How I Became An Oral Historian

Sheila B. Shiki y Michaels
Martin Luther King Day Speech
St. Mark's in-the-Bowery, New York City

I do believe that this Oral History project was destined, or that it chose me, for I certainly did not choose it. It came inexorably, as a gift from some deity.

Almost three years ago, now, the Archivist at the University of Southern Mississippi, wrote to ask if I was the Sheila Michaels who had worked in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in 1964. Which is how my life got out of its rut.

U.S.M. is in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, & that was the town in which I was Project Manager during Freedom Summer, 1964. It was a fine title, & from that day to this no one knew what it meant, including me, & the Project Director, who gave it to me. I guess it meant, "make this job up as you go along, or we're all up a very dirty creek."

The Archivist had just taken her job in Mississippi, though most of her career had been in Louisiana. She had received the papers of the late Gov. Paul Johnson, who was from Hattiesburg. She had found my name in his papers. It was in the reports of the State Security Commission: that is the Mississippi equivalent of the FBI. And my name was misspelled. Three different files the Commission had, on me, (I am a master of disguises,) & every time my name is misspelled in a different way. That is what makes an archivists life so exciting.

The Archivist is a brisk Southern lady named Bobs Tusa. She was the only child of an egomaniacal psychiatrist named Robert, so he called her "Bobs". She had been married an Italian, so she is Bobs Tusa. This is beginning to sound like the material of a Tennessee Williams play, but I think it isn't.

Bobs found my name on a list of people who'd attended a Freedom Summer 30th reunion, & got my address. The miracle is that I got to attend that reunion at all, because SNCC, cherishing its old traditions, hadn't bothered to tell anyone about the reunion. I had figured out, in June, from an article I'd seen in a January 1994 "NYTimes" Magazine article about Bob Moses & the Algebra Project, that if the reunion was actually going to take place, that it should be going on. So I made inquiries, & it was so. I managed to get myself there, but I couldn't rally any of the troops from my Project, which had been the biggest in the State. They'd reserved a bus for us, but hadn't told any of us. We had to beg hitchhikers to climb aboard.

So you see, the hand of Fate was stirring. I got to Mississippi for the reunion & Bobs found me through the state spy agencies 35 year old files. She'd been told there was no Civil Rights activity in Hattiesburg, to speak of. I told her we were the largest project in the state. Three thousand townspeople & over 90 Freedom Summer volunteers. Bobs has gotten her documents. She's written a book. My friend Herb, who came down to photograph our project, but never printed the photos, is the subject of the book: thank heavens he built a storage room into his house when he moved to the Reservation, or who knows what would have happened to the 1759 photos he donated to the University Archives?

The book Faces of Freedom Summer, Bobs' book, about Herb & his photographs, documents our project. Herb had never printed or released the photos, in 35 years. He wanted me to assure him that they were not going directly to the CIA. I could not; but he sent them anyway. They're the only record which exists, of what went on in a single town in that historic summer, & it is the only one seen with an African-American sensibility. It isn't in print until next month, but I have a copy here for show & tell.

Since then, because Bobs used a year of my e-mails for local color, University of Alabama Press asked if I want to write my memoirs. I've been on panels, I've spoken at conferences. An oral history with me is availble on the net. You may not recognize me, but I'm world famous in a corner of Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

But wait, there's more.

What happened when Bobs asked me to write a little something about that Summer was really eldritch.

Having not yet thought of Herb & his photos (rather, assuming they were lost, stolen, or disappeared into the King archives, with most of SNCC's records) I had taken down the photographer Danny Lyon's book, Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement. I came across photos of two people in his photos of the SNCC conference & protests in Nashville, in November, 1962, neither of whom I had expected. One I thought might be Lucy Komisar, who I had known to be the organizer of the CORE Woolworth picket line on 42nd Street [NYC], in 1960. The other was a woman in a mass meeting, who haunted me. I knew I knew her. I kept going back to the picture & finally thought it might be an uncharacteristic photo of my old roommate, Mary Hamilton, taken from a strange angle, with a bad hairdo & a coat I didn't recognize.

Mary had not spoken to me for 14 years; since she found that on the advice of many people who knew both of us, I had not told her that I had caught her husband, cheating. When I had seen him on the street, I had thought of the woman: "she's Belgian". A strange thought, for how does a Belgian look? When, years later, Mary said, "the worst part is, Holly [her daughter, then 13] goes in every weekend to stay with him & that Belgian bitch..." I blurted out, "I knew she was Belgian", & a 20-year friendship was finished: because I had told other people, but not her & had put her business on the street.

I kept going back to that picture. One Saturday, before I was to go to a celebration, I had gone to get a bite to eat at a friendly restaurant which admits dogs. I had been writing a little memoir about the Movement & looking at the photo. I was happy, I liked the food, people were friendly, my dog was curled at my feet & I found myself crying. Really sobbing for no reason I could think of.

That Monday, after about 20 years, I ran into Lucy Komisar at the Opera. She said that, `yes, she was Lucy Komisar & yes, she had been in Nashville in 1962.' I thought that was quite a coincidence, but I might have had the same subscription & been passing her for years without recognizing her.

But I kept going back to those photos & crying.

Then, on Wednesday, Mary called me after 14 years. She said, "Sheila, I've been thinking & thinking about you all the time. I can't stop thinking about you. Last night I woke up at 3 am & couldn't fall asleep because I kept thinking about you."

I thought, "Ah, my mojo's working!"

Mary told me that she'd retired from teaching, started a business sewing samples for designers, and after 45 minutes, told me she'd had 4th Stage ovarian cancer for two years. So, that was why I'd been crying.

Because I was now so involved with archives & acquisitions, I realized, that as time was short, someone must do an oral history with Mary. She had been the only female Field Secretary (organizer) for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). She was only the third woman to have the job: Genevieve Hughes was the first, Frederika Teer the second, but they had not been allowed to work in the South. Mary Hamilton was the first female CORE organizer allowed to work in the South. That is, there were plenty of women putting their lives on the line & organizing in the South, but they were doing it for free & without recognition. Men were taking all the credit, & everyone thought that was fine. It would have been unwomanly to do it any other way. Mary was the first professional & the first to get the proper recognition & pay, which was $60 a week.

Mary also had won a landmark case before the Warren Supreme Court, called the "Miss Mary case" [Ex parte Mary Hamilton. (Ala. Sup. Ct., 7 Div. 621) 1964]. It forced Southern judges to address minority people as "Mr, Mrs, or Miss." (I had invented the term "Ms." by then, but no one would listen.) Before that, minority people were addressed only by their first names in court & only whites had the dignity of having a title & last name used. Mary had already done a month for contempt of court when the decision was handed down. One of the fastest cases to go through the courts until the George Bush decision, this year.

Through Bobs Tusa, I got the names of every archive with radical or civil rights oral history collections. I had to contact most of them twice. Usually they simply didn't respond. I found that all of them were not interested. The King Center in Atlanta was the worst. I had obviously interrupted the archivist when she was doing her nails. The only time she showed a spark of interest was when I said that Mary had been married to Andy Young's brother, Walter. She wanted to know if Mary still had influence with Andrew Young & could talk to him about getting his papers.

That was when it dawned on me that the King Center must be in deep trouble if it couldn't get the papers of King's right-hand man, who had gone on to be Mayor of Atlanta & US Delegate to the United Nations. Nowadays it is selling off parts of its collection.

The second time I contacted Columbia, I got the head of the collection. He said they were not adding to their collection just now, but I could do it myself, they'd archive it & transcribe the interview when they raised some money for general purposes. He told me to come up & they'd teach me how to do an oral history.

I went up with real trepidation. The head of the department took all of 45 minutes to show me what to do: mainly, what equipment to buy. One of his students promised to come along & guide me, but she never made it. It was just like SNCC.

After we'd talked for a while, this man said: "Look, you know everyone & you've been everywhere (oooooooh, blush, blush) no one has done an oral history of CORE. Why don't you do it? We'll archive it & we'll transcribe it when we raise the money."

I couldn't believe that. (& I should have asked more questions about that pledge of transcription money.) But I called two men who had to have been interviewed if there was to be an oral history of CORE: James Robinson & Marvin Rich. Jim Robinson was one of the founding group in Chicago in 1941-42 & was later Executive Secretary. Marvin Rich was head of Community Relations, which included just about everything. Both said it hadn't been done & it would be a great idea for me to do it. So there I was with no experience at oral history, no equipment as yet & a project for what I thought was the next four years of my life. So I went out & spent $200 more than I thought I would on the equipment & set to it.

My aim is to find those people who everyone knows but no one thinks of. The people who didn't get the publicity. The people who just showed up when they were needed, but weren't the sort anyone wanted to interview or photograph. These people have big stories to tell, but no one has asked them, yet.

Mostly I either interview people I know, or people mentioned by others I've interviewed. Sometimes I wind up with five statisticians in a row, or three sisters, or three ex-husbands & boyfriends of one activist; but that's how it was. I'm pretty dogged about tracking down lost contacts & finding people assumed dead. I do do research, but maybe not the obvious kind. For example, I'm very curious about the effect the Teamsters had in early CORE. I've spent much more time on them in the Missouri Historical Society than I have in reading old CORE-lators & leaflets.

I wasted quite a bit of time with people who insisted I should have funding & who sent me off on wild goose chases, looking up funding at their suggestion. It has been fruitless. I have a 1986 Honda, in good shape, bless its' heart. I go to people, I set up my little SONY & usually they make dinner for me, or take me out if they've hit the big time. If the people live a few hours from the main road between New York & St. Louis, I go stay overnight with them on my yearly trek back & forth. Or I stay with friends in New Orleans or San Francisco & I make forays from there.

Well, I've interviewed 65 people for the project, so far. It has now evolved into a Nonviolent Direct Action project, because there was so much overlap. People who had not been in CORE but had worked with them, people who had been in War Resister's League, people who had been in SNCC, or Fellowship of Reconciliation. People did not stay in one movement & did not consider themselves to be exclusively in one group or another. For example, when I was in Mississippi in 1962, I was managing the Jackson Freedom Office, which was a SNCC project. CORE's Field Secretary, Dave Dennis was paying the rent on the Freedom House & Office & I was there a week before I knew I was now a SNCC Field Worker.

I can't tell you much about my methodology. I figure that I just want people to tell me about their whole lives. I want to know what kind of people loaned their lives to a cause & what they did before & after those years. I ask people the sensitive questions before the interview, so they can think about whether they want to include it. (The abortion that almost killed her. The alcoholic episode that got him kicked off the Project.) Most people have come to terms with their demons & want to talk about the resolution. One person may have had a nervous episode because of the pressure & changed careers, becoming an analyst. Another person may have ruined his health when he was a Sandinista. If you keep the interview to what they did in the movement, you'll never know. And it's people's lives we're talking about, not the minutiae of the historical factoid.

I very seldom schedule two people on the same day, when I'm out of town, & never when I'm in New York or St. Louis. For one thing it wears me out. You never realize how little time you actually spend listening to people in a conversation until you try hanging on their every word & asking questions for five hours. Also, in maybe 20% of the interviews, I need to take the equipment out & set it back up again, when people want to add something.

Another reason is that people constantly surprise me. Some can wrap up 90 years full of event in 45-minutes & won't give me another second. Some turn out to have been everywhere & done everything like Woody Allen's "Zelig", & you'd never have known until they started talking & one thing led to another.

Copyright © Sheila B. Shiki y Michaels, 2001.

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Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site. Copyright to the information and stories contained in the interview belongs to Sheila Michaels.

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