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Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2008 10:01 am

Oral histories head for the Internet

Springfield African-Americans recall bad times and happy days

The Springfield African American History Foundation (SAAHF) has deposited the memories of 56 local African-Americans into a special collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library since 2006, and this fall, it will move the project another step forward, says foundation secretary Barbara Dickerman.

"The library's goal is to have all of the oral histories on the Internet," she says, "and that would be the greatest thing so people can tap into them all over the world."

Mary Michals, audio-visual curator for the presidential library, says her department is working to transfer the audiotaped oral histories into digital files. Mark DePue, the director of oral history, plans to add the presidential library's other collections to the Internet in the next couple of months, and Michals hopes some of the African-American oral history collection can join them.

"The first major steps are being done to accomplish that," she says.

In 2003, SAAHF began interviewing African-Americans whose families had lived in Springfield for at least three generations. Some remembered back to 1915, Dickerman says, and share stories of segregation.

When prominent African-Americans or even African-American legislators came to the capital city, they couldn't stay in hotels so they stayed with local families. They could buy ice cream cones at a well-known drug store, but had to step out on the sidewalk to lick them. Many remember sitting in the balcony at movie theaters, seeing only certain neighborhoods when asking real estate brokers to sell them a house, or finding other jobs when the schools refused to hire them.

Other interviewees speak of social life in Springfield, recalling trips to Dreamland Park, a once-popular southeast-side entertainment district and amusement park, and the strong bond between families and their churches.

Cheryl Pence, supervisor of special collections at the presidential library, gathers the oral histories from SAAHF once they're completed. She sends the audiotapes off for transcription and passes their typed text along to a group of seven volunteers when they return. Volunteers listen to the tapes again and check for errors.

"They're checked for things the transcriber might have missed or misunderstood: names streets, school names," Pence says. "They get cleaned up before the final copy is done."

The work is time-consuming, she adds, but rewarding. Currently volunteers have 30 more tapes, which contain the stories of 26 Springfield African-Americans, to transcribe for the collection.

Until they go online, the final products can be found in the presidential library's audio-visual department. Interested researchers can access the tapes or transcripts by topic or by interviewee name.

"There is good local history information there if people are doing research on the community, but there is also good information when people are looking at the larger issues," Pence says. "It's one slice of what was going on in the country, and what is still going on."

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.

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