Vol. 5, No.2
Almost all of the dozen undergraduates in the class had heard of a few African Americans who had left their mark on Johns Hopkins University. Pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson was an obvious one. So was Frederick Scott, who in 1945 became the university's first black undergraduate student. And then there was surgical technician Vivien Thomas, who worked with Alfred Blalock to develop the Blue Baby procedure.
But there are hundreds of others, people whose stories should be told. Like Lisa Cooper, the first woman of African descent to become a full professor in the School of Medicine. And Clifton Wharton, the first African American to earn a degree from SAIS.
And so the students had gathered in Dunning Hall on this rainy afternoon early in the spring term, to learn from Hopkins oral historian Mame Warren about how to take an oral history. Melanie Shell-Weiss, instructor of The History of African Americans at the Johns Hopkins University, had invited Warren as a guest speaker.
Only one student, Cassandra Charles, had ever done an oral history before. The others seemed nervous. When Warren showed the class how leaning in and staring at a subject could draw out an answer and make it more expansive, senior Greg Babinecz asked, "Do you ever run into people who are made uncomfortable by your stare?" Not usually, Warren replied. But, "there are some people who are really tough interviews," she conceded, adding, "It's your job to pull them out."
Senior Amanda Hajjar, majoring in American studies, wondered, if you come across something really personal, is it worth prying? "It depends on what you're after," Warren said. "It's their interview. It's their story. You want to be respectful of that."
The three-credit research seminar, now in its second year, grew out of a project of the same name that started in 2003, explains Shell-Weiss, a visiting assistant professor of history and associate research scholar in the Center for Africana Studies.
April Land, an undergraduate who was the president of the Black Student Union at the time, approached the staff of the Milton S. Eisenhower Library to ask about the library's plans for celebrating Black History Month. "But there was little material on the contributions of African Americans to our institutional history, and it became really clear that these histories weren't being collected and preserved," Shell-Weiss says. "These histories matter to all of us."
So a handful of students embarked on independent research, working to collect the stories of people like physician Levi Watkins and historian Franklin Knight. Over the course of a few years, students wrote research papers, collected photographs, and turned their findings over to Hopkins' Special Collections to become part of the university's permanent history. Project staff working in the Center for Africana Studies, the History Department, and the MSE Library then assembled and digitized these materials to create a Web-based exhibition, making portions of the oral histories and student-authored biographies available to all.
Moving from these independent efforts to an undergraduate course offering opened the experience to more students and allowed them to share what they've learned with one another. "The class has a threefold mission," says Shell-Weiss. "First, it's to teach students how to do historical research. Second, it's to tell the history of the university that hasn't been told and to document it. And third, there's a mentoring component here. The partnerships between students and subjects have resulted in some really terrific friendships that have lasted well beyond the term of the project itself."
Working in teams, students in the class create a videotaped oral history and research project focused on the life experience of an African-American man or woman whose history can further illuminate our understanding of the African-American experience at Hopkins. Final versions of their video documentaries will be added to the web-based exhibition of the History of African Americans at Hopkins (http://afam.nts.jhu.edu).
The importance of the work certainly isn't lost on the students. Some fretted about transcribing their interviews correctly. Others worried about making mistakes with the audio and video recorders or getting their subjects to be more forthcoming. The big worry was about the gravitas of their undertaking.
"My greatest concern is doing the project justice," Hajjar said early in the semester. "We are documenting and representing the lives of people, so I think everyone in the class wants to ensure we do the best job possible."
Cassandra Charles, a senior public health major interviewing Lisa Cooper, agreed that the project comes with added responsibility. "Usually when you write a paper, only the professor and you see it," she said. "This is bigger than that."