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Our Plural History | Springfield, MA

1955. Photograph of Brenda Smith on the former 10th Street in the North End. Photograph provided by Willie Mae Burgess.
Courtesy of annalise fonza. Photograph provided by Willie Mae Burgess

Primary Resources Archive

Interviews with Blacks in Springfield
I am so pleased that Springfield Technical Community College has taken on the task of presenting a picture of the plurality of Springfield residents. This sends a very important message about the local lived reality and it challenges public discourses that we are all the same. We are not all “the same” and our life experiences are not the same. Deep down, most of us know that this is true. However, our differences do not mean that we cannot share spaces, places and ideas together. As I prepare to earn my PhD in Regional Planning, I am honored to be a part of this effort by sharing the oral histories I have conducted with local blacks. The information you will find on this page testifies to the spoken-word, which according to Rev. Talbert Swan II, a life-long Springfield resident and a very dedicated WTCC radio programmer, “has the power to reshape the landscape of society.” I am thankful to those who trusted me and my students with their truths, and I hope these narratives inspire you to find your own truths, your own voice. 

The transcript interviews that appear on this page were conducted by five undergraduate students at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst during the fall of 2004 in the Department of Afro-American Studies. At that time I was teaching a course with Dr. John H. Bracey and Representative Benjamin Swan of the 11th Hampden District. When the course began, we were delighted to learn that four of the five students who were taking the class were raised in Springfield, but their connection to the city did not mean that they knew very much about local black history. It is a shame that local residents, young and old, will probably learn more in college about local black history than they ever will at home or in high school where local history should be a required part of the educational curriculum.

The final assignment for this course, “Black Springfield: Revisited,” required each student to conduct and transcribe an audio taped oral history interview; it is a process that I am sure that they will never forget. Prior to the interviews, they studied local historical documents, they also heard from Springfield residents in a special panel discussion. This panel included local guests such as Nelson Stevens, who is also a former professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The stories that emerge in these interviews were guided by a list of questions that were prepared ahead of time. Some of the students had difficulty sticking the script, so to speak. That happens in oral history interviews – one tends to get off track, and sometimes it is okay. The original transcripts have gone through two rounds of editing, but even now they are not perfect. In other words, these transcripts are works-in-progress. It is my hope that a final rigorous editing process can be facilitated in the near future. In the meantime, brackets have been added to indicate when a word or a phrase was inaudible or indiscernible.  

The videos, on the other hand, are a part of an ongoing conversation that I have had with myself and other urban planners about the various politics that go into place-making in the U.S. My interests in storytelling started when I was a child and it is a personal, political and prophetic practice that I have incorporated into my scholarly work. As a planning researcher, I am fascinated with the socio-spatial development of black communities, which includes a number of cultural groups who often do not identify as African American, i.e. Jamaican, Haitian, African, etc. 

The short clips that are posted here bear witness to the power of the spoken-word and to the potential that technology lends us to explore and preserve cultural memory. Computer technology has taken the recording of oral histories to new heights and viewing these interviews is truly a phenomenal and enlightening experience. I hope that these brief clips will inspire you to go to the newly renovated Museum of Springfield History to watch the interviews from start to finish. In addition, I hope that you will be as humbled as I am by the depth and profundity of social critical thought that is presented in these interviews. These narratives illustrate what it has been like to be black in Springfield, Massachusetts, from various perspectives. Furthermore, they challenge the notion that there is one socially cohesive “black or African American community” in Springfield.  On the contrary, this body of oral history indicates that there are multiple black communities in Springfield. 

For your information, a larger documentary exhibit of this video-taped material is currently under construction for display and presentation at the Springfield Museums. For more information on this, or if you would like more detail about this collection, please contact me directly at fonza@larp.umass.edu.

Thank you for your interest in local black history!

annalise fonza

Interview Transcript Collection
This section contains transcripts of oral history interviews.

Image Collection
A slide show of images from and of individuals interviewed by annalise fonza and her students.

Video Interview Collection
A collection of brief clips from oral history interviews.


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