Black Family Oral History Project To Launch In Amherst In February

Dr. Ruth Bass Green, President and CEO of The Hazelle Catherine Bass Institute for the Arts. Photo: Demetria Shabazz

Source: Black Family Oral History Project

Dr. Demetria Rougeaux Shabazz, President of Amherst Media, and Jones Library Archivist Cynthia Harbeson will restart the Black Family Oral History Project in February. The project, which aims to document the history of African American residents in Amherst, began almost a year ago. Originally awarded a grant from the Mass Cultural Council in 2020, the project shut down soon after it began, in March 2020, due to the pandemic. The project is an extension of Shabazz’s work as a lecturer in film, media, and cultural studies, and as a videographer working on oral histories in Texas and Louisiana, documenting the lives of women and people of color.

Shabazz began her work as an undergrad at the University of Houston, documenting elders of Houston’s Freedmen’s Town, one of the last intact freedmen communities in the U.S., having been founded soon after emancipation in the Southern United States. Shabazz wrote a grant in partnership with Amherst Media and Harbeson in an effort to document and preserve the rich history and experiences of Black families and elders residing in Amherst and the surrounding communities.

Noting the importance of oral history as a means of preserving the legacies of our elders, the project came to an abrupt halt last March, just after an interview with President and CEO of The Hazelle Catherine Bass Institute for the Arts, local musician and educator Dr. Ruth Bass-Green. “There is an African proverb that when an elder dies, a library burns to the ground,” Shabazz said. “The Black Oral History project aims to preserve the volumes of wisdom and knowledge that our elders carry, how they were resilient in the face of anti-black racism during their lives. It is my hope that their words may instruct, strengthen, and revive us as we wage the fight for a better world.”

Harbeson is also the archivist of local history and genealogy at the Jones Library. Trained in oral history, Harbeson has partnered with the project and will begin archiving these narratives for use in the community and for research. When it is safe to do so, the project will culminate in a listening session and reception at the Jones.

This year’s Black History Month theme, “The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity,” guides the collection and curation of the histories, beginning with the Bridges and Roberts family, who have been in this community for more than seven generations. The Bridges and Roberts families are also included on the Civil War Monuments still in a town storage facility after being taken down from Town Hall nearly 20 years ago.

As a partner in the project, Amherst Media is offering studio space and has made a special effort to provide a safe environment for the recording of these oral histories during the pandemic. 

For more information contact Dr. Demetria Rougeaux Shabazz at BlackAmherst@gmail.com or Amherst Media at 413-259- 3300.

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