Dr. Allyson Poska has been a faculty member at the Univsersity of Mary Washington for the past eighteen years. I recently interviewed her in order to learn about the time she worked with James Farmer. Although a faculty member for eighteen years, and working with Farmer for eight, Dr. Poska admits that she did not know the Civil Rights leader well as he was rarely on campus. In a half-hour long interview, she reveals a different version of Farmer’s time spent at Mary Washington compared to stories told by administration and other faculty members. Throughout the interview she highlights his class, tensions, and legacy, or lack of.
In the beginning of the interview Dr. Poska discusses Farmer’s time as a history professor at Mary Washington. Although he was a faculty member, Dr. Poska notes that he was ‘not a regular member of the department.’ Farmer only taught one class at night and, therefore, was rarely in the office throughout the day. His class, which focused on the Civil Rights Movement, was taught twice a week and popular amongst the couple hundred students enrolled. The class was taught through lectures due to Farmer’s blindness. As he was a natural storyteller and with his first hand experience, the class became overwhelmingly popular. However, the class’s popularity could be in part because there were only two exams throughout the semester long class.
Although an active leader in the Civil Rights Movement, Farmer was relatively quiet on campus. It was not his intention, according to Poska, to lead resistance movements amongst Mary Washington students. At this point in his life he was an elderly gentleman, and only wished to bring his story to students who may not have been aware of this cultural movement.
Once Farmer’s health began to decline, he became even less involved on campus. He had never been made a full time professor nor was he involved in campus events and therefore his presence at Mary Washington was relatively small. After his death, administration made a few attempts to honor his memory and commemorate him. However, due to his minor role on campus and feeble attempts to memorialize him, his legacy is not withstanding.
When asked about Farmer’s legacy, Dr. Poska responds that she does not believe he has one. She goes on to say that most of her students would not know who he was except that he has a bust located on campus walk. Before the interview, most of our class was under the impression that James Farmer was well known, specifically on the Mary Washington campus due to James Farmer Multicultural Center. However, Poska implies that he does not have a legacy.
As our James Farmer Oral History class has progressed we have learned through the past months the many debates, which surround oral history. One of the most difficult things to understand concerning oral history is that historians are not looking for ‘the facts’ to tell their story. Rather than looking for the truth, oral historians have to look further and understand why a story has changed over the course of time. The story can change for several reasons, perhaps because the narrator does not remember or the details or because they have made sense of the event.(1) As an oral historian one should question why Dr. Poska does not believe he has a legacy when others argue that he does. Perhaps, Dr. Poska reasons that James Farmer does not have a legacy in order to rationalize the lack of diversity at Mary Washington. An explanation as to why this school continues to be predominantly white throughout the years would be that a pivotal leader in the Civil Rights Movement was not promoted on campus.
This interview is important to James Farmer’s history as it offers a different view of his legacy due to the narrator. Oftentimes in history we are only told one story from the people who were most crucial in the event.(2) Dr. Poska was a relatively new faculty member and very involved in gender issues on campus. Due to her job title and interests she would have a different account of Farmer compared to administration. The conversation focused a lot on the tensions and the doubts that administration had while hiring Farmer. Although administration knew they wanted this distinguished civil rights leader to teach, they were unsure how to react and treat him on campus. As historians we learned that all history, from all perspectives, are valid as they offer a different account to a story. Poska would be more willing to discuss the uneasiness of Farmer’s time spent teaching because she is not a member of administration who would be concerned about the upholding an image that Mary Washington has not always readily embraced diversity. Without Poska’s account explaining that often there were tensions between Farmer, administration, and the community, we would lack significant details concerning his time at the College.
Through this interview we learned of a different account of Farmer’s time while teaching at Mary Washington, which is not always discussed. This perspective adds to Farmer’s history and adds to interesting debate concerning his legacy.
- Alessandro Portelli, “The Death of Luigi Trastulli: Memory and the Event,” in The Death of Luigi Trastulli, and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1991), 1-26
- Kim Lacy Rogers, “Oral History and the History of the Civil Rights Movement,” Journal of American History. 567-576.