James Farmer Interview Essay
This interview was conducted with Ms. Venitta McCall, a professor in the education department at the University of Mary Washington. She is the university’s first female African American full professor. Her interaction with James Farmer comes from her involvement as the head of the James Farmer Scholars Program. The James Farmer Scholars Program was established in 1987 as an effort by then Mary Washington College, to provide opportunities and knowledge to students who may not have considered college as part of their future beforehand. Another crucial part of the program was the “Afro centric” approach to education that the program offered in addition to many of the standard educational practices involved in the program.1 Dr. McCall was brought in from at the beginning to head up the program.
When speaking of James Farmer, Dr. McCall first spoke of the James Farmer Scholars Program due to the fact that it was how she was involved with him. During the interview she spoke numerous times of James Farmer’s involvement with the program and the students. In speaking with her, we found out that he spoke to them as part of the program and some of them received copies of his autobiography Lay Bare the Heart. While Farmer was involved in the program and was invited to many of the activities, Dr. McCall expressed regret in not having him more involved while he was able to participate. Farmer was very interested in the program and saw it as crucial component to continuing the civil rights movement in today’s society. Speaking with Dr. McCall it became very clear, as it is in reading the book, that the struggle for equality is far from over and the battles are being fought in new ways. The James Farmer Scholars Program is one of the ways in which equality is being reached by giving new opportunities to a group of students that had previously not been offered them.
Other interactions that Dr. McCall had with Mr. Farmer, while still centering around her work for the scholars program, were more personal in nature. She spoke of him as a very strong and proud man. Even during his later years he stood very tall and spoke in his same booming voice. Dr. McCall stated that he had a voice that could easily fill a room and pulled you in like all great storytellers. She also stated that to sit and listen to the stories that he told was a surreal experience because he spoke of Dr. King and many of the other civil rights leaders as someone would speak of friends. It is at this point that it can be seen how oral history provides a special way from which to approach this topic. Paul Thompson in his The Voice of the Past states, “…Oral history certainly can be a means for transforming both the content and the purpose of history. It can be used to change the focus of history itself, and open up new areas of inquiry.”2 Through this Thompson is explaining that oral history provides researchers with a new way and approach to find out new information about common topics, for example, the interactions of leaders in the civil rights movement.
While Dr. McCall told us about numerous events like talking about the movement with Mr. Farmer, she said that his lasting legacy at UMW is the James Farmer Scholars Program. She said that the people who have been touched by the program mean far more than anything that could have been done by the University. While naming a building after Farmer is a great thing, she said that it is more important for people to be able to learn about the man he was and what he stood for. The James Farmer Scholars Program shows this need for people to learn what Farmer stood for at his core through educating those who have not had the same opportunities as others. Another part of his legacy of the Mary Washington campus that showed very important to Dr. McCall is the bust of James Farmer that resides outside of Trinkle Hall on the Fredericksburg Campus. The statue commemorates James Farmer and his winning of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The statue holds a special significance to Dr. McCall and she stated that she felt there was no better place it could have been put, the central location of the statue forces people to ask who he was, and stimulates conversation as to whom the great man was when he lived.
While this interview provided us with numerous great anecdotes and descriptions of the man Farmer was, it fits largely into a very common narrative of his time at the University. He is seen as an excellent orator who was very popular on campus among the student population. Dr. McCall reinforced the view that Farmer was largely liked and respected on campus. While this fits largely into the view that many people at Mary Washington had on Farmer, this can tell us something about his time here. He was a seen as a “living legend” who was telling history as he lived it, not as read or studied in books. The common view was that James Farmer was a living primary source that should have been taken advantage of in any way possible. This oral history interview provides listeners and readers with a view into some of the ways Farmer was viewed by the people around him, the people he worked with. The common shared view of Farmer can tell us something about the man he truly was, apart from just the actions he performed in his struggle for equality.
For more reading on Oral History that would be helpful in understanding this interview and others a few suggestions can be made. To better understand the involvement of oral history as part of the Civil Rights Movement, and the historical conversation of the event one should read Payne’s Bibliographic Essay, from I’ve Got the Light of Freedom. This provides a very good explanation as to the construction of the common “King Centric” view of the Civil Rights Movement. It also provides a very interesting discussion of the necessity for a change in the way which we view history in general.3 The first and second chapters of Paul Thompson’s text, Voice of the Past. The start of the book provides and excellent discussion of the practice of oral history as well as how it fits into the broader construction of a historical narrative.4
1. University of Mary Washington, “James Farmer Scholars Program,” James Farmer Scholars Program, http://www.umw.edu/cas/jfscholars/default.php [accessed November 30, 2009].
2. Thompson, Paul, Voice of the Past [Oxford University Press, 2000] 3.
3. Payne, Charles M., “Bibliographic Essay” in I’ve Got the Light of Freedom [University of California Press, 1997].
4. Thompson, Paul, Voice of the Past [Oxford University Press, 2000] 1-24.