Sharing Histories: Creating Community
Immigration and slavery have been dominant issues in political circles and the media in recent years as have narratives of white supremacy and U.S. exceptionalism. During the fall semester, first-year students had an opportunity not only to examine these topics throughout U.S. history, but also to collect oral histories that brought some of the issues to life.
The students in Assistant Professor of History Celeste Day Moore’s Great Migrations class interviewed 16 faculty and staff members to explore their personal stories of migration and immigration. “The students noted that these interviews not only deepened their understanding of migration history, but also helped them build links in our community in a very challenging time,” Moore said.
In addition to reviewing a wide range of secondary and primary source material on race, gender, and power in oral history, students were trained in how to collect oral histories, how to obtain consent, and how to craft and ask questions. Moore solicited volunteers, and 40 staff and faculty members offered to be interviewed.
“The students had to deal with ethical dimensions and with their subjects’ comfort, which obviously was altered by the formality of the interviews,” Moore explained. “By the time [students] got to the interviews, they were well acquainted not only with best practices in the field, but had also had a great deal of respect for the many necessary steps required to conduct thoughtful and thorough interviews.”
Bonnie Urciuoli, the Leonard C. Ferguson Professor of Anthropology Emerita, was interviewed by Phoebe Leonard ’24. “I had a very enjoyable time answering the questions. I really do love talking about my family’s history, and the biggest problem we had was that we only had an hour on Zoom, and I could have happily talked for twice that,” Urciuoli said.
The professor added that, in talking with Leonard, she realized how her family history was so “normal” for middle-class white kids when and where she grew up in Syracuse in the 1950s and 1960s. “Around the time Kennedy ran for president, I remember hearing that Catholics were considered a minority,” Urciuoli said. “I was so surprised since it seemed like everyone I knew was Catholic — lots of Italians and Poles where I grew up.”
Leonard said that “seeing how much information the interviewees had inspired me to learn more about my own family. The most interesting thing I learned in the interview process was how much the person conducting the interview can control the outcome of the interview and the importance of this role.”
Patrick Reynolds, the Stephen Harper Kirner Chair in Biology and another interviewee, sees the course as having great potential to connect students’ experiences with those of faculty members as well as to contemporary political issues. He spoke with Waleed Nisar ’24.
“I had a great conversation with Waleed in which he asked me about my family’s immigration history, and we compared histories between our families” Reynolds said. “It was an interesting conversation for me because of the contrast between Waleed’s family’s relatively recent immigration to the U.S. and my family’s repeated immigration over several generations.”
Nisar said he was surprised with how many personal stories Reynolds shared and how willing he was to share them. Making those connections was, after all, an important goal of the course. “In a semester where we were all so isolated, this was an opportunity for students to meet people in a different way, reaffirming the Hamilton community,” Moore said.