Berkshire Black Oral History Collaborative Forms to Preserve African American Stories

Clinton Church Restoration Project, the Berkshire County chapter of the NAACP, and the Housatonic Heritage Oral History Center at Berkshire Community College, have teamed up to form an oral history collaborative that will collect and preserve the stories of African Americans in the Berkshires. The initiative, called Quilting Our History: African American Voices of Wisdom and Memory, was born out of ongoing discussions between members of the three organizations.

Dr. Frances Jones-Sneed

“The wisdom and memory captured in these oral histories belong to our community,” says Frances Jones-Sneed, a member of the Clinton Church Restoration board and chair of the local NAACP’s education committee. “Just as our ancestors passed their stories down to us, we want to make sure that these voices are preserved for generations to come.”

As a historian and professor emeritus at MCLA, Jones-Sneed has led NEH-funded projects on African American biography, served as the humanities scholar for the Berkshire County Historical Society’s Invisible Communities project in the 1990s, and is currently interviewing people associated with the former Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church in Great Barrington. She and other organizers see the Collaborative as an opportunity to expand on the work of these prior initiatives as well as an NAACP oral history project that was a collaboration of the NAACP and the Oral History Center and the subject of a Berkshire Museum exhibit in 2019.

With support from the Oral History Center, the group plans to host a workshop to train community members and students in oral history methodologies, project planning, and ethical standards. The Center will also provide ongoing advice and technical assistance, including archiving the recordings at the University of Massachusetts Libraries Special Collections and University Archives.

“People are always excited about conducting the interviews,” says Judith Monachina, who directs the Center, “but unless the recordings are properly archived, they may never be heard.” For each hour of an interview, it takes an average of 30 additional hours to complete the process.

Over the past several years, Monachina has worked with the Berkshire Athenaeum on digitizing and restoring 20 existing recordings from the Invisible Communities project that had been tucked away for years. The Berkshire County Historical Society recently received a grant from Mass Humanities to cover the cost of transcribing and preparing those materials for the University of Massachusetts archive. Jones-Sneed plans to reach out to other organizations that focus on African American history in the Berkshires or house existing oral histories from the community once the Collaborative is up and running.

“I’m glad to see these stories being returned to the community,” says Dennis Powell, president of the Berkshire NAACP and vice-chair of Clinton Church Restoration. He stresses the importance of capturing the wisdom and memory of our living elders. “We have lost too many people during this pandemic,” he adds. “Let’s be sure we don’t lose their stories, too.”

Clinton Church Restoration’s planned center will not only incorporate oral histories into its interpretive exhibits but also house a Story Corps-style oral history recording studio for use by visitors.