Oral History Questions for African Americans Who Survived Jim Crow

In 2013 I was an interviewer on an oral history project that was a collaboration between the Ann Arbor District Library and the African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County. The interviews I participated in were filmed by filmmaker Laurie White, and were archived as a part of a larger project. We heard histories from some of the earliest African Americans who lived in Ann Arbor.

As I was reflecting on the project and the richness of the histories that were shared, I decided that I might want to interview members of my own family. I found some of the questions we used at the time and decided to share them here.

They are from a document entitled “Our lives…Our Legacy” I’ve adapted some aspects of them. The framing language will be displayed in italics.

Part I. Demographics and Family History

Context/Framing Language

“I’m first going to ask you some simple demographic questions. These questions might jog your memories, but please keep your answers brief. We can go into more detail later in the interview.”

Please say and spell your name.

What is your date of birth, including the year? (If unknown: How old are you?).

How would you describe your ethnic background?

What is your religion if any?

What is the highest level of formal education you have completed? Did you attend any additional school or formal career training beyond that?

Are you Married/Partnered? (If so, are they still living?)

Do/did you have any children? If so, how many?

What was your primary occupation? (if identified as homemaker, Were you ever paid for work out of the home? For how long?)

At what age did you retire?

Part II. Memories of Childhood and Youth

Context/Framing Language

“This part of the interview is about your childhood and youth. Even if these questions jog memories about other times in your life, please only respond with memories for this part of your life.”

What was your family like when you were a child?

What sort of work did your parents do?

What is your earliest memory?

Were there any special days, events, or family traditions you remember from your childhood?

Which holidays did your family celebrate?

How are holidays traditionally celebrated in your family?

Has your family created its own traditions and celebrations?

What was the highest grade you completed?

Did you play any sports or join any other activities outside of school?

What about your school experience is different from school as you know it today?

Did your family have any spacial sayings or expressions during this time?

Were there any changes in your family life during your school years?

When thinking back on your school years, what important social or historical events were taking place at that time, and how did they personally affect you and your family?

You lived during the era of segregation. Can you speak about that? (e.g. Was your school segregated? Was the elementary school near your home? Was there a high school for Black students in the same area? How did you get to school? Who were the teachers? Were there restaurants or eating places for Black people where you lived? How were Black visitors accommodated?)

Part III. Adulthood, Marriage, and Family Life

Context/Framing Language

“This set of questions covers a fairly long period of your life–from the time you completed your education, entered the labor force, or started a family, until (if you had them) all of your children left home and you and/or your partner retired. So, we might be talking about a stretch of time spanning as much as four decades.”

After you finished high school, where did you live? Did you remain there, or did you move around through your adult life. If you moved, what was the reason for these moves?

“Skip next question if never married (or ask about existence of a life partner, and improvise the questions).”

I’d like you to tell me a little about your married and family life. First tell me about your spouse (e.g. Where did you meet? Tell me what it was like when you were dating. If you married, what was your engagement and wedding like?).

“If necessary, repeat the above for multiple marriages. Skip next question if no children.”

Tell me about your children, and what life was like when they were young and living in the house. What did your family enjoy doing together when your kids were still at home? What were your personal favorite things to do for fun? Are there any special days, events or family traditions you  practiced that differed from your childhood traditions?

Part IV. Work/Retirement

Context/Framing Language

“This set of questions covers a fairly long period of your life–from the time you entered the labor force or started a family up to the present time.”

What was your main field of employment? How did you first get started with this tradition, skill, or job? What got you interested?

What was a typical day like during the working years of your adult life?

What is the biggest difference in your main field of employment from the time you started until now?

What do you value most about what you did for a living? Why?

How did your life change when you and/your partner retired and (if you had any) all of the children left home?

When thinking back on your working/adult life, what important social or historical events were taking place at that time, and how did they personally affect you and your family?

Part V. Historical/Societal Events

Tell me how it is for you to live in this community?

When thinking back on your entire life, what important social/historical events had the greatest impact?

When thinking back over your entire life, what are you most proud of?

What would you say has changed the most form the time you were a young person to now?

What advice would you give the younger generation?


From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins-Jones


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Relando Thompkins-Jones

I'm a Social Justice Educator and Aspiring Humanitarian who is interested in conflict resolution, improving intergroup relations, and building more equitable and inclusive communities. "Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian" is my blog, where I write about issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice. By exploring social identities through written word, film & video, and other forms of media, I hope to continue to expand and enrich conversations about social issues that face our society, and to find ways to take social action while encouraging others to do so as well in their own ways.

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