Interview conducted by Jenna Kincaid and Sadie Smith
Oral history provides the field of history an opportunity to study events, movements, or people from the bottom up. Individual narratives and perspectives construct a history not found in popular history. Paul Thompson argues in The Voice of the Past that oral histories enable persons to voice history through his or her personal story and the narrator’s individual bias only broadens history’s scope to encompass the social and cultural human experience. (1) Oral history provides a unique opportunity to study and examine James Farmer’s time at University of Mary Washington (formerly Mary Washington College). An interview with former MWC historic preservation professor John Pearce adds to the James Farmer at UMW oral history project a brief perspective and narration of Farmer’s contributions to the campus’ diversity and racial awareness.
Mr. John Pearce befriended James Farmer by chance on a Washington, D.C. commuter bus. Pearce helped to edit Farmer’s autobiography Lay Bare the Heart and encouraged his appointment as MWC professor. Pearce speaks at great length about Farmer’s wishes and how his goals ascended onto Mary Washington’s campus in the late 1980s and 1990s.
At a time when Mary Washington’s students were primarily white, middle class females, Farmer raised racial awareness in the university. Pearce recalls, after attending Farmer’s first public lecture on campus, overhearing a student ask a peer, “Do you think that really happened in this Christian country?” According to Pearce, the students and faculty needed to learn more and do more to fight for racial equality. Farmer used his own life experiences to teach the Mary Washington community about racial equality and diversity. Students filled his classes, filled lecture halls, and trailed him on campus in order to learn from the great civil rights leader. Farmer contributed greatly to the development of a richer multicultural life on campus and challenged the university to better itself through education and diversity. (2)
The University of Mary Washington honors James Farmer, his role in the civil rights movement and his professorship. His legacy at Mary Washington is prominently displayed on the campus – the multicultural center bares his name and a monument recognizes his contributions to Mary Washington and the civil rights movement. The interview with John Pearce discusses that James Farmer may not have been concerned how the school or history remembers him as long as his lessons and teachings are remembered. Pearce explains that Farmer “didn’t have a heavy sense of ‘I must be remembered,’” but rather that he believed, “what we [civil rights leaders and fighters] tried to do must be remembered. People must carry on from there.” Farmer did not want his teachings to be forgotten, not so much for himself, but for the American culture and civilization. Discussed by Kathryn L. Nasstrom in her article “Between Memory and History, Autobiographies of the Civil Rights Movement and the Writing of Civil Rights History,” civil rights history has long left out the individuals who built the movement. (3) The civil rights historical memory often focuses on a small number of specific events and few people, usually only Martin Luther King, Jr., and leaves out the grassroots organizers and movement. Although John Pearce believes Farmer was not concerned with his own place in history but only his work and the movement’s place in history, Mary Washington has preserved Farmer’s legacy on campus and with projects, like this oral history archive, his time at Mary Washington will be added to the civil rights movement’s historical narrative.
James Farmer’s Mary Washington’s legacy is not a passive remembrance, but a call to duty, to educate and fight for equality. His time at UMW was spent not only constructing the civil rights history, but also creating leadership for a new era of civil rights. We learn from the oral histories about Farmer, newspaper articles, and his autobiography Lay Bare the Heart that Farmer was continuously working towards racial awareness and equality and that his work is not finished. Farmer’s legacy in dialogue with other civil rights histories is a narrative that “is an unfinished one, with its expansive and progressive goals of equality and justice yet to be realized, both as they existed in the past and as they might in the future. “ (4) As students of history, we can construct meaning from Farmer’s life and work to learn what we should be striving towards today. In a new era of civil rights, Pearce gathers that Farmer “would want us to be working toward availability of all sorts, of educational opportunity, and all sorts of economic equality. He would want us to lay aside our pettiness on occasion, if our racist roots rise up. Find good people, get them educated, and give them a push up.” Along with the civil rights movement historical writings, oral history and Farmer’s legacy constructs an unfinished narrative that calls on today’s society to promote racial awareness, education, and equality.
1. Thompson, Paul Richard. The Voice of the Past: Oral History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.
2. John Pearce, Interview conducted by Sadie Smith and author, Fredericksburg, VA.
3. Nasstrom, Kathryn. “Between Memory and History: Autobiographies of the Civil Rights Movement and the Writing of Civil Rights History.” The Journal of Southern History 74, 2 (May 2008): 325-364.
4. Ibid., 363.
The following oral history resources are informative works that discuss and address key issues in oral history and the civil rights movement’s narrative. Paul Thompson’s The Voice of the Past is an intricate overview of oral history methods, theory, and application. It is an introductory study to the use of oral history in the history field. Thompson discusses the method and meaning of oral history. The work is a valuable resource for studying oral history understanding its role in the construction of history. Kathryn Nasstrom’s article “Between Memory and History, Autobiographies of the Civil Rights Movement and the Writing of Civil Rights History” is a detailed commentary on civil rights oral historiography and civil rights autobiographies. It discusses the narrative’s holes and the absence of key figures’ stories and histories. Nasstrom argues for historians to work to create a dialogue between autobiographies and the historical narrative. An important civil rights movement autobiography is James Farmer’s Lay Bare the Heart. Farmer’s work gives voice to the grassroots organizers and sheds light on the process that created the movement.
Farmer, James. Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Arbor House, 1985.
Nasstrom, Kathryn. “Between Memory and History: Autobiographies of the Civil Rights Movement and the Writing of Civil Rights History.” The Journal of Southern History 74, 2 (May 2008): 325-364.
Pearce, John. Interview conducted by Sadie Smith and author, Fredericksburg, VA.
Thompson, Paul Richard. The Voice of the Past: Oral History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.