GREAT BARRINGTON — Preserving Black history in the Berkshires often begins with recording people’s stories, and a new oral history project will advance that work.
Oral history interviews are sometimes “the only lasting artifact that we have of a person’s life,” said Frances Jones-Sneed, a professor of history emeritus at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.
“Most African Americans, most working-class or poor people, don’t have the archive or family papers that our senators or presidents or people who have money to get someone to write their biography have,” she said.
“Quilting Our History: African American Voices of Wisdom and Memory” is a collaboration between Clinton Church Restoration, the Berkshire County chapter of the NAACP and the Housatonic Heritage Oral History Center at Berkshire Community College.
The project grew out of previous local efforts, said Jones-Sneed, who chairs the local NAACP’s education committee and serves on the Clinton Church Restoration board.
Jones-Sneed served as the humanities scholar for the Invisible Communities Project through the Berkshire County Historical Society in the 1990s. Over a year-and-a-half, that project produced about 20 cassette tape recordings of interviews with people living in the Berkshires, mostly near Pittsfield.
What they found led partners to start working on the Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail, which started with a focus on the Great Barrington-born scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois before expanding its scope.
“We found out so much more and started to write a pamphlet,” Jones-Sneed said. “It ended up being a 250-page book and a trail map.”
Recently, while Jones-Sneed was interviewing people who attended the Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church, which served as a center of Black life in Southern Berkshire County from its 1887 opening to its 2014 closure, people she interviewed raised the idea of creating a formal home for Black oral histories in the Berkshires.
“They said: Why don’t we start a countywide effort to gather African American oral histories? Because there were a lot of older residents dying out, and sometimes we lose those stories,” Jones-Sneed said.
The Housatonic Heritage Oral History Center will help digitize and transcribe interviews to be archived in the University of Massachusetts Libraries Special Collections and University Archives. The hope is for those materials to help generations of scholars looking to write about Black history in the Berkshires.
Locals have worked to rehabilitate a historic Black church in Great Barrington that W. E. B. Du Bois attended as a child. While it may still take years to complete the project, which seeks to repurpose the space as a heritage site and visitor center, a grant of nearly $500,000 will help cover the cost of building stabilization.
The project also contributes to the mission of Clinton Church Restoration, the nonprofit that is aiming to rehabilitate the Great Barrington church and reestablish it as a heritage site and visitor center.
Jones-Sneed sees the possibility for a storytelling booth, where visitors could record their own stories, alongside interpretive exhibits based on oral history interviews — “a permanent place to store the memories,” she said.
“This is just the beginning of something that we hope will continue long after we are no longer here,” she said.
Eugenie Sills, interim executive director of Clinton Church Restoration, said that stabilization work on the building has continued through the fall. Construction might begin within the year, but that depends on a variety of factors, including the availability of construction materials and labor, she said.
An exhibition design team has proceeded to discuss specific interpretive exhibits at the conceptual level, Sills said.
“Our team is asking questions about what we want the visitor experience to look like,” Sills said. “For example, what stories to tell of Du Bois, and what stories do we want to tell about the church?”
Jones-Sneed said she would like the project to run in full force for one to three years, and she added that it could serve as a template for future oral history initiatives in the Berkshires.
“This is specifically focused on African Americans, but I think we can be an example of what other groups can do to preserve their own history as well,” she said. “If we can look at Native Americans or Latinx people or people from the immigrant community, I think this can be an example of the same way they can do it. ... And starting with the oral histories, if we can connect with the person to collect photos and other memorabilia and archive that as well, this is why I think the oral history becomes so important.”