The everyday experiences of black Oberlinians are of tremendous value and ought to be preserved for future generations.
That’s what Annessa Oliver-Wyman plans to do by collecting the oral histories of some of the city’s most senior residents.
She is the president of the Oberlin African American Genealogy and History Group and recently started on-air interviews on WOBC 91.5 FM, the Oberlin College radio station.
“I believe in the African proverb that when one man dies, it’s as though an entire library burns to the ground,” Oliver-Wyman said. “So much of this information from the past has been lost. We want to make sure it’s in a spot where ancestors or researchers 50 or 100 years from now can get it.”
This is not the first time such a push has been made to collect unwritten histories. More than 40 volunteers from the Oberlin Heritage Center worked from 1981 to 1987 to interview 48 Oberlin residents. Turning to Oberlin College students for help, they expanded the catalog to 80 interviews by the early 1990s.
In 2012, many of the old cassette recordings were transcribed to digital copies. Many were subsequently released in the OHC book “Bonnets to Boardrooms: Women’s Stories from a Historic College Town.” More oral histories were recorded by the center in 2014.
Oliver-Wyman said the new OAAGHG project aims to record everyday struggles and victories. The theme is “Oberlin Through Brown Eyes: The Oberlinian Experience.”
The most important question will be, “What brought your family to Oberlin?” she said.
“Most of us are part of a migration. Most blacks are part of a migration from the South. We want to try to get back to knowing where our parents or grandparents came from as part of that migration to the North,” she said. “After that, it’s sharing memories of growing up in Oberlin.”
The idea was inspired by the 1981 book “They Stopped In Oberlin: Black Residents and Visitors of the 19th Century” by William Bigglestone.
The focus will be on senior citizens who are lifelong members of the community, but Oliver-Wyman said she will talk to whomever is willing, even high-schoolers.
Black business owners, college students, and authors are among those she is seeking most diligently.
Why oral histories?
Black families have not always collected written genealogies or placed their thoughts and memories in diaries, Oliver-Wyman said. “You look at white history books and you see it heavily documented — many white families have wills and birth certificates and other documents. We don’t necessarily have that,” she said.
A half-dozen interviews have been done since early January and more can be heard from 2-3 p.m. each Sunday on WOBC. The goal is to complete at least 25 interviews through the summer.
Recorded histories will be kept by the OHC, which has the funds and resources to make sure they’re always available in an up-to-date format, said Oliver-Wyman.
The OAAGHG does need help covering the cost of transcribing interviews and purchasing recording equipment. Donations can be made at www.oaaghg.com.
You can also reach out to offer your story to the group through its website or Facebook page.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.
Courtesy photo Malcom Fitzgerald Cash, Kirk Perry, and Annessa Oliver-Wyman are shown here at Oberlin College’s WOBC 91.5FM radio station.