Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty at Mary Washington College (later the University of Mary Washington in 2004) for 19 years, Philip L. Hall played an integral role in keeping Dr. James Farmer, Jr. at the college and founded the James Farmer Scholars program. During the interview with him, he talked about these two topics as well as the various honors that Farmer received, Farmer’s impact on the student body, and Farmer’s general persona(1). While discussing Farmer, Hall reflects an administrative point of view that was proud to have Farmer at the university.
Throughout the interview, Hall reminisces about Farmer from the point of view of an upper-level college administrator. This perspective is evident in the contrast between the lack of detail that he gives about the implementation of the activities in which Farmer participated and new information that Hall introduces about the reasoning behind those activities. For example, Hall introduces the fact that the James Farmer Scholars program was not named after Farmer until after Dr. Venitta McCall and Hall proposed the idea to him(2). However, Hall admits that he does not know any details regarding the administration of the program(3). Furthermore, Hall recalls the general fact that Farmer periodically spoke to participants in the program, but does not go into great detail about Farmer’s actual participation in it(4).
Hall’s recollections show that both he and the administration were proud to have Farmer as a professor at the university. This pride is especially evident in the conflict between his telling of Farmer’s hiring as a professor at Mary Washington, Associate Professor Emeritus Arthur Tracy’s version, and Dr. William Crawley’s version. When confronted with this conflict during the interview, Hall acknowledged his account’s possible inaccuracy(5). According to Hall, Dr. John Pierce initially met Farmer while commuting to Washington in the early 1980s, helped persuade him to teach at Mary Washington, and brought Farmer to Hall to initiate the process of Farmer’s hiring(6). All three versions agree that Pierce initially met and helped persuade Farmer to teach at Mary Washington. Crawley credits Tracy with pursuing the necessary arrangements in order to have Farmer hired(7). Tracy agrees with Crawley, stating that he worked with then Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty Mary Ann T. Burns—not Hall—and that Farmer was hired during the 1984 fall semester and began teaching during the 1985 spring semester(8). A review of Mary Washington’s student newspaper the Bullet’s articles as well as archival documents from the time when Farmer was hired reveal that Crawley and Tracy are correct(9).
However, Hall’s version still demonstrates the pride the administration felt in having Farmer at the college despite its slight inaccuracy. As discussed in Alessandro Portelli’s 1991 article “The Death of Luigi Trastulli: Memory and the Event,” such inaccuracies clarify the interviewee’s underlying motivations in relation to a particular event. Since Hall arrived at Mary Washington in 1985 in order to serve as its Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty following Burns’s resignation, Hall did play an essential role in not only having Farmer be retained as a professor through the Commonwealth Visiting Professors program sponsored by the Virginia State Council for Higher Education following Farmer’s first semester at Mary Washington, but also securing Farmer’s continued participation in that program and as a professor at the college in the following school years. Hall’s variance with other sources shows a sense of ownership that indicates that he was proud of Farmer’s presence at Mary Washington. In addition, his description of Farmer as having a voice that sounded “like God,” a very approachable person, having taught “the most heavily enrolled course” ever taught at Mary Washington, and being like having Abraham Lincoln teach the Civil War employs interpretations of Farmer’s time at Mary Washington that were also used by others within the university’s administration to describe Farmer’s time at the college(10). As indicated in Portelli’s article, such a sharing of interpretations amongst a population demonstrates a collective understanding of an event or person. Thus, they demonstrate a collective pride in Farmer’s presence at the college.
Additionally, as talked about in Valerie Raleigh Yow’s chapter “Interpersonal Relations in the Interview” in her book Recording Oral History: A Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences, Hall’s omission of Burns’s role in Farmer’s hiring could be the result of his administrative point of view. As described in Yow’s chapter, the combination of the fact that I, the interviewer, was a student and Hall was a retired administrator and the fact that my class was going to later publish the interview could have influenced Hall to not mention Burns’s role due to the fact that she had resigned, an event commonly thought of from an administrative point of view as undesirable to mention publicly. Hall’s use of a shared interpretation of Farmer’s Mary Washington career while sharing a version of Farmer’s hiring at the college that does not ruin the reputation of fellow administrators thus further demonstrates that the administration was proud of Farmer being a professor at Mary Washington.
In the course of providing a diplomatically administrative version of Farmer’s Mary Washington career, Hall emphasizes the pride that the administration felt in having Farmer as a professor. His description of Farmer’s legacy as being Farmer’s students summarizes this feeling.
For more information about oral history, one should read the two sources used in this essay: Recording Oral History: A Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences by Valerie Raleigh Yow and “The Death of Luigi Trastulli: Memory and the Event” by Alessandro Portelli. Yow’s book highlights the basic issues in oral history as a field and in the actual performance of oral historical interviewing. Portelli’s article, often cited by scholars, examines the relationship between the retelling of an historical event and the facts of the event itself in order to study people’s interpretation of it.
(1)Philip L. Hall, interview by author, Fredericksburg, VA, November 6, 2009.
(7)William B. Crawley Jr., University of Mary Washington: A Centennial History, 1909-2008 (Fredericksburg, VA: University of Mary Washington Foundation, 2008), 615.
(8)Arthur Tracy, interview by Matthew DeMarr and author, Fredericksburg, VA, November 12, 2009.
(9)Mary Smith, “Civil Rights Activist Joins MWC Staff,” Bullet, October 30, 1984; Arthur L. Tracy to Claudine Ferrell, September 6, 1984, James Farmer Collection, Special Collections, University of Mary Washington Grellet C. Simpson Library, Fredericksburg, VA; William Anderson to James Farmer, November 12, 1984, James Farmer Collection, Special Collections, University of Mary Washington Grellet C. Simpson Library, Fredericksburg, VA.