An A-to-Z of Oral History at Columbia | B…is for Schlesinger Library’s Black Women’s Oral History Project


An A-to-Z of Oral History at Columbia is a monthly posting featuring the people, events, and organizations in the Oral History Archive at Columbia’s collections, as well as behind-the-scenes info about oral history methodology.

Collection title: Black women oral history project : oral history, 1976-1985

Interview contents: Undertaken by the Schlesinger Library of Radcliffe College in 1976, the Black Women Oral History Project records the memoirs of selected Black American women, aged seventy and over, whose professional contributions or voluntary service had a significant impact on Black communities in the U.S.

Seven black women dressed up in their 1970s businesswear, lined up on a marble staircase.
Group portrait of Black Women Oral History Project Advisory Board. | Radcliffe College Archives Picture Collection.

The participants speak candidly of growing up during the early years of the struggle for racial equality, prior to the contemporary Civil Rights Movement. They recall childhood religious experiences, educational opportunities, and cultural milestones. Many offer family genealogies, including stories passed from generation-to-generation about enslaved and indigenous forebears. Pioneers in the ranks of business, social work, medicine, government, trade unions, athletics, and education, they emphasize the effect of race and gender on an individual’s success. Recorded in the 1970s and 1980s, the interviews, at the time, offered, new insights into the opportunities that World War II created for women and Black people in the professions, and extensive discussions of organizations which broadened awareness of Black culture, such as the YWCA, Urban League, NAACP and the National Council of Negro Women. Many notable leaders figure in these accounts, including Adam Clayton Powell, Alain Locke, Whitney Young, Meta Warrick Fuller, Mr. and Mrs. Booker T. Washington, Dr. George Washington Carver, Mrs. Jennie B. Moton, Mary McLeod Bethune, Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and Mary Church Terrell.

Of Note: a research guide to the collection

Provenance: Complete sets of the transcripts were deposited at thirteen college and university libraries and oral history offices throughout the country, of which the Oral History Research Office was one.

Behind the archival scenes: While most archives and special collections attempt to maintain a ‘uniqueness” to their collections, it’s worth considering the Schlesinger’s forethought in sharing these materials of national importance with other U.S. archives. Pre-Internet, sharing materials helped expand these unique materials’ reach in geographic locations beyond Cambridge, where the Schlesinger is located. Too,

Use cases: Women of courage: an exhibition of photographs based on the Black Women Oral History Project

Photographer Judith Sedwick created portraits of the women interviewed for the Black Women Oral History Project.

Access: online access via the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University to interview audio and transcripts

Additional resources: