Oral history, as a methodology for historical research, can be a valuable tool to historians and those interested in the past. As Paul Thompson says in his book The Voice of the Past: Oral History, it “can be used to change the focus of history itself, and open up new areas of inquiry.”1 As a class, we have charged ourselves with the duty of archiving the oral histories of the men and women who associated with the iconic civil rights leader James Farmer during his time at the University of Mary Washington, then known as Mary Washington College.
A lot can be learned about James Farmer about his time at the University of Mary Washington from his interactions with his students and colleagues. Margaret Mock had the opportunity to know him in both capacities, first as a student during his first class on campus and then in the college’s Office of Public Information where she worked to promoting Farmer to the local media. Eventually she was able to call him a friend.
Mock’s first experience with Farmer was his first class that he taught at Mary Washington. Mock remembers how she heard about the class, and how anxious she was to sign up. “I read about it in the newspaper, and I thought oh—this is a fantastic opportunity to hear one of the great leaders of the Civil Rights Movement tell it first hand. So I took the class and it was very, very good. I enjoyed it very much.” She explains how other students were very impressed with Farmer’s methods as a teacher, but what made the class so unique is that Farmer was a part of the history that he was teaching. Mock was expressing a popular memory, a type of collective memory that is shared by a group of people. Valerie Yow says in her book Recording Oral History that individuals, while narrating oral histories, not only give their own uniquely personal stories, but share that of a larger collective or group. For Mock, the collective memories she was sharing were those of the students who took Farmer’s classes.2 His students were captivated by his stories about the movement and he aroused a great interest in civil rights in many of them.
Mock had heard about James Farmer before he came to the campus, but like many others her knowledge of his achievements was limited. However, living through much of the Civil Rights Movement, Mock remembered much of what happened through those turbulent decades. After taking Farmer’s class and reading his autobiography, it was her opinion that Farmer played a large role in the movement, and she was “impressed with many of his accomplishments.” Yet she had preconceived notions about who the top leaders were in the movement, influenced by popular culture, which is why she noted that Martin Luther King always seemed to overshadow Farmer. “Some of the other civil rights leaders seemed to overshadow him in becoming well known, but I don’t think that bothered [Farmer].” As Michael Frisch contends in his article “Oral History and Hard Times,” popular history shapes how people perceive the past.3 What made Farmer’s class so interesting for Mock is that he challenged the commonly held beliefs of what the movement was like and who was involved. Farmer also challenged Mock’s preconceived notions of what he would be like in person as well.
“He had the image, his public image, was sort of as a hardliner…and he said things to the press that indicated that he was. But he wasn’t like that at all.” Mock had taken Farmer’s class and had gotten to know him as a professor, but shortly thereafter she began to work in the Office of Public Information and was promoting him to the local media. Thus began their friendship, and she began to know the personal side of James Farmer.
According to Mock, one of Farmer’s greatest fears that he intimated to her was that he would eventually be forgotten. “For him to talk to me and other people about it, so publicly, it meant he really felt it very deeply…as time went on I guess he thought, ‘well it’s getting closer to the end, nothing is happening, I’m going to be forgotten.’” But Mock says that because of the pride that current and former staff, faculty, and students have due to James Farmer’s time at Mary Washington, his legacy will live on as long as the campus does. For example, a bust was erected in his honor. “That was something that the faculty, administration and the students all came together on planning that, placing it in a prominent position… I think everyone is very proud of that. It shows that someone who made a huge contribution was right here among us.”
Another contribution Farmer made on campus was increasing the awareness of diversity, which has carried on into present day. “Just his being here at a time when we really did not have a lot of minorities… but by this year the number has gone up considerably.” But Mock says it was not only the school that benefitted from Farmer’s presence on campus. “He had a wonderful association with Mary Washington, and it was great for him in his later years to have this opportunity. So it was mutually beneficial, he enjoyed his role, he very much enjoyed teaching.”
When Farmer made the decision to retire, although most were sad to see him go, Mock says that they knew it was for the best. “Those who knew him well and knew what a struggle it was for him to get into the classroom and teach each week—we were relieved.”
Learning about Farmer’s legacy through the people that knew him best at Mary Washington allows us, as students and prospective historians, to archive valuable information about his life while teaching on campus. Then by creating a web site to share the information with others, his legacy is passed on. A bust on the campus of the University of Mary Washington shows that he was appreciated, but reviving his legacy inside the classroom is another way that the university keeps his memory alive.
For Futher Reading:
For more information about the importance and history of oral history, a very fascinating guide is Paul Thompson’s The Voice of the Past: Oral History. The first two chapters are about what makes oral history unique and the methodology’s background. He also includes many tips about how to conduct an interview, and other fundamentals of oral history. Valerie Yow’s book Recording Oral History gives helpful information about memory and why people convey memories in particular ways. Her studies into memory reflect not only material important for oral history researchers, but also for those studying other social sciences. Michael Frisch’s article “Oral History and Hard Times” is actually a review of a Studs Terkel book of essays on oral histories, but he incorporates some valuable information about oral history and interpretations of individual histories.
1.Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past: Oral History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 3. This essay details the importance of oral history and its many uses and contributions to the study of the past.
2. Valerie Yow, Recording Oral History (Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press, 2005), 53-4.
3.Michael Frisch, “Oral History and Hard Times,” in A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History ( Albany: SUNY Press, 1990), 12.
1 Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past: Oral History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 3. This essay details the importance of oral history and its many uses and contributions to the study of the past.
2Valerie Yow, Recording Oral History (Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press, 2005), 53-4.
3Michael Frisch, “Oral History and Hard Times,” in A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History ( Albany: SUNY Press, 1990), 12.