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Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2006 08:24 pm

Legacy project

Presidential museum receives African-American oral histories

Since 2004, the African American History Foundation has interviewed more than 30 notable African-Americans living in Springfield during the 20th century.

Some of these individuals can trace their family’s roots in the area back as many as five generations, and the tales they’ve shared include first- and secondhand accounts of the 1908 Springfield race riots; fraternities and sororities; Dreamland Park; the city’s former black business district, along South 11th Street; religion; and family life.

This week, the foundation donated 44 of those audiotapes, including some transcriptions, which are available for public viewing to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Some of the tapes feature prominent local African-Americans, but many others showcase ordinary folks with rich, interesting histories, says foundation secretary Barbara Dickerman. Among these are auto mechanic-turned-bank partner Betty Allen, Springfield Voice publisher Bill Washington, educator J. LaVon Wilson, and Veronica Lockhart, whose father served as a Springfield fireman during the 1950s.

Tom Schwartz, executive director of the presidential museum, says he hopes that the tapes will help to advance the understanding of the lives and significant contributions of African-Americans in Illinois. Mark DePue, the presidential library’s new director of oral history, will oversee the collection.

But the work isn’t over. Dickerman says she anticipates a new round of interviews soon, this time involving subjects whose names might be more immediately recognizable.

The project is in need of people to conduct interviews. Interviewers will be trained by renowned oral historian and scholar Cullom Davis.

The foundation is also looking for a grant writer to secure funding to cover the $27-per-hour cost of transcribing the remaining 35 tapes and future tapes. Initial funding was provided by the Economic Development Foundation and the Smith/Stocks-Smith Education and Economic Development Foundation.

“The fact that these are in the care of this prestigious library makes this history available to local journalists, researchers, students, and, of course, the entire world,” says Rudy Davenport, foundation president and former head of the Springfield NAACP. Davenport is featured on two of the recordings.

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