Archive | January, 2014

Library unveils Great Depression conversations

31 Jan

Fully searchable resource brings invaluable, previously inaccessible oral history within reach. 

In March of 1992, many years after photographer Dorothea Lange’s 1936 image of a migrant mother in California became one of the most iconic images from the Great Depression, a camera crew sat down with two daughters of the subject of Lange’s photo.

“We’re talking to Norma Rydlewski and Katherine McIntosh about their mother and their experiences,” the interviewer explained. “I guess what I’d like to get first of all is [a] sense of what kind of woman your mother was. What does it take to live through that?”

Portrait shows Florence Owens Thompson with several of her children in a photograph known as “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange.

For about 40 minutes, Rydlewski and McIntosh shared their stories with Blackside, Inc., a film company founded by 1961 Washington University graduate Henry Hampton. In the footage and transcript of that conversation, now accessible for the first time along with many more such interviews through WU Libraries, the family’s daily challenges come to life. The sisters describe not only their strong, beautiful mother but everything from field work and playing with dirt clods as children to early union meetings and the economical “saving grace” that was World War II.

When The Great Depression, Blackside’s seven-part documentary series, debuted on PBS in October of 1993, the program wove together short segments from extensive interviews with 148 people who experienced the Great Depression, including Rydlewski and McIntosh. As illuminating as the documentary is in its own right, the many additional hours of oral history that Blackside recorded in the process of creating it are a treasure trove of primary source material—all of it newly viewable, browsable, and searchable online.

“Hampton’s film crews conducted hundreds of hours of interviews for their documentary series, but in most cases only a small portion of those interviews made it to the final program, leaving the complete interviews virtually unseen and inaccessible,” says Nadia Ghasedi, head of the library’s Visual Media Research Lab, where the Henry Hampton Collection resides. “This new resource of both the complete interview transcripts and video from The Great Depression enables anyone to search and view invaluable primary source material related to a pivotal time in 20th-century American history. It also allows researchers to see which portions of the interviews appeared in the final program, giving insights into the documentary storytelling process.”

Digital Archivist Jim Hone, who digitized more than 110 hours of interview material for this project, notes that the Blackside team produced a body of work that is “the gold standard of documentary form.”

“They sweated the details on every photograph, sound, and moving image in their programs,” Hone says. “Better still, they left us a meticulous record of their preparations, meetings, screenings, and self-critique. You can learn a lot by studying them.”

The diverse range of individuals whose reflections on the 1930s are now easily accessible include a grandson of Franklin D. and Eleanor Rooselvelt, celebrated authors Maya Angelou and Gore Vidal, longtime New York Times political reporter Warren Moscow, actors Karen Morley and Ossie Davis, Morton Newman, who worked on the Upton Sinclair campaign for governor in California, and many more from all walks of life. The multicultural, multiregional approach brings needed depth and color to an era that is often remembered and depicted as a monolithic event dragging the nation down for a decade, says Film & Media Archive assistant Alison Carrick, who managed the workflow of the digitization project.

“When we think about the Great Depression, images of the dust bowl and breadlines immediately come to mind,” Carrick says. “And that is part of the history Blackside covered with this series, but they also revealed complex and lively stories that are often overlooked—from union struggles, to heated political campaigns, Works Progress Administration projects, the New Deal, and more. What Blackside managed to do with this series and these interviews was to bring that period of history back to life in a vivid, engaging way.”

Hone adds that in working through every minute of the interviews and taking notes in the process, he’s been struck by the stories of human survival, persistence, and endurance.

“I recently started working on another Blackside series digitization project—this time America’s War on Poverty,” says Hone. “It’s like working on a jigsaw puzzle of history. I look forward to it every day.”

The Great Depression Interviews project illustrates the rich collections that WU Libraries staff members are bringing within easy reach of students, faculty, and the wider world. It’s also one example of the collaborative, complex nature of the work required to do so. From early steps like identifying the types of media on which each interview exists and cataloging the camera rolls, sound rolls, and video items, to transcribing and encoding the content in text files according to best practices, to the digitization of more than 300 videocassettes and final design of the online, user-friendly interface, efforts to make such collections as freely accessible and usable as possible are far from simple. Archive staff work closely with the Digital Library Services unit to bring such projects to fruition.

The result is a seamless, powerful tool with much potential for interdisciplinary research.

“One of the best features of the site, thanks to DLS, is that it is text/keyword searchable,” Carrick says. “This creates a way for users to pinpoint a subject, name, or event and quickly look to see where it occurs in each transcript. Our hope is that this feature will lead users to other transcripts they might not have thought contained similar subject matter.”

The homepage URL for The Great Depression Interviews is

Photo information for image above: Among the scores of interviewees whose reflections on the Great Depression comprise a newly accessible WU Libraries resource are two daughters of Florence Owens Thompson, the subject of Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph.

Article by Evie Hemphill (@evhemphill), a writer and photographer for Washington University Libraries in St. Louis.

Pete Seeger and “We Shall Overcome”

31 Jan

Noted folk singer Pete Seeger entertaining at the opening of the Washington labor canteen, sponsored by the United Federal Labor Canteen, sponsored by the Federal Workers of America, Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). First lady Eleanor Roosevelt seen at center. By Joseph A. Horne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Legendary folk singer and activist Pete Seeger has died at age 94. Seeger became well-known for his folk songs “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” which were covered by many popular groups including Peter, Paul, and Mary, and The Kingston Trio. But it was his involvement  in the civil rights movement and his connection to the song “We Shall Overcome,” that had a lasting impact.

The Film & Media Archive holds a copy of the documentary We Shall Overcome produced for PBS by Ginger Group Film Productions. This film traces the history of the song which had its roots in African American spirituals and union songs and went on to became the anthem of the civil rights movement both nationally and internationally. The Archive holds footage and interviews with Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, Taj Mahal, Peter, Paul & Mary, and the Freedom Singers, about the song and the civil rights movement. Blackside purchased the materials and elements for the film in 1989, and they are now housed in the Film and Media Archive.

In the clip below from Pacifica Radio, Seeger traces the history of the song, “We Shall Overcome,” from its early beginnings as a more up-tempo union solidarity tune to the slower version first arranged and sung by Zilphia Horton and Septima Clark, who were teachers at the Highlander Folk School (now the Highlander Research and Education Center), in Tennessee.

The roots of the song have been debated and studied and some scholars feel it was inspired from a gospel song by “I’ll Overcome Someday” by Rev. Charles Albert Tindley. Several versions of the lyrics existed as well, from “I’ll overcome someday,” to “We will overcome,” to the version used today, “We shall overcome.”

In an interview on Democracy Now he talked about how first heard the song at the Highlander Folk School and how it caught on in the civil rights movement,

It was a friend of mine, Guy Carawan, who made it famous. He picked up my way of singing it, “We Shall Overcome,” although Septima—there was another teacher there, Septima Clark, a black woman. She felt that “shall”—like me, she felt it opened up the mouth better than “will,” so that’s the way she sang it. Anyway, Guy Carawan in 1960 taught it to the young people at the founding convention of SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC for short. And a month later, it wasn’t a song, it was the song, throughout the South.

In 1957, I went down to Highlander. Zilphia was dead, and Myles Horton, her husband, said, “We can’t have a celebration of twenty-five years with this school without music. Won’t you come down and help lead some songs?” So I went down, and Dr. King and Reverend Abernathy came up from Alabama to say a few words, and I sang a few songs, and that was one of them. Ann Braden drove King to a speaking engagement in Kentucky the next day; and she remembers him sitting in the back seat, saying, “‘We Shall Overcome.’ That song really sticks with you, doesn’t it?” But he wasn’t the song leader. It wasn’t until another three years that Guy Carawan made it famous.

After that the song was performed and sung at numerous events by everyone from Seeger to Joan Baez, Mahalia Jackson, and Louis Armstrong among many others. The phrase “We Shall Overcome,” also became a rallying cry in the movement from Martin Luther King’s speech at the 1963 March on Washington to President Johnson’s speech to Congress on March 15, 1965 when he said “We shall overcome,” aligning himself with King and voicing his support for voting rights of African Americans. The song, popularized by Seeger and many others, shows no signs of disappearing and continues to be sung by groups around the world at protests and meetings.

As a last note, Seeger’s first love was music and from 1965-1966 he hosted a show called Rainbow Quest that featured many artists including Johnny Cash, June Carter, Bernice Reagon Johnson, and Mississippi John Hurt. Originally broadcast on a small station in New York not many people saw the show at the time. The tapes were later salvaged and preserved with a National Endowment for the Arts grant. This clip from Rainbow Quest features an excellent version of “Rock Island Line,” a Leadbelly song sung by Seeger, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee.

Out of the Vault

24 Jan

The Visual Media Resource Laboratory (VMRL) and Department of Special Collections hosted an open house Thursday, January 16 in Olin Library. A wide array of print resources and digital collections—many of them new—were on display in various public areas of Level 1. Curators, archivists, and other staff were on hand to discuss the resources, answer questions, or lead activities.

Out of the Vault Event Out of the Vault Event

Some highlights from the event were a photo booth with a green screen where participants could create photos of themselves using images from the Sharepoint database with images from the collections.

Visitors had a chance to access newly digitized resources, now available online, including:

  • Full transcripts and video footage of nearly 150 interviews conducted for The Great Depression, a documentary by the same filmmakers who produced Eyes on the Prize. The documentary featured a tiny fraction of these fascinating interviews with people from all walks of life. This new resource, never before available, offers much more.
  • An extensive digital exhibition about William Gass,celebrated author of fiction and literary criticism and WU professor emeritus of philosophy. The exhibition focuses on his education, military service, teaching career, and literary achievements.
  • A digital exhibition about James Merrill, an influential, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who left his manuscripts and many other personal items to WU.
  • A photo booth, where participants learn about the library’s image database and have a photo taken of themselves in a historic image from our collections.

Displays in the flat cases at the entrance to Olin Library, including:

  • Fashion Design Program Records of WU fashion shows and student designs, now held in University Archives.
  • A sampling of materials from Rare Books and Manuscripts, with more on display in the Department of Special Collections.
  • Samplings of materials from the collections of the Modern Graphic History Library (MGHL), an archive of 19th- and 20th-century illustrations.
  • Giveaways of buttons featuring images from WU’s special collections.
  • World War I posters from the newly acquired Louis and Jodi Atkin collection. Vote to determine which poster will be the first to be displayed for an extended period of time.
  • An exhibition—In Character: The Life and Legacy of Mary Wickes—continues in the Grand Staircase Lobby and Ginkgo Room. Wickes, a famous character actress, was a WU alumna whose scripts, correspondence, photos, and other memorabilia are in University Archives.
  • A continuing exhibit of miniature books from the Julian Edison Collection.
  • The opportunity to visit the Department of Special Collections to view materials on display there.

Amiri Baraka and Eyes on the Prize II

10 Jan
Interview with Amiri Baraka conducted by Blackside.

Interview with Amiri Baraka conducted by Blackside.

Amiri Baraka, poet and playwright, has died at age 79. Baraka, a major literary figure and activist who helped lead the Black Arts Movement, was interviewed for the Blackside series “Eyes on the Prize II.” Baraka’s works include numerous books of poems and essays and his play “Dutchman” won the 1964 Obie Award for best American play. His interview, which is available to read in full online, was also featured in “Malcolm X: Make It Plain” and “I’ll Make Me a World.”

The interview covers many topics, Malcolm X, African-American artists and writers, African nationalism, to name just a few. Baraka also talked about how he helped found the Black Arts Movement which has been referred to as “the artistic sister to the Black Power Movement.”

 We organized a thing called the Black Arts up in Harlem…I think that by the next month we had, you know, bought this building and opened the Black Arts, which is a group of people, a group of Black people who were trying to put together an organization of Black artists. And so, to us, that  had to be now, and it had to be done. If art really was going to serve the people, it could really help make revolution, then those of us who thought we should get on with the work or shut up about it. That’s the way I felt.

I mean, the arts reflect the social movement all the time.  The arts are only a reflection of society. You know, so when you have a social upsurge you always have an artistic upsurge that reflects that. So that the whole anti-slavery movement, you get the slave narratives, you know, the great speeches and, and, orators and rhetoric from the Black convention movement. When you have the whole Garvey, Du Bois, African Blood Brotherhood at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, you’ve got Harlem Renaissance, you know, Negritude, Negrismo, Negrism and all that stuff. In the ’60s, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, SNCC, the Panthers, you have a Black arts movement that reflects that because the artists who are most sensitive to what the society is doing and particularly the people that they, you know, they draw their life sustenance from. The art movement has the same kind of desire, you know.

Interview with Amiri Baraka, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on March 31, 1989, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

For more information about this interview, or any other interview from Eyes on the Prize, contact the Film & Media Archive.


3 Jan


The Washington University Visual Media Research Lab presents RAWSTOCK, a free archival screening night where anything goes!

Friday, January 17 at 8:00pm

Join us as we unearth the rarest treasures hidden deep within the vaults of Washington University Libraries. From educational films to burlesque acts, there’s no telling what we will find!

Free and open to the public. Contact the Film & Media Archive with any questions.