Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky Oral History Project
Kim Lady Smith, former director of the Kentucky Oral History Commission
Oral history is at its best when it serves as a catalyst for dialogue on the issues that challenge us as a society. Of the hundreds of oral history projects supported by the Kentucky Oral History Commission over the past 40 years, none more visibly achieved that goal than the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky Oral History Project initiated in 1998. This award winning, multi-faceted project went beyond the collection and transcription of interviews on African American history and civil rights by providing thousands of Kentuckians with multiple platforms for connecting to the stories shared in more than 175 interviews.
Guided by an advisory committee chaired by the late Dr. Blaine Hudson, from the University of Louisville, and building on the expanded opportunities and programing at the recently opened Kentucky History Center* (1999), the decision was made to develop this as a statewide educational project that used oral history as the foundation for providing content and perspective. Dr. Betsy Brinson was hired as a research historian/interviewer to direct the project and quickly provided the necessary energy, talent and vision. By 2004, the project had achieved:
- More than 175 recorded and transcribed interviews. This includes interviews collected by Dr. Tracy K’Meyer at the University of Louisville as well as those Brinson conducted.
- The Kentucky History Society’s Museum Theater program produced two performance pieces – “Nothing New for Easter” and “Red, White and Black: The Bradens, the Wades and a Bombing” – based on oral history interviews and other primary/secondary sources.
- The symposiums “Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky: Voices of Protest, 1930 to 1970” (2000) and “Unfinished Business: School Desegregation in Kentucky” (2004), which took place at the Kentucky History Center.
- A documentary film, “Living the Story: The Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky” (2001) was produced and broadcast on Kentucky Educational Television (KET) with video copies given to every public high school in Kentucky. Video Editing Services of Lexington produced the film with Arthur Rouse and Joan Brannon as co-directors/producers. Brinson served as executive producer.
- KET made available, “The Rest of the Story,” rough edited versions of the full interviews with those whose stories were videotaped for the film.
- A website and database designed to make the audio and video interviews and transcripts readily accessible to educators. Dr. Doug Boyd, former archivist for KOHC, created it.
- “Freedom on the Border: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky,” (2009) by Catherine Fosl (University of Louisville) and Tracy K’Meyer, was published by The University Press of Kentucky as part of the Kentucky Remembered oral history series.
While all these various components reached a broad and diverse audience, it was “Living the Story” that took the project to a new level of outreach. The first documentary film to explore this topic in Kentucky, it proved to be an unprecedented educational tool for encouraging discussion of the state’s racial history. “Living the Story” presented stories from 15 individuals, including the late Julian Bond, Blaine Hudson, Anne Braden and Georgia Davis Powers. After a Jan. 17, 2002, premiere at the Kentucky History Center attended by 175 people, KET broadcast the film on Jan. 21. Commission staff, members and advisors worked to schedule “viewing parties” at locations throughout the state. An estimated 1,500 students and others gathered at 16 locations to view the film and engage in discussions with panels comprised of project interviewees, teachers, community representatives and others associated with the production. Those who reported on the discussions referred to them as spirited, thoughtful and emotional. College students were particularly moved and repeatedly asked, “Why haven’t we heard this before?” It was clear that young people in Kentucky had not been exposed to the stories of the struggle for equality that happened in their own backyards.
I attended a viewing party at Centre College where Helen Fisher Frye, former head of the NAACP in Danville, participated in the panel discussion. She commented on how she considered racism to be a worse problem today than in her childhood. Students were surprised by this as she went on to explain how the end of legal segregation had obscured the reality of racism making it harder to recognize how insidious the problem truly was. That was in 2002 and events of today clearly echo her observations and fears.
As this nation continues to confront the complex challenges of race in America, those entrusted with collecting and preserving the stories from our past must continue to bring individual experience to the conversation. There are hundreds of interviews in Kentucky archives that shed light on this issue and there remain countless stories to record and explore in an effort to bring historical perspective to this nation’s ongoing dialogue on race and social justice.
On the KET website you can view “Living the Story,” and “Beyond the Color Line,” a panel presentation produced by KET in 2012 in recognition of the 10th anniversary of the documentary. Access the oral history collection here.
In addition to the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky Oral History Project, the KOHC grant program has prioritized Kentucky’s African American history since its inception and continues to support projects that document black experiences in the Commonwealth. Please check Pass the Word to further explore these many collections at KHS and other Kentucky-based repositories.
*The Kentucky History Center now is the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History.