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Sociology Course Compiles Oral History of Juniata African-American Alumni

(Posted February 3, 2003)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- History has been part of the college curriculum since Athens took on Sparta in the Pelloponesian Wars, a story that was chronicled from the oral histories of Homer's "Iliad." These days, oral histories are coming back into vogue, particularly at Juniata College, where two sociologists are using the techniques of oral history to capture the experiences of the college's African -American graduates.

The two-part course, "Oral History I and II," is taught over two semesters by Cynthia Merriwether-Devries, assistant professor of sociology, and Robert Reilly, professor of sociology. The course began in September 2002 and continues through spring semester.

The first project for the course will be a detailed oral history of Juniata College's more than 100 African American graduates from 1940 to the present. "Although the experiences of our African-American graduates may have been accounted for anecdotally during their time here, there is little or nothing in our official history that tells us what they thought of their time here at the college," says Reilly. "Who better to teach us what it was like to be here than the people who lived it?"

Reilly says the oral history project not only fills in a historical gap in Juniata's institutional knowledge but also serves as a learning instrument for the college's current efforts in diversity and minority recruitment.

The study of oral histories is a relatively recent development in higher education, mainly because oral histories were not seen as rigorous scholarship. Within the past decade, oral history projects have started at many colleges and universities across the nation. For example, the University of Vermont started an oral history project documenting the experiences of the area's whaling and logging industries.

"Suddenly there is a new understanding that we need to get down these stories," Merriwether-DeVries says. "You really do need to document the history of a particular time and place to help people understand the reality and impact of that time on their experience. It's also important for us to hear these stories so we can interpret these stories and use them to plan for our future."

Students in the class have already completed four test interviews with African American alumni and will begin compiling further interviews during spring semester. "The project has given me a deeper and broader perspective of the African-American experience and of how students see their educational experience at Juniata," says Lea Hoisington, a junior from Grantham, N.H., studying biology. "It will give us a better understanding of what might hinder Juniata's appeal to a broader spectrum of students."

The class has sent out a mailing to all Juniata African-American alumni that are identified by the college's alumni relations office. Merriwether-DeVries explains that a typical oral history interview lasts between one to two hours.

"When you say 'oral history' to someone, they assume we're going to be following them around for a week, like 'The Osbournes,'" Merriwether-Devries says. "It's not going to be painful. Some of our most important history comes from understanding the daily lives of ordinary people."

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.