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In a few years, residents and scholars will be able to access recorded testimony from people who have lived in D.C. for decades.
That’s the hope, at least, for a new, first-of-its-kind “oral history project” poised to receive $200,000 in start-up funding as part of the District’s fiscal year 2017 budget. Though these initial funds won’t become available until October, a cadre of history-focused groups already have grand ambitions for the collaboration. The project, leaders of the groups contend, will fulfill a critical need for a city changing as rapidly as D.C.: preserving, organizing, and making available to the public the memories of its inhabitants. The D.C. Council’s Committee on Education, chaired by At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, approved the appropriation in May.
“We want to capture these stories before people are no longer with us,” Grosso says, mentioning that many elderly black residents came to the District during the Great Migration. “We need to do a more deliberate job of it.”
While the groups—including the D.C. Public Library, HumanitiesDC, and the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.—haven’t yet determined the specific details for the project, their directors say current and future residents as well as students will benefit from it. Each says a sense of urgency underscores the need for the program, given that those who’ve lived here the longest are aging.
Richard Reyes-Gavilan, the head of DCPL, says the library aims to serve as a central point of access for the oral histories, which will involve recordings but also metadata so visitors can find them with ease. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, he says, could serve as a “one-stop shop” for people interested in the city’s history—especially after it gets renovated in the coming years.
“The library has done a few of its own oral history projects as have other repositories,” Reyes-Gavilan explains. “But where do I go to get my hands on all of these? You’d be sent to four or eight or different places and you still wouldn’t know if you were given access to the whole world of them.”
John Suau, the executive director of the Historical Society of Washington, says D.C. can look to cities like New York and Chicago for guidance on how to implement the project. The New York Public Library has an online database of oral histories, for example, and Chicago has such a program tailored for teens, the Illinois native notes. HSW wants some “intellectual rigor” in the project, Suau adds, from participants interviewing subjects and faithfully transcribing recordings to making the products searchable and digital.
“Part of this process will include looking for additional funding outside of the city, from federal agencies and private organizations,” Suau says. “They generally don’t give support unless there’s local support…We need to have something in hand.”
The executive director points out that 2018 will be the 50th anniversary of the 1968 race riots in the District, “a pivotal moment.”
Joy Ford Austin, the executive director of HumanitiesDC, says her organization could give out grants for the oral history project. She aspires to gather input from scholars and community members on capturing the most pressing stories for future generations.
“It’s an opportunity to preserve people’s memories and their interpretations of their contemporary life as well as the past,” Austin says. “People will be pleased to look back and say, ‘Yeah, they had the good sense to keep this record and to make it available.'”
“It’s a real contribution and a real gift that can be made to this city.”