Oral Historians and Participatory Exhibit Making

On Wednesday, October 1, 2014, there was an opening reception for the Louisville Free Public Library’s new exhibit; Black Freedom, White Allies, and Red Scare. This exhibit tells the story of a key moment in the civil rights struggles that plagued Louisville in the mid-20th century. This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the Wade purchase and the bombing that followed, and the opening of the exhibit coincided with the date of the 60 year anniversary of the start of the sedition trial. The story of the 1954 Wade family’s house bombing and the subsequent Braden sedition trial illustrate the intensity and significant risks civil rights activists faced.

This important story in Louisville’s history began when Anne and Carl Braden were approached by Andrew Wade, an African American electrician, asking them to help him and his family purchase their dream home in Shively, an area that was all white. As longstanding activists for economic and racial justice, the Bradens saw it as their duty to help the Wade family buy a home. The following weeks resulted in constant terrorizing of the Wade family and an eventual attack on their home with dynamite. In the months and years that followed, local law enforcement failed to prosecute the attackers; instead, the Bradens were arrested and charged with sedition. The exhibit as a whole is a magnificent chronicle of the hardships that faced both the black community in Louisville and the white allies that stood by them. While the Wades never intended to be activists, these events left a lasting impression on race relations in Louisville.

This year, as part of the ongoing Parkland project “A Border City in Black and White,” public history students are conducting interviews with Parkland residents and those who have a close relationship with the neighborhood in order to document community memory changes in West Louisville and specifically of the 1968 uprising. Most of these students, myself included, have had little or no experience with conducting oral histories on our own so the task is slightly intimidating. Since the larger story of the long struggle for racial justice in Louisville connects these two stories, Dr. Kelland worked with Dr. Fosl to organize a spontaneous oral history venture. This experimental project consisted of Dr. Kelland and three of her oral history graduate students conducting short interviews on the fly with willing participants at the exhibit opening. Carol Bolton, Hannah O’Daniel, and myself volunteered for the project in the hopes that it would provide experience for conducting interviews. We were armed with a four question “script”, some consent forms, and a basic knowledge of the recording devices, and so we set out to document community memory about the trial.

After the program featuring speakers and a community-written play wrapped up, visitors were encouraged to view the exhibit and hopefully snag a few people interested in being interviewed. We waited upstairs for a short amount of time before our first participant walked in. I had the opportunity to interview Tom Moffett, an elderly gentleman who was eager to tell his story. Although Tom had not moved to Louisville until 1966, twelve years after the Wade purchase and bombing, he still had a very interesting story to share involving his relationship with the Bradens and his involvement in the Parkland community through his role as pastor at a local church.  Although the number of interviews conducted was a lower than anticipated, it still proved to be excellent experience and a great way take part in a little community outreach. When we weren’t interviewing, we were talking with exhibit visitors, sharing our project idea and looking for future willing contributors. All in all, the night was a success in my eyes. I left there, as I am sure my classmates did as well, with not only a better understanding of how oral history interviews and the digital equipment work, but also have been filled with a sense of eagerness to begin the project.

Fellow public history student Jacob Burress is currently working to transform interview excerpts from this project and older oral histories from the Anne Braden Oral History Project, and the result will be a short audio installation as part of the exhibit. Interacting with people who have such powerful stories to tell truly invigorates everyone fortunate enough to hear them. Collecting oral histories for the Parkland neighborhood should prove to be an exciting, informative and eye-opening project that will shine light on events that are otherwise overlooked and include people whose stories are often left unheard.

-Wes Cunningham, M.A. Candidate in History

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