Lothrop.  His legacy lives on today through his impressively thorough collection of significant documents and newspapers from Oberlin’s history, which are now both preserved and available for research at the Oberlin Heritage Center.

Richard Lothrop was born in 1925 in Washington, D.C., and came to live in Oberlin at only three months old. He lived with his father, mother, and younger sister. His father was a professor of chemistry at Oberlin College. After graduating from Oberlin High School, Lothrop attended the College of Wooster and then worked in various college administration positions until taking a teaching job at Fairview High School. Richard went on to become “archivist emeritus” at Oberlin’s Christ Episcopal Church, and was named “Oberlinian of the Year” in 1996. This quote from his 2015 obituary in the Oberlin News-Tribune demonstrates the extent of his “unyielding dedication to his hometown”. . .

“Richard’s legacy included an almost obsessive trait to save newspaper clippings and document people, places, and events. He kept hundreds of files on subjects ranging from Oberlin events, Oberlin residents, and Oberlin College students, faculty, and staff to trains, planes, automobiles, and stamps!”[2]

I spoke with Oberlin Heritage Center Board of Trustees member Stephen Johnson, who is undertaking the immense project of sorting and preserving the files for posterity, to find out more about both Oberlin’s more recent history and Lothrop’s legacy of preservation.

 

Hannah Cipinko (HC): To start us off, how long have you been working with the Oberlin Heritage Center?

Steve Johnson (SJ): Well, I’ve been a trustee now for five years, and I’ve had an association with them for over twenty. We’ve been members for a long, long time. And my father was president for thirteen years of the predecessor of the Oberlin Heritage Center, O.H.I.O (Oberlin Historical and Improvement Organization) so that’s where I got my interest.

 

HC: Do you know how the Heritage Center in particular came to possess these documents instead of any other organization?

SJ: Our former executive director Pat Murphy was friends with Dick Lothrop and knew of his collection. Dick had assured OHC that upon his death we would receive all this material. When he went into a nursing home . . . we ended up with twelve boxes of this material, so now we’re in the process of going through it.

 

HC:  What is that process like? Do you grab a file, or go alphabetically, and just dive in?

SJ: We’ve been working through it alphabetically. You open a file, and then . . . I sort the files into people, obituaries, and then miscellaneous, which is anything from churches, or town events, businesses in town, you know . . . anything that doesn’t qualify as people. . . We also sort out any documents from college publications because the college already has those in their archives, and there’s no need to duplicate that here . . . Once it’s sorted out, it has to be copied onto acid free paper and filed.

 

HC: What do you consider the most interesting story or item you have discovered so far?

SJ: I recently ran into a big stack of articles on our former congressman from Oberlin, who had also been the editor of the Oberlin News-Tribune, Charles Mosher. That was really fascinating to go through, it turns out he was quite an eloquent speaker and writer. So that was fun [laughs].

Untitled 2

An article about Charles Mosher found in Lothrop’s collection.

The Lorain Journal, December 12th 1975 [3]

SJ: There have been articles that have gone back to World War II, which is an interest of mine, and it’s interesting to see what the town was doing as far as scrap drives, and that kind of thing, as well as the boys and women who went off to war. Then, some of the articles are from an Oberlin Times newspaper from way back in the beginning of the century, and anything in there is interesting, just to see what life was like way back when.

The newspapers back [from] anytime before 1945 are very social. So you get little half column inch things about Mrs. Jones who threw a party and tea was served with these little crumb cakes. You know, these little snippets of life in Oberlin.

 

HC: Things you wouldn’t ordinarily think of as history.

SJ: Exactly. It shows, definitely, a way of life that has changed. It’s all interesting stuff; when you look at it, it’s like a time capsule that you open up and all of a sudden it’s 70 years ago, 80 years ago, 90 years ago.

It’s interesting to see because sometimes you get articles that are very factual, very illuminating of a person or a thing, and then you’ll have a one column inch thing that he saved of somebody who got a traffic citation. So it’s everything in between. I’ve see the heights of Oberlin history, and I’ve also sort of seen some of the depths of Oberlin history, but it’s all history. It’s something we will keep.

 

HC: What’s really fascinating about this is that it’s not only a snapshot of Oberlin’s history, but also of the perspective of Richard Lothrop as someone immersed in Oberlin’s modern culture and history. Do you think there is anything to be learned about his perspective from what he chose to keep in his files? Were there any items in particular you were surprised to see that Lothrop preserved?

SJ: The thing that strikes me about this collection is just how all inclusive it is. It doesn’t seem like he left out much; if a new business opened in town and there was a newspaper article about it, he clipped it. If there was a newspaper article in the New York Times about somebody who did something fantastic, and he had an Oberlin connection, maybe graduated from Oberlin in 1935, he has that in there.

It’s an incredible collection, and I think the most amazing thing about it is how widespread it is. He didn’t focus in on just his friends or his acquaintances, he didn’t do just Oberlin government or Oberlin sports or anything else, it’s an all inclusive thing. And for him to sit there — I sometimes get a vision of him sitting alone in his house at night, going through all the newspapers, making these clippings, and filing them away. It must have taken an incredible amount of time.

 

HC: How long do you think it will take, in full, to sort through and organize these documents?

SJ: Right now, I’m at 13 months. I probably have close to at least 200 hours at this point, probably more than that. I can see another, two years to finish it up. It’s all got to be filed, Linda Gates here at OHC has been doing all of the filing, as I get things done she grabs them and files them. I think I’m on box four or five; I’m into the M’s right now [laughs]. I have six or seven boxes left to go. So that’s at least another year and a half. It will be three years by the time everything is done completely.

 

It is clear that Lothrop’s legacy is particularly present at the Oberlin Heritage Center, whose mission it is to preserve and share local history and stories such as his. Lothrop’s obituary says it best: “History was his passion. He loved to tell stories. He had stories to tell.”[2] The Oberlin Heritage Center will continue to share his stories alongside others with the addition of his files to our collections.

 

SOURCES CONSULTED:

“An Interview with Steve Johnson.” Interview by author. June 22, 2016.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Oberlin News-Tribune. “Richard Lothrop.” Oberlin News-Tribune, August 31, 2015. 2015. Accessed June 18, 2016. http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/theoberlinnewstribune/obituary.aspx?pid=175693314. Web.

[2] “Richard Lothrop Obituary.” Cowlingfuneralhomeoh.com. 2015. Accessed June 20, 2016. http://www.cowlingfuneralhomeoh.com/obits/obituary.php?id=657250. Web.

[3] Cutleur, Bob. “Congressman Charlie Mosher Closes Out An Industrious, Undefeated Career.” The Lorain Journal, 12 Dec. 1975: n. pag. Print.

Integrating Oberlin’s Barber Shops, 1944-45

Thursday, February 25th, 2016

By Mary Manning, Ph.D., 2015-16 Local History Corps AmeriCorps Member

Examining the history of Oberlin’s barber shops means addressing a situation in which overt discrimination was standard practice, far into the twentieth century and throughout the United States. In 1940, Oberlin had 4,305 citizens, and 897 of them were black. [1]  Yet, by this time, there were no barbers in town who would serve African-American customers in their shops during regular business hours. This post presents the story of how, at the height of World War II, discrimination in the barber shops became a town-wide topic of discussion and, subsequently, a cause for social action.

In the early 1940s, when an African-American man in Oberlin wanted a haircut, he would need to go to a barber, like Walker Fair, who cut hair at his home during off hours. Though these black barbers loyally served the African-American community, barbering was only a side gig. Most of them also worked full-time jobs, either as laborers in town or in industrial jobs in nearby cities like Elyria. Many white Oberlinians did not realize this racial divide existed until, at a night meeting at Oberlin College’s Graduate School of Theology, an African-American student announced that he was leaving to go get a haircut. At first, the white students did not understand—where could someone get a haircut at that time of night? Once it became clear that the barber shops patronized by white students and faculty were off limits to black students, these men decided to act. [2]

 

Headline May 11 1944

Headline in The Oberlin News-Tribune, May 11, 1944. (Image from Oberlin College Special Collections.)

 

On May 4, 1944, some of these students staged protests in local barber shops. Two groups with both black and white members, one led by Reverend Joseph F. King, then the pastor at First Church, and the other led by Larry Durgin, a theological school student, went into two of the shops in town and stated that they would like shaves or haircuts. The white members of each group also stated that they would gladly wait to be served until after the barbers had attended to the black members of their group. The barbers, in turn, claimed that “they did not have the ‘necessary experience, that technical difficulties were involved which would make successful work on Negro hair impossible.’” [3]  As the protesters explained their presence to every new customer that entered, and some of those customers simply chose to leave, the confronted barbers closed their doors on that day rather than give in to the protesters.

With this non-violent action, integration in the barber shops provoked heated dialogue in town. Because the effect of the protest was so great, the Oberlin News-Tribune immediately took a stand in its editorial published on May 11. Though the editor, Charles Mosher, criticized the tactics of the students and their allies, illuminating aspects of the increasing town and gown divide, he declared: “like a dash of cold water in our faces, [the protests] awoke many of us to realization that race segregation in the barber shops is no credit to Oberlin.” [4]  Mosher would later say, in an oral history interview, that “no event in Oberlin…since the Wellington rescue came so close to inflamed violence.” [5]  It was also Mosher, in that editorial, who proposed a solution: “buy one of the local barber shops and operate it on a bi-racial policy.” [6]

On the Sunday after the newspaper published Mosher’s editorial, Dr. Walter Horton, a theology professor substituting for Reverend King at First Church, also forcefully addressed the topic in his sermon. He invoked the intentions of Oberlin’s founders to create “an ideal community,” and he reminded the congregation of the city’s historic commitment to “the equality of all men before God.” On the subject of the barber shops, Horton cut straight to the heart of the matter, saying: ‘The right to have a hair-cut at convenient hours, without going out of town or suffering humiliating rebuffs from the only shops open, may not be as important as the rights to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’; but the denial of this elementary human service in Oberlin constitutes a reversal of all our most sacred traditions and casts a cloud over the reputation for fair play for which we are famous.” [7]

Thus, the theological students and professors, with the support and counsel of prominent Oberlinians, including the activist Robert Thomas and Mount Zion Baptist Church’s Reverend Normal C. Crosby, determined to follow Mosher’s recommendation. They would call themselves the Barber Shop Harmony Committee, and they would raise funds to buy out a local shop and hire a barber from out of town who would commit to running an integrated shop. By the end of their first meeting on June 19, thirty-seven members of the community had pledged $541 toward the fund. [8]  By September, the committee had calculated that they would need at least $2,500 to execute their plan, and they decided to sell stock at $1 per share, an affordable price even for student supporters. [9]  They would eventually purchase a shop from Bill Winder, one of the barbers targeted in the May 4 protests. On October 31, the Barber Shop Harmony Committee finalized a deal with Winder to buy his shop at 42 ½ South Main St. for $1,250. They then acknowledged their vision of social progress through their decision to rechristen Winder’s space as the Cosmopolitan Barber Shop.  [10]

Despite the clear successes of their fundraising and the shop’s purchase, the Cosmopolitan Barber Shop still lacked one item without which it could not operate: the willing barber. At first, they hired a man from Washington, D.C., who would arrive at the end of October but who then “had his plans changed by personal affairs.” [11]  Though they had intended to open on November 1, they could not open for another ten days, by which time they had secured the services of a barber whose name was Jerry Mizuiri. Mizuiri (“pronounced like Missouri,” noted the newspaper) was a Japanese-American from Oakland, California. [12]

 

Cosmopolitan Barber Shop ad, Oberlin Review, 1944-11-17, vol 73-A, no. 2, p. 2

Advertisement in The Oberlin Review, Nov. 11, 1944.  (Image from the Oberlin College Archives.)

 

However, in 1944, World War II raged abroad. The Oberlin News-Tribune, on December 28 of that year, would list the names of over 700 local people in service overseas, along with 16 names of local men who had died, 3 who remained prisoners of war, and the approximately 50 men who had already been honorably discharged, perhaps due to injuries. [13]  Many of these servicemen fought in the especially brutal Pacific theater of the war while, in the United States, the perceived threat of Japanese invasion had resulted in over 100,000 Japanese-Americans being removed from their West Coast homes and interned in camps further inland by a federal agency, the War Relocation Authority (WRA). Though Mizuiri was an American citizen by birth, he had been relocated to an internment camp in Northern California. [14]  He was then sent to Cleveland, where a satellite office of the WRA funneled displaced Japanese-American workers into local industrial and clerical jobs. [15]  Employers, such as Oberlin’s Cosmopolitan Barber Shop, might send job notices to the WRA office, who would then place qualified workers in those roles. Mizuiri’s arrival in Oberlin for the purpose of running an integrated shop was so noteworthy that Time Magazine even briefly covered it. In a very short item titled “Tonsorial Tolerance,” the magazine let its readers infer the irony of the situation by noting that white students could finally get their hair cut “beside Negroes” by a barber who was a “Nisei,” a Japanese term meaning “second generation.” [16]

Though wartime Oberlin now had the potential to transcend the black/white racial barrier, business at the Cosmopolitan Barber Shop did not immediately boom. Mizuiri was far from the only Japanese-American person to be relocated and employed in the area, but the fact remained that anti-Japanese rhetoric remained a significant component of the era’s homefront propaganda. Town activist and barber shop corporation member Robert Thomas recalled later, in 1979, that a number of town residents had expressed to him that they preferred not to have Mizuiri “fooling around their heads with a razor.” [17]  Consequently, this other means of racial discrimination made it difficult for the integrated barber shop to meet its social goals. The directors of the shop’s corporation tracked the racial identities of people who patronized the shop over its first few months of existence and estimated that only five percent of their customers were actually African-American. [18]

Soon, outside circumstances again took over from the men who ran the Cosmopolitan Barber Shop—the West Coast reopened to Japanese-Americans, and it was becoming increasingly clear that the Allied Powers would triumph in the war. By May 1945, Mizuiri left Oberlin, eventually to rejoin his family in California.[19]  In seeking another barber, the committee found Robert Taliaferro, a man perhaps more suited to pleasing the Oberlin community. Besides working as a barber in Wooster, Wellington, and Cleveland, Taliaferro was an African-American Baptist minister. With the untimely presence of a Japanese-American barber removed from the equation, business steadily picked up.

 

Oberlin Review, 7-12-46, p. 2 ad

Advertisement in The Oberlin Review, July 12, 1946. (Image from the Oberlin College Archives.)

 

With Taliaferro at the helm, the Cosmopolitan Barber Shop could finally be viewed as a success, so much so that, by 1946, they decided to hire a second barber. By chance, Gerald Scott happened to be looking for a new place to settle down. While walking through downtown Oberlin, already enamored with the beauty of the area, he saw a “Barber Wanted” sign in a window and immediately applied. An African-American man who had been working as a barber in Wooster, Scott would take over the shop’s second chair and eventually become known to everyone in town as Scotty. After four years, with the Cosmopolitan Barber Shop deemed both a social and a financial success, the corporation decided to sell the business. When Taliaferro, by then an older man, passed on their offer, Scotty bought the shop, agreeing to the condition that it would always remain integrated. [20]

 

Scotty's 42 S Main 1948 Hi O Hi CROP

Scott Brothers Barber Shop ca. 1948 (Image from 1948 Hi-O-Hi Oberlin High School Yearbook.)

 

Though Oberlin’s racial struggles certainly did not end with the founding of the Barber Shop Harmony Committee, Scotty would spend the rest of his life as a barber in Oberlin and become one of the town’s most beloved businessmen. More importantly, integrated barber shops became the norm, and African-American barbers from then on had the option of serving both black and white customers in their own storefront shops. Scotty was eventually joined in town by George Goodson and Ray Murphy, who both grew up in Oberlin, served in World War II, and then came home to make their careers as barbers in integrated Oberlin shops. Though twentieth-century Oberlin faced the same racial struggles as the rest of the United States, men like these barbers provided welcoming spaces that could unite members of the community, even if only for the time it took to get a haircut.

 

SOURCES CONSULTED:

“Barber Shop Harmony,” The Oberlin News-Tribune, May 11, 1944, p.4.

Charles Adams and Harriet Johnson Mosher. Interview by Marlene Merrill. Oberlin Oral History Project, Series I. Oberlin Heritage Center, Oberlin, OH. May 9-10, 1983.

“Committee to Purchase Winder Shop,” The Oberlin News-Tribune, Sept. 21, 1944, p. 1.

“Cosmopolitan Barber Shop Subscribers to Meet Next Thursday,” The Oberlin News-Tribune, May 3, 1945, p. 1.

George Jones, Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Thomas, and Robert ‘Bob’ Thomas. Interview by Allan Patterson. Oberlin Oral History Project, Series I. Oberlin Heritage Center, Oberlin, OH. Nov. 17, 1984.

Gerald Scott. Interview by Mildred Chapin. Oberlin Oral History Project, Series I. Oberlin Heritage Center, Oberlin, OH. Nov. 14, 1986.

“Horton Discusses Segregation Controversy in the Light of Oberlin’s Historic Ideals,” Oberlin News-Tribune, May 18, 1944, p. 4.

“Inter-Racial Barber Shop Completes Deal with Winder,” The Oberlin News-Tribune, Nov. 2, 1944, p. 1.

“Japanese.” Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.

“Jerry Mizuiri.” San Francisco Chronicle, Apr. 22, 2009.

“Mizuire, Ichiro J.” File Unit: Japanese-American Internee Data File, 1942 – 1946. Series: Records about Japanese-Americans Relocated During World War II, created 1988-89, documenting the period 1942-46; Record Group 210.  National Archives and Records Administration.

“Oberlin Does Not Forget!” The Oberlin News-Tribune, Dec. 28, 1944, p. 1

Robert ‘Bob’ Thomas. Interview by Peter Way. Oberlin Oral History Project, Series I. Oberlin Heritage Center, Oberlin, OH. April 19, 1979.

Roland M. Baumann, Constructing Black Education at Oberlin College

“Theology Groups Test Race Views of Barber Shops,” The Oberlin Review, vol. 72A, no. 24, May 12, 1944, p. 1.

“Tonsorial Tolerance,” Time Magazine, Nov. 27, 1944, p. 44.

“To Raise Fund for Bi-Racial Barber Shop,” The Oberlin News-Tribune, June 22, 1944, p. 1.

 

FOOTNOTES:
[1] Baumann, p. 97
[2] Robert ‘Bob’ Thomas, interview, April 19, 1979.
[3] “Theology Groups Test Race Views of Barber Shops”
[4] “Barber Shop Harmony”
[5] Charles Adams and Harriet Johnson Mosher, interview, May 9-10, 1983.
[6] “Barber Shop Harmony”
[7] “Horton Discusses Segregation Controversy”
[8] “To Raise Fund for Bi-Racial Barber Shop”
[9] “Committee to Purchase Winder Shop”
[10] “Inter-Racial Barber Shop Completes Deal with Winder”
[11] “Committee to Purchase Winder Shop”; “Inter-Racial Barber Shop Completes Deal with Winder”
[12] “Inter-Racial Barber Shop is Now a Going Concern”
[13] “Oberlin Does Not Forget!”
[14] “Mizuire, Ichiro J.”
[15] “Japanese”
[16] “Tonsorial Tolerance”
[17] Robert ‘Bob’ Thomas, interview, April 19, 1979.
[18] George Jones, Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Thomas, and Robert ‘Bob’ Thomas, interview, Nov. 17, 1984.
[19] “Cosmopolitan Barber Shop Subscribers to Meet Next Thursday”; “Jerry Mizuiri”; Robert ‘Bob’ Thomas, interview, April 19, 1979.
[20] Gerald Scott, interview, Nov. 14, 1986.

Behind the Scenes – Oral History Digitizing

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

by Eileen Telegdy, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer

I am Eileen Telegdy and in October of 2014 I retired, sold my home and moved to a condo in Oberlin. I responded to an ad Liz Schultz, the Museum Education and Tour Coordinator of the Oberlin Heritage Center, placed in the local paper in January of 2015 seeking volunteers to join the Oberlin Oral History Committee. I joined and volunteered to help digitize the cassette tapes from the Series II phase of the project (2000 to the present).

 

Eileen Telegdy digitizing an oral history cassette

 

Digitizing the tapes is done in the basement of the Monroe House, which is teeming with activity by employees, interns, students and volunteers. The space is well utilized and surprisingly quiet, interrupted only by phone and doorbell rings and soft spoken conversations. Everyone is friendly, welcoming and helpful. Once an interview is completed it is painstakingly transcribed, saved to files on the computer and also printed and placed in a binder. A preface is also written, cassette labeled and cataloged in inventory. The quality of the tapes varies.

To digitize, the cassette tape is played on a converter connected to the computer with a USB cord. As the converter plays the tape, a free program called Audacity records it and then converts it into a WAV (sound) file. The results in a more efficient method of storage and improved preservation and availability. I found listening to the interviews captivating and compelling, so much so that I wanted to be in the basement of the Monroe House with earphones on four mornings a week for a couple of months. I listened to the interviews as they were recorded and simultaneously read the transcripts to check for any discrepancies. The chronicling from childhood to retirement years of multiple generations of residents who experienced all the conflict and challenges that faced our nation during the last millennium to the present is illuminating and hearing their stories in their own voices adds an invaluable dimension.

Since most interviews are not focused on one specific subject, information on various issues is revealed in an anecdotal manner in numerous interviews of different individuals, providing insight and understanding of very diverse positions on a multitude of issues. For example, the interviews explain the obstacles encountered and the procedures required that eventually brought Splash Zone, the industrial park, fair housing, Kendal, and the FAA to Oberlin, plus the beginning of Head Start and averting what was the apparent imminent closure of the hospital in Oberlin. This is not a comprehensive list; only a representation of some of the subjects discussed. All benefited from the perseverance and diligent efforts of hard working motivated individuals who believed in the betterment of the city for all ages and races. I think hearing the voices increases understanding of the transcripts exponentially. The voices provide intent, emotion and inflection that are lacking in the written word. It is my sincere hope this method will keep the interviews available for many years. Presently, all the cassette tapes in inventory have been digitized. It was a pleasure and privilege to contribute to this project.