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Oral history, historical memory, and social change in West Mount Airy

There are many exciting things coming down the Oral History Review pipeline, including OHR volume 41, issue 2, the Oral History Association annual meeting, and a new staff member. But before we get to all of that, I want to take one last opportunity to celebrate OHR volume 41, issue 1 — specifically, Abigail Perkiss’ “Reclaiming the Past: Oral History and the Legacy of Integration in West Mount Airy, Philadelphia.” In this article, Abigail investigates an oral history project launched in her hometown in the 1990s, which sought to resolve contemporary tensions by collecting stories about the area’s experience with racial integration in the 1950s. Through this intriguing local history, Abigail digs into the connection between oral history, historical memory, and social change.

Abby Perkiss. Photo credit:  Laurel Harrish Photography
Abigail Perkiss. Photo credit: Laurel Harrish Photography

If that weren’t enough to whet your academic appetite, the article also went live the same week her first daughter, Zoe, was born.


How awesome is that?

But back to business. Earlier this month I chatted with Abigail about the article and the many other projects she has had in the works this year. So, please enjoy this quick interview and her article, which is currently available to all.

How did you become interested in oral history?

I’ve been gathering people’s stories in informal ways for as long as I can remember, and as an undergraduate sociology major at Bryn Mawr College, my interests began to coalesce around the intersection of storytelling and social change. I took classes in ethnography, worked as a PA on a few documentary projects, and interned at a documentary theater company. All throughout, I had the opportunity to develop and hone my skills as an interviewer.

I began taking history classes my junior year, and through that I started to think about the idea of oral history in a more intentional way. I focused my research around oral history, which culminated in my senior thesis, in which I interviewed several folksingers to examine the role of protest music in creating a collective memory of the Vietnam War, and how that memory was impacting the way Americans understood the war in Iraq. A flawed project, but pretty amazing to speak with people like Pete Seeger, Janis Ian, and Mary Travers!

After college, I studied at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, and when I began my doctoral studies at Temple University, I knew that I wanted to pursue research that would allow me to use oral history as one of the primary methodological approaches.

What sparked your interest in the Mount Airy project?

When I started my graduate work at Temple, I was pursuing a joint JD/PhD in US history. I knew I wanted to do something in the fields of urban history and racial justice, and I kept coming back to the Mount Airy integration project. I actually grew up in West Mount Airy, and even as a kid, I was very much aware of the lore of the neighborhood integration project. There was a real sense that the community was unique, special.

I knew that there had to be more to the utopian vision that was so pervasive in public conversations about the neighborhood, and I realized that by contextualizing the community’s efforts within the broader history of racial justice and urban space in the mid-twentieth century, I would be able to look critically about the concept and process of interracial living. I could also use oral history as a key piece of my research.

Your article focuses on an 1990s oral history project led by a local organization, the West Mount Airy Neighbors. Why did you choose to augment the interviews they collected with your own?

The 1993 oral history project was a wonderful resource for my book project (from which this article comes); but for my purposes, it was also incomplete. Interviewers focused largely on the early years of integration, so I wasn’t able to get much of a sense of the historical evolution of the efforts. The questions were also framed according to a very particular set of goals that project coordinators sought to achieve — as I argue, they hoped to galvanize community cohesion in the 1990s and to situate the local community organization at the center of contemporary change.

So, while the interviews were quite telling about the West Mount Airy Neighbors’ efforts to maintain institutional control in the neighborhood, they weren’t always useful for me in getting at some of the other questions I was trying to answer: about the meaning of integration for various groups in the community, about the racial politics that emerged, about the perception of Mount Airy in the city at large. To get at those questions, it was important for me to conduct additional interviews.

Is there anything you couldn’t address in the article that you’d like to share here?

As I alluded to above, it is part of a larger book project on postwar residential integration, Making Good Neighbors: Civil Rights, Liberalism, and Integration in Postwar Philadelphia (Cornell University Press, 2014). There, I look at the broader process of integrating and the challenges that emerged as the integration efforts coalesced and evolved over the decades. Much of the research for the book came from archival collections, but the oral histories from the 1990s, and the ones I collected, were instrumental in fleshing out the story and humanizing what could otherwise have been a rather institutional history of the West Mount Airy Neighbors organization.

Are you working on any projects the OHR community should know about?

I’ve spent the past 18 months directing an oral history project on Hurricane Sandy, Staring out to Sea, which came about through a collaboration with Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region (remember them?) and a seminar I taught in Spring 2013. That semester, I worked intensively with six undergraduates, studying the practice of oral history and setting up the project’s parameters. The students developed the themes and questions, recruited participants, conducted and transcribed interviews. They then processed and analyzed their findings, looking specifically at issues of race, power and representation in the wake of the storm.

In addition to blogging about their experience, the students presented their work at the 2013 OHMAR and OHA meetings. You can read a bit more about that and the project in Perspectives on History. This fall, I’ll be working with Professor Dan Royles and his digital humanities students to index the interviews we’ve collected and develop an online digital library for the project. I’ll also be attending to the OHA annual meeting this year to discuss the project’s transformative impact on the students themselves.

Excellent! I look forward to seeing you (and the rest of our readers) in Madison this October.

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