November 30th 2009
Oral History and James Farmer
James Farmer Interview Essay
Doctor Venita McCall was interviewed on November 12th 2009. She was interviewed in order to gain further information about James Farmer and his time spent at the University of Mary Washington near the end of his life. The interview focused on Farmer’s time here both as a teacher and as a historical figure, as well as his participation in the James Farmer Scholars Program that was set up shortly before his time at the University, and after his arrival was named after him. Dr. McCall had some knowledge of the name James Farmer, but as it always was for the civil rights pioneer, he was not the figure that she knew the most about, until he arrived in Fredericksburg. The Education Professor Dr. McCall is no stranger to the Civil Rights Movement and being actively involved in the struggle for racial equality, as she was the first female African American Professor at the University of Mary Washington to receive tenure after her time working at the University in an administrative role. She transitioned into teaching when the school began to develop its Education department and has taught at UMW ever since. She credits James Farmer, as well as the others involved in the Civil Rights Movement for her presence at the University, as she says several times during the interview, she would not have had those doors opened for her had they not done what they did.
Possibly the best starting point when trying to analyze this interview is with the biases that Dr. McCall held. These do not diminish her opinions or the quality of her interview, it is simply to point out that they are present, as they are with everyone, and establish what they are. The biases that are present are a special fondness of James Farmer, which was developed over time as she interacted with him more, and towards the end of his life, she acted as one of his caregivers. Having such a relationship with Farmer does make her a very good source to use when looking to learn about Farmer, but it is necessary to acknowledge that she did have a close personal relationship as well as a professional relationship with the civil rights leader. The other bias that is presence, and might possibly have clouded her judgment in remembering Farmer, was that she was so grateful for his work and all the work done by the Civil Rights Movement. She said several times that ‘without all of their efforts she would not have been in the position she was in, and missed out on working at the University and eventually becoming the first African American female professor’. While bias can be a problem in history, in oral history, it is just part of the story. As Michael Frisch says in the chapter from his collection of essays, “Oral History and Hard Times”, there really is no bias in oral history. Because it is people’s memories and their accounts of, like in Studs Terkel’s book, hard times and bad experiences in their lives. One observation that Frisch shares from a review of Terkel’s work is a harsh critique on Oral history; it is “weak on the why”1 because it is full of people’s ideas and thoughts, not on historical truths. However, this is what gives oral history its usefulness and its character, history should not just be faceless list of facts.
The information that Dr. McCall gives about Farmer is very useful to understanding the role he played at the University. She discusses her work with him on the James Farmer Scholars Program. She remembers how he would talk with the children in the program, and help the school get them started down the right track in life, getting them invested in their educations and acknowledging to themselves that they indeed, had bright futures to look forward to. Dr. McCall recalls his popularity as a professor at the University and how his classes were always full of eager young students, waiting to learn from all of his life lessons. She was working in an administrative role during his time at the University of Mary Washington and was not really able to divulge much information about Farmer as a professor or give an insight into how he interacted and was viewed by other members of the teaching faculty. However, she never mentions any sort of issues that Farmer had with the administration and hints that the relationship with the school’s administrators was quite good. Dr. McCall goes into much more detail about the James Farmer Scholars than anything else that Farmer was involved in, since that is where her interactions with him began. She recounts how eager he was to participate in the program and how exciting it was for him to give back to the community, and help develop more young minds. From all of the articles that the Free Lance Star newspaper of Fredericksburg had, and from Dr. McCall, it is clear how important this program was to Farmer. He put quite a lot of time into working with the kids when he could, and seemed to think that it was important for all the work he had done, and for the future generations of America, to give young children, primarily young African American children, every chance at a higher education.
One of the things that Dr. McCall was very eager to do was give us an idea as to what Farmer’s legacy at the University of Mary Washington was, as well as his legacy in American History. As she narrated how her interactions with him changed her life, she expressed how deeply he affected so many people’s lives with his actions and his words. At this point in the interview, Dr. McCall was struggling to retell her stories of Farmer because of how emotional remembering those times made her, which made both my interviewing partner and I a very hard time with where we should take the interview. Knowing our interviewee personally, it was hard to watch on as she struggled so much with her sadness over the loss of a great influence on her life. As Valerie Yow points in her writings, that we do not always remember how much of an influence our interviewee’s have on us, but at this point, we both came to the realization that while it was an interview about a past Civil Rights hero, this woman in front of us was not only personally important, but she was touching us with her memories2. He was, by all accounts, a very strong presence at the University and in American History, that many, including Dr. McCall feel as if he should be remembered more for what he sacrificed to help bring equality to this country. She suggests that this is what his legacy is, both at the University and in America, a strong person, a person that tried to do what he could to change his circumstances and every other African American citizen’s circumstances. While memories of him as a man may fade, memories of him as a figure will never die out, he helped change the lives of so many people, and not only is there a program at the University immortalizing him, there is also a statue, and the lasting memories of many James Farmer Scholars who were influenced by him.
Oral history is a very vital aspect of history in today’s world. It is around us everywhere, and is growing in its usage and popularity as a viable source of historical information. It is what the modern concept of history that we understand was first developed as, in the beginning of time and is coming back into the forefront. Looking at how important oral history is, there is a lot of other reading out there, to help further explain how important it is to modern society. For example, Valerie Yow talks about in her article “Do I Like Them Too Much?: Effects of the Oral History Interview on the Interviewer and Vice-Versa”, that an interview is a very emotional and interactive experience to both parties, and while it is so influential in developing history, it can be a very powerful experience to everyone involved in the processing of the interview. Michael Frisch’s book has several useful chapters, the one that was helpful in understanding oral history the most was the chapter called, “Oral History and Hard Times” in which he talks about both the difficulties of oral history and gives quotes from reviews as well as his interpretation of Studs Terkel’s work. In this chapter Frisch talks about how oral history is met with so much criticism from various different historians and magazines, but in its essence, it is the basis for all history. Not only this, but it is also, with its faults and issues with bias, a very pure form of history.
Dr. McCall is not only one of the most usable sources on James Farmer, but she is also a very good source for spreading an understanding of Farmer as a figure and as a man. Farmer is not only a great figure in American History, he was also a very good professor and helped transform the lives of many people far beyond what he and the other Civil Rights leaders did in their work during the height of the movement.
1 Frisch, Michael. A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public Histories. Albany: SUNY Press, 1990. 7.
2Yow, Valerie. “”Do I Like Them Too Much?”: Effects of the Oral History Interview on the Interviewer and Vice-Versa.” Oral History Review 24 no. 1 (1997): 55.