Volunteers Capture Harlem's History
This is a guest post from volunteer, Joanne Dillon. Joanne has interviewed several people for the NYPL Community Oral History Project and continues to share her experience and the experience of others who are participating in this historic initiative.
Retired executive Henry Blaukopf brings to “A People’s History of Harlem” the same discipline he used while in business development positions for the music industry. With 38 interviews completed to date, it’s an approach that has served him—and the oral history project—well.
Henry began by making a list of prominent residents and then contacting them. He visited restaurants and shops on his block and asked their owners to participate, and he talked to friends and strangers. “People were generally supportive,” he explains. At the end of each conversation, he asks for referrals, hoping to get the names of at least three additional potential storytellers.
Henry has had conversations with an amazing group of Harlem residents, among them Congressman Charles Rangel; Alvin Reed, owner of the Lenox Lounge; Jim Robinson, who played baseball for the Negro League in the 1950s; Bill Saxton, an accomplished saxophonist and owner of Bill’s Place, a jazz club on West 133rd Street; Lloyd Williams, CEO of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce; and Sharif, a peddler who sells goods from a table near Henry’s home. “I’ve heard some great stories,” Henry says.
Henry is one of 85 dedicated volunteers who have amassed more than 145 recorded conversations with Harlem residents. State University of New York history professor Sylvie Kande is another equally dedicated volunteer.
Sylvie joined the project in the fall of 2014 and has since completed 15 interviews. Sylvie was intrigued by how people shape narratives about themselves and their neighborhood. “This has been one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever been involved with,” she says.
Sylvie began by asking neighbors if they would agree to be interviewed. While she looks to record diverse experiences and different viewpoints, she has found a common theme among all the storytellers. “Harlem is an area where both culture and counter-culture have thrived,” she explains. “The people I’ve met have all spoken about Harlem with the same fervor and enthusiasm.”
Sylvie believes her experience has helped expand her professional knowledge. “I’ve now gained practical oral history skills that I bring to the classroom,” she said. “And I’m encouraging my students to capture stories from their own families.”
Henry, too, has benefitted from participation. “I’ve met some fabulous people, made some great contacts, and expanded my world,” he says.
Others, too, see the benefits of the project. Alison Williams, manager of the Macomb’s Bridge branch in the Harlem River Houses, believes that “A People’s History of Harlem” has helped increase awareness of the facility in the surrounding area. “Macomb’s Bridge is one of the smallest libraries in the branch system. But this project is helping us expand the community we serve,” she explained.
Alison also believes that because Harlem is changing so rapidly, its history is at risk of disappearing. “Gentrification is taking place all over; it’s important we record Harlem’s history before it’s lost to future generations.”
For Helen Broady, a librarian at the 115th Street branch, the project presented an opportunity to connect newcomers to Harlem with long-time residents. Interviewers and storytellers meet and mingle at regularly scheduled community meetings, where they get to know one another in a relaxed setting. She’s also conducted memory circles, where several neighborhood residents met and reminisced in group interviews. And she sees potential in recording the history of community organizations, too, as they are valuable contributors to the well-being of a neighborhood.
Helen, who has conducted several interviews herself, has great admiration for all of the project’s volunteers: “To a one, our volunteers are friendly, curious, dedicated, and, above all, good listeners.”
A People's History of Harlem: Our Neighborhood Oral History Project has captured over 150 oral histories. The collection process is coming to a close on Friday, May 29th. If you want more information about how you can share your story (if you're just hearing about this!), please contact AlexandraKelly@nypl.org or 212-621-0552.