One hundred oral histories of life in the Jim Crow South, complete with transcripts, have been digitized and made available on the Duke University Libraries website and iTunes U, a dedicated area within the iTunes Store.
From 1993 to 1995, dozens of graduate students at Duke and other schools fanned out across the South to capture stories of segregation as part of “Behind the Veil,” an oral history project at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies (CDS). The students sought to preserve the stories before the men and women who survived Jim Crow passed away. The interviews — some 1,260 in all — were recorded on regular cassette tapes, transcribed and archived in Duke’s special collections library.
Some of the interviews were included in an award-winning book and radio documentary, Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South, produced 10 years ago by the CDS and American RadioWorks.
But many of the interviews were omitted from the book and documentary.
For example, in 1957, a group of African-American businessmen in Memphis launched a boycott of the city’s largest daily paper to protest the paper’s policy of not using courtesy titles, like Mr. or Mrs., when referring to blacks. The businessmen bought every copy they could find of The Commercial Appeal and threw them into the Mississippi River.
“I don’t care how prominent you were, you were just Willie Brown,” said Imogene Watkins Wilson, a schoolteacher whose husband edited the Memphis Tri-State Defender, the city’s leading African-American newspaper. “You weren’t Rev. Willie Brown, you weren’t Dr. Willie Brown, you weren’t Professor Willie Brown. And then, if [they] referred to your wife, she was Suzie. Not Mrs. Suzie, just Suzie.”
Wilson recollected the start of the seven-week boycott in a July 1995 interview with a Duke student, but her story never made the original project’s final cut. Now her memories — along with the personal accounts of scores of other Americans who lived through the Jim Crow era — are among the hundred stories that have been digitized and made available for free for researchers, genealogists, educators and others.
Another newly digitized story is told by Ernest A. Grant of Tuskegee, Ala., who recounts how his mother was forced to flee town for burning a white insurance agent with a hot iron after he made unwelcome advances toward her. And Jesse Johnson of Norfolk, Va., a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, describes officer training in the 1940s at Fort Lee, Va. as “the most segregated, the most prejudiced camp in the United States.”