Dr. Schultz shares importance of oral history

Lewis faculty member shares importance of oral history for African Americans

Published: November 30, 2009.

Lewis University history professor Dr. Mark Schultz discussed one of his favorite topics: African American history on Nov. 19 as part of the Art of Memory series. Throughout his lecture, “The Reliability of Memory: The Memory of the African-American Community,” Schultz shared his findings from the interviews he conducted with the elderly living in Hancock County, Ga.

Schultz began by announcing, “Memory is amazing; some memories are endurable and transient while others are very vague.” He asked his audience members to think back to their earliest memories. The Lewis professor believes that memories are usually turned into stories; some are accurate and others have gaps.

According to Schultz, if there is no historical source that is completely objective and accurate, oral history is an effective way to share stories of the past. He stated, “People remember, with great accuracy, emotionally-charged incidents.” What is important is usually remembered and then turned into a story. Schultz added that people do not try to remember facts; they search for meaning and are often subjective.

To gain a better understanding of what it was like to be living in the South at the time of the Jim Crow laws, Schultz traveled to Hancock County and interviewed hundreds of elderly individuals. Many of the African American elderly whom he spoke to were illiterate, and Schultz believes illiterate individuals have much better memories than others. “Since they did not have books, they told stories,” Schultz explained.

He entered rural Hancock County expecting to confirm the standard expectations about race relations in the South, an area characterized by frequent lynchings, systematic segregation and universal black poverty. However, what he found destroyed his sweeping assumptions about the allegedly “solid” South.

Although some were not as comfortable telling him everything, Schultz believes that he did get a lot of people to speak their mind and retell the story as accurately as possible. He believes his sample is a good representation, as he researched the ideas, names or places that were given to him and often times everything matched up exactly.

In his book The Rural Face of White Supremacy: Beyond Jim Crow, Schultz uses his own interviews with hundreds of black and white residents to illustrate the rhythms of work, social interaction, violence, power and paternalism.

The Art of Memory series is presented by the Lewis University History Center: Urban, Cultural and Catholic History of the Upper Midwest, which supports a biannual symposium. It is also a part of Lewis University’s Arts & Ideas Program, providing cultural and educational programming for students and the community. These events are free of charge and open to the public. For further information, please contact Dr. Ewa Bacon at (815) 836-5568.

A Catholic university sponsored by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, Lewis offers nearly 80 undergraduate majors and programs of study, accelerated degree completion options for working adults, various aviation programs and 22 graduate programs in nine fields. The 10th largest private, not-for-profit university in Illinois is being honored for the sixth consecutive year by The Princeton Review and U.S. News & World Report.

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