Interview with Dr. Allyson Poska, Professor of History at the University of Mary Washington
Conducted by: Jacqueline Marshall and Courtney Chapman
James (“Jim”) Farmer was extremely active in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, and continued to spread his wealth of knowledge about that era to students at Mary Washington College, where he taught after moving to the Fredericksburg area later in his life. While many remember Farmer as an activist, others will remember him as a teacher who possessed a “booming voice”(1) and was an excellent story teller. One such person is Dr. Allyson Poska.
Dr. Poska began teaching at Mary Washington College (now the University of Mary Washington) in the fall of 1992, which was near the end of Farmers tenure at the school. By this time Farmer was only teaching one class in the evening and, for the most part, did not have available office hours during the day so as a new professor Dr. Poska admits to not have had too much individual contact with Farmer herself, however what she does remember provides interesting insight into other aspects of Farmers time at Mary Washington that would otherwise have remained silent.. The things that she does remember speak volumes about how Farmer was viewed by the community of Fredericksburg and how that was juxtaposed to how the administration at the college handled having him there, which is valuable in forming a well rounded perspective of Farmer and his association with the school.
The one class that Farmer taught in 1992 was a night class about the civil rights. By this time he was blind and confined to a wheelchair, so the accessibility of the classrooms he taught in was an issue, as well as taking attendance. He had a personal aide to assist him in grading tests (there were only two of them per semester, which Dr. Poska notes may be one of the reason that students found this class appealing) and students that helped take attendance. While the seemingly simple workload was a major draw for students looking for a lecture class with minimal assignments, another factor that Dr. Poska recalls contributing to the popularity of the class is Farmers ability to draw an audience into his story.
Dr. Poska spoke of his “booming voice (2)” as one of the strongest attributes, that it was a comforting, deep voice that was all encompassing. In conjunction with the soothingly booming voice, Farmer was also an excellent story teller with a sense of humor. This recollection of a “booming voice”, as well as his sense of humor, is more emotionally tied and personal then a physical feature or cognitive attribute, and is something a woman is more likely to remember than a man. Had this interview been conducted with either the interviewer or the interviewee as a male, the way in which Farmer is remembered may change. Inside the classroom he could captivate his class with tales of the civil rights movement that, for a generation who never experienced the walk on Washington or participated in a rally, brought the movement to life in a way in which textbooks and even professors who were not intimately involved in it could. His stories gave them a new perspective and a link to a time that they had previously only read about, and for the serious student genuinely interested in the topic, there was a whole new realm of knowledge available. His laugh was in the same manner as his voice-deep, soothing and contagious. When Farmer laughed, Dr. Poska remembers that it was hard to feel ill at ease or to not join in with him. When it came down to teaching, Farmer is remembered as one of those teachers who can pass on quality information while keeping the class’s attention, if not for any reason other than his personal qualities that draw people into his story.
As much as this makes it sound as if Farmer’s stay at Mary Washington was tranquil and uneventful, behind the scenes Dr. Poska remembers conflict existing. Perhaps because she was still new to the institution and therefore able to distance herself from the issues at hand, she was able to recognize the conflicts, because it was those issues of conflict that she remembers most about Farmer’s tenure at the school. For a small school in a small town, Farmer was the biggest celebrity imaginable, and the community wanted the school to treat him as such. However, the college had problems with how exactly to deal with Farmer, not just because of his celebrity but for other reasons as well. When Farmer began teaching, his health was already declining. This limited what he could do in terms of teaching, and so he only taught a small amount of classes at the university which raised the first argument: how do you label him as a teacher? They did not want to say that he was a full time professor, because he only taught at most two classes a semester, but they also did not want to down play his presence. So he was given an office and allowed to teach the classes he wanted. This was accepted by the community, they wanted him to be a professor at their local college and he was.
However, from there the community and the college were at odds about what was considered necessary. The college did not want James Farmer, the civil rights activist, to be a token African American teacher in an overwhelmingly white student body as well that had only a select few non white teachers. The administration did not want to create a race issue on campus but they also did not know how to incorporate Farmer into the preexisting dynamic. When Farmer received his special lifetime of service award, the college had a private ceremony for him on campus. This caused conflict with the community, who felt that since Farmer was a local celebrity the local community should all be invited to host or attend such an event. The college thought otherwise and the community was not satisfied with the amount (in their opinion a lack) of attention given to the event. The other major source of conflict between the college and the community arose when Farmer retired, the school was content to let him go on his own way and to do symbolic acts of remembrance (such as a scholarship in his name and designs for a bust of his likeness to be placed on campus) while the community desired a much more formal and news worthy send off. Whenever there is a discrepancy between what one side wants and the other side is willing to do, there is going to be conflict or hurt feelings.
More than seventeen years have passed since Dr. Poska first met James Farmer and when this interview occurred. During that time the meaning of events may have changed or solidified for Dr. Poska, as memories have a tendency to do when a long period of time has passed between the event originally occurring and the recollection of it(3). A new perspective can be attained, one with seventeen years worth of teaching experience and a loyalty to the institution that was not present when the memories were being made. A part of the narrator comes through when analyzing what is said and remembered about the subject, and it becomes difficult to see not only the narrators’ perspective but others that may exist as well. As a confrontational person, Dr. Poska remembers conflict being present when other people may not. This gives valuable insight into the other parts of Farmer’s tenure at Mary Washington that other people may not be predisposed to share or recognize. That is part is a part of how she analyses situation and explains why she vividly remembers a conflict between the community and the administration but does not so much see the positively remembered legacy of Farmer that other faculty members, such as Dr Crawley who calls Farmer “the most notable addition to the department-indeed, to the whole college faculty” (4), remember. This unique perspective given by someone prone to see the potential for conflict is special in that it gives a well rounded account, one that not many people remember, or are not willing to admit to remembering(5).
Anyone looking for further information on Farmer will find Farmer’s autobiography (“Lay Bare the Heart”) an extremely useful source. This gives his personal account of his life and his efforts in the civil rights movement in a way that only he can. This is straight from the source and, like those students lucky enough to have had a class with him to hear his stories first hand, can entertain while also providing unique information. Another source which may be helpful is Dr William Crawley’s book (“University of Mary Washington: A Centennial History 1908-2008”) is also available and gives a different perspective. This is written by a long standing faculty member at the University of Mary Washington who taught at the school while Farmer was there. His account can show how he, as a faculty member in the History department, saw Farmer’s contribution to the school and the community first hand.
(1) One of the very first things that Dr Allyson Poska remembered about James Farmer was his “booming voice”. It was a quality that she brought up many times throughout the interview.
(2) Yow, Valerie Raleigh, Recording Oral History: A Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences, (2nd Edition) AltaMira Press (2005), p 50
(3) Alessandro Portelli, “The Death of Luigi Trastulli: Memory and the Event,” in L..uigi Trastulli, and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History, (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1-26.
(4) Crawley, William, University of Mary Washington: A Centennial History 1908-2008, University of Mary Washington Foundation (2008) , p 618
(5) Yow, Valerie Raleigh, Recording Oral History: A Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences, (2nd Edition) AltaMira Press (2005), p 302