Post Classifieds

Students record oral history of statewide tragedy

By Barry Seawright
On January 17, 2012

A Category 4 tornado ravaged Tuscaloosa, Ala., on April 27, 2011. Sixty-three people were reported dead, 1,500 were injured, and an estimated $5 billion in damages was reported. Several media outlets covered this catastrophe, but three students at Tuskegee University wanted to go further than that.

Terry Lee, a senior history and political science double major from Archer, Fla.; Pam Delaine, a graduating senior from Fayetteville, Ga.; and Jaslyne Fuller, a sophomore sociology major from Compton, Calif., chronicled the disparities of those in the black community who endured the storm, and brought more attention to those who had no platform from which to speak. The students did this through their history course properly titled History 0405: Oral History.

"We wanted to give a voice to the voiceless," Fuller said.

According to the Tuskegee University Bulletin Courses and Programs guidebook, Oral History is a class that selects a limited amount of students to participate in a statewide oral history project aimed at collecting and analyzing materials relating to history of the black experience in Alabama. The fall semester class had three participants.

Clyde C. Robertson, associate professor of history at Tuskegee University, headed the class as well as the efforts that brought more awareness to the city and the strife faced by those in the black community.

"You have houses being rebuilt, but not shopping malls; and that's what we found a great deal of in Tuscaloosa. Large slabs of concrete where they once stood gone. Having to drive five extra miles to a Walgreens for a prescription makes life that much more difficult," said Robertson, further questioning how these communities will pull themselves together in the years to come. "Schools were destroyed. What will education look like? How will the standard of living in these disenfranchised communities rebuild? These are the questions you must ask when talking about Tuscaloosa."

"I didn't think it was as bad as it was," Lee said. "Entire areas were cleared. It was very saddening."

On the surface, after conducting preliminary research, the students noticed a large discrepancy between the different communities in Tuscaloosa, with some receiving an abundance of resources and support to rebuild, and others such as Alberta City, Rosedale, and Hope — all primarily black communities — seeing little activity in the months after the storm.

By traveling to Tuscaloosa, the students were able to see the destruction firsthand and the attempts at reconstruction.

"There was definitely a difference between Fifteenth Street, a predominantly business area in Tuscaloosa, compared to black communities such as Alberta, which are getting built nowhere near as fast," Fuller said.

"To see signs displayed of residents saying that they were going to come back no matter how hard it was, really showed how determined people actually were to recover," Delaine said.

The group spoke with different members of the black community, sitting down with three individuals in particular for in-depth interviews on their experiences before and after the destruction. All three residents commented on the lack of coverage of the storm's effects in their communities.

"We were the first ones to question them on the effects of the storms in their community before and after it happened," Robertson said.

Robertson divided the class, starting in August of 2011, into four groups over the semester. The type of oral history conducted would have to be decided.

There are three different types of oral history: life story, institutional, and event-based. In the past, previous classes have done life stories on various luminaries in the surrounding community and abroad, providing professional historical accounts on the individuals selected by the students. However, an event-based oral history took place during the fall semester course.

Without any debate, all three students agreed to complete an oral history on the destruction brought about by the Tuscaloosa tornado.

"All three students had people who were impacted, large or small, by the storm," Robertson said.

Preceding the midterm exam, the only exam of the class, students study the textbook provided and learn the proper methods for conducting an oral history. After the midterm exam, the students enter the second stage of preparation. They then research their topic and establish contacts. Responsibilities are divided, accordingly, amongst the students and then the interviews are conducted. Thirdly, the students review the information gleaned from their interviews and research and transcribe it. This culminated with the editing of the tape with the information transcribed and the compilation of the file.

"Every semester it gets bigger," Robertson said.

This oral history transcription marks the first time that an official copy of the file will be archived outside of the university. Since it aided in the project itself, the history department at Tuskegee University will donate an official copy of the file to the Tuscaloosa library.

"The staff and the administration of the Tuscaloosa library were so helpful that they deserve a copy," said Robertson.

However, Robertson does not want this oral history to be the all-important element.

"I hope that this preliminary research will encourage someone to do a deeper study," he said. "At the very least give a voice to those whose experiences are not on CNN and not on local television."


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