Archive | March, 2014

Dorothy Height and The Great Depression

28 Mar

Dorothy Height, an activist for civil rights as well as women’s rights, was celebrated on Google’s front page on what would have been her 102nd birthday. Height’s name is not as well-known as some other figures that were prominent in the civil rights movement, but she was one of the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington and co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus with Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan.

Height was interviewed for the Blackside series, The Great Depression, and spoke about her early life as an activist in New York and her work with the organizer and politician, Adam Powell, and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Her interview is part of the newly digitized collection, The Great Depression Interviews, where researchers can watch and read the entire transcript of the interviews conducted for the series. In her interview, Height described how she worked to fight what she described as a slave market, a system of labor where people from the suburbs of New York would drive in and pick out domestic workers from a street corner. This was an exploitative system where workers would work long hours for very little pay and no benefits or any way to negotiate or improve their working conditions. Height said,

What had happened was that as more and more women came from the South, and they were in need of work, and they didn’t have references, and they didn’t have jobs, what developed what was called the Bronx Slave Market. And that meant that the women went to certain corners, and employers would come, and just as in slavery, they would look and choose the one that looked the strongest or the healthiest, take that person home with them to get their work done, and then sometimes they would turn the clock back. I got into this because at the Harlem YWCA so many girls and women, coming from the South especially, came to us with these stories of desperation, how it was they went home with the women at eight o’clock in the morning and they left their house at midnight, and she turned back the clock and said to them it was only six o’ clock, and they didn’t know until they got out into the streets. And she would only pay them what she wanted. And then, if she went to the police, they would, this woman would say, “I don’t even know this girl. She tried to get into my house,” so that we had young teenagers as well as older women who were just desperately looking for work. One time, I went before the city council, because we were protesting this. We had a small committee that was trying to see what could be done. And I’ll never forget saying to them that it was called, that it was known as the Bronx Slave Market. And the Bronx councilman didn’t want to hear that, and he said, “Well, how could you call it that?” I said, “Well, it’s not only in the Bronx, it’s in Brooklyn, too.” It was all over the city. Desperate domestic workers were simply being exploited.

Interview with Dorothy Height , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on February 25, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

The entire transcript is available, as well as the video above. More information on the project can be found here.




RAWSTOCK Film Screening

21 Mar


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

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!

2712 Cherokee St.

St. Louis, MO 63118

Friday, April 25 ~ 8 p.m.

Check our Facebook event page for updates:

For any questions contact the Film & Media Archive at or 314-935-8679.



Audio Digitization in the Film & Media Archive

14 Mar
Manuscript from the James Merrill Collection.  Photo credit: Washington University Libraries

Manuscript from the James Merrill Collection.
Photo credit: Washington University Libraries

In conjunction with a recent St. Louis Magazine article, Yes & No by Stefene Russell and the James Merrill Digital Archive , Jim Hone, Film & Media Digital Archivist, digitized a recording from the Merrill Collection, James Merrill, An Evening of Words and Music.

The performance was recorded on April 26, 1985 and featured readings by Merrill, including excerpts from “The Changing Light at Sandover,” his epic poem. Other performers included Michael Beckerman, Harold Blumenfeld, Michael Ludwig, David Patterson, John McIvor Perkins and Rhian Samuel. Drafts of “The Changing Light at Sandover,” were originally written during nightly sessions as Merrill and his partner, David Jackson consulted a Ouija board. These notebooks and drafts are all housed at the Manuscript Department of Special Collections at Washington University Libraries.

Jim Hone, Film & Media Digital Archivist, collaborated with Special Collections and was able to capture and digitize this special evening to make the audio available to the public. Using Audacity, an audio editing program, Hone captured the analog recording, imported it into his system, and then created various digital copies. Several factors can influence the quality of the audio and what the archivist has to work with, including the recording equipment, the quality of the microphone, the space where it was recorded, and the placement of the microphones. Speaking about the Merrill recording, Hone said,

There can be enormous dynamic shifts in the sound. One of the poems read at the evening was about the birth of Merrill’s great-nephew and that is accompanied by a performance on a toy piano.

Hone had to adjust the levels by listening carefully to the entire tape and making adjustments from moment to moment as the audio levels went from soft (Merrill’s reading) to loud (the musical performances). Hone said,

Some of the music  is up at the highest levels. At other times if the speaker is not close to the microphone and is moving around the stage the recording becomes softer and quieter. When dealing with this type of media [an audio cassette] I have to live with the fact that if I pushed the volume it would sound terrible. You have to accept how it was recorded, the limitations of the process, where it was recorded, and the limitations of the space.

In general, as a film and audio preservationist, Hone applies very minimal processing. He leaves a certain amount of room tone and hiss, approaching the work as a straight preservationist. In the case where an audio technician is working with a production or a client then they might remove certain aspects of the original recording. In this case, the aim is to capture and preserve the original recording in an uncompressed format, usually a .wav file. Hone can then create an intermediate file and access copies (an mp3) that can be easily uploaded and shared via the web. Hone said,

The best I can do when there are problems is to find something in the signal that makes it coherent. Every cassette, every piece of media is an adventure and has its challenges.