John Pearce on James Farmer: An Oral History

by ssmith8 ~ December 9th, 2009. Filed under: Essays.

Sadie Smith     3 December 2009

John Pearce on James Farmer: An Oral History

Five minutes after my sitting down with John Pearce he mutters, “that was just the way it was,” pointing out that he grew up in all white schools, never questioning the missing black population. Such an understanding of life became challenged on a national scale by the civil rights movement.1 For Pearce, though, a true conviction about racial inequality in America did not come until a “serendipitous” 1984 meeting with civil rights leader James Farmer. From talking with Pearce it is apparent that Farmer created a similar racial awareness for most people he interacted with, specifically as a professor at the University of Mary Washington. Quoted by Dr. William Crawley as “the most notable addition to the [history] department’s faculty-indeed to the whole College’s faculty,” Farmer was a man of great ideas and complexity.2 As a participant in this broad research project on James Farmer, my purpose is to understand both who Farmer was as well as how he is remembered. I write to highlight information learned about Farmer’s tenure at UMW, provide context for this interview as a part of a broad research project, and evaluate Pearce as a narrator of the memory of James Farmer.

Farmer’s tenure at the University of Mary Washington began in 1985 after he met Professor John Pearce on a commute from Fredericksburg to Washington, D.C. Pearce introduced himself to the “very distinguished black man with the most wonderful voice,” at first mistaking him for the singer William Orfield. Their periodic commute together provided ample time for Pearce to read over manuscripts of Farmer’s autobiography of the civil rights ovement, Lay Bare the Heart. When asked for feedback, Pearce offered grammatical editing, occasionally that Farmer explain aspects of culture before the civil rights movement. In their conversation, Farmer-at the time a Washington federal employee with failing eyesight-mentioned an interest in teaching, which Pearce brought to the attention of history department chair Arthur Tracy. Pearce insists that the achievement of an invitation to UMW was entirely Farmer’s doing. In his first lecture, Farmer used no slides or clips, choosing instead to merely describe his experience-the fire hoses, dogs, and jails. A young girl walked out of that lecture asking, “Do you think that ever really happened in this Christian country?” It was Farmer’s agenda during his tenure to prove to the campus that these things did happen. He believed economic equality was the first step in fighting a history of racial injustice, since he felt young black people faced restraints to getting more or correct training at every level of development. This belief led Farmer to lend his name to a scholar program established in 1988 to increase minority enrollment in Virginia by equipping students with academic, not merely vocational, training. Farmer’s greatest contributions were to the hundreds of students he taught through his lecture courses. “He got [information] across factually, not with bitterness,” describes Pearce. He insists that Farmer’s style was to pointedly explain, “this was how it was.” There is an obvious difference between Pearce’s “way it was” and “how it was” for James Farmer. Farmer worked to present this juxtaposition to his students as a persistent problem, trying to create leadership in individuals for a new era of civil rights.

As Farmer taught the importance of individual leadership, scholarship also began to focus on the importance of individual experience, specifically at the time of the movement. Charles Payne argues that scholarship has reached a point of surveying the interaction between local and national, social and political.3 Kathryn Nasstrom argues that the autobiography allows individual stories to provide such a perspective-a unique conversation between memory and history.4 Autobiographies about the Civil Rights Movement tend to question the grand narrative of the era-idealism, progress, and racial conciliation.5 They engage human experience with strength of storytelling-a notable strength of Farmer’s-that historical records lack.6 Oral history has become especially important and increasingly popular, Paul Thompson argues, because it is immediate and accessible. Oral history is unique in its ability to change the focus of history and give a voice to individuals without punishing bias. In fact, the bias of an interviewee carries particular value.7 Through it, the scope is widened from a strictly political, administrative history to a broader human, social, cultural experience.8 This seminar exists to create a database of interviews with persons pertaining to Farmer’s time at UMW in order that he may be remembered as more than the man of Lay Bare the Heart. Left in his autobiography, it might be said of Farmer that he was simply seeking recognition. According to John Pearce’s narrative, Farmer wrote “truthfully, if more formally [than his teaching style]” because he wanted what he tried to do and the necessity of a continuing spotlight on racial injustice remembered. The ability to have such insight on Farmer as a movement leader makes oral history particularly useful.

As a narrator, Pearce paints the picture of both a formal Farmer, addressing the president of the United States, and of a conversing, laughing professor speaking to volunteers. Asked to describe Farmer, Pearce offers, “tough but kind, smarter than most but he put up with us anyway. He loved seeking to do right and wanted the rest of us to do it.” He speaks affectionately of a friend and offers his own disclaimer towards the end of the interview, asserting that one can only know bits and pieces of history from which to weave a story. Any information gives a vision, but “one can never expect a book”-or in this case an interview-“to be a perfect reflection of a person, place, or event.” Time and subsequent experience affect Pearce’s memory of Farmer, especially his belief that while there will never be another Farmer, his leadership style is sorely missing from the college community.

In addition to offering information about Farmer’s tenure at UMW, Pearce’s interview contributes to the wider goal of this seminar to participate in the growing scholarly trend of collecting oral history for its unique ability to give voice to individuals and fundamentally change the understanding of a given subject. Upon analysis, one finds that his friendship with Farmer certainly affects Pearce’s recollections, but that friendship is what allowed Pearce access to Farmer in the first place. Ultimately this interview offers an understanding of James Farmer as a man who believed there was ever more to do for racial equality-it remains as his legacy.

Further Reading:

In I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, Charles Payne explains differing scholarly perspectives on the Civil Rights Movement and the emergence of oral history in the face of a popular culture that still embraces a normative approach to the movement by tracing three eras of literature on the movement. Nasstrom’s “Between Memory and History” argues the importance of autobiographies in Civil Rights history as they provide exposure to an emotional world that is lost in mainstream writing on the movement. Autobiographies have similarities with oral history and many of Nasstrom’s themes are applicable to the field. Paul Thompson writes exclusively about themes of oral history in The Voice of the Past, offering an exhaustive introduction to the topic and its value. Not included in my essay, though a valuable source on oral history, is Valerie Yow’s Recording Oral History, which gives in-depth and helpful advice on how to conduct and interpret an interview.

1 Kim Rogers, “Oral History and the History of the Civil Rights Movement,” Journal of American History 75 (1988), 567.

2 William Crawley, University of Mary Washington: A Centennial History, 1908-2008 (Fredericksburg: University of Mary Washington, 2008), 615.

3  Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 413.

4 Kathryn Nasstrom, “Between Memory and History: Autobiographies of the Civil Rights Movement and the Writing of Civil Rights History,” Journal of Southern History 74 (2008), 333.

5 Payne, 438.

6 Nasstrom, 345.

7 Paul R. Thompson, The Voice of the Past: Oral History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 172.

8 Ibid., 24.

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