The past is present in oral history exhibit at Berkshire Museum
The Berkshire County Branch of the NAACP and the Housatonic Heritage Oral History Center have been working in the last year to record the narratives of people in the Berkshires’ African-American community
PITTSFIELD — When he was a boy, Dennis Powell would sit on the front steps on warm nights, when parents would come out onto their porches and carry on conversations along the street. He would listen as they talked.
"I lived in a community that no longer exists," he said, "on Mill Street."
He grew up on the west side of Pittsfield before "urban renewal" took down five neighborhoods of houses and gardens.
He was telling the story as he has told it recently at the Housatonic Heritage Oral History Center at Berkshire Community College.
Powell is the president of the Berkshire chapter of the NAACP, and the NAACP has been working with the center in the last year to record the stories of people in the African-American community in the Berkshires. And so he told his own.
On Friday night, he and the collaboration will celebrate their first 10 oral histories in an exhibit opening at the Berkshire Museum.
"It's exciting," Powell said. "Stories are exciting — especially in today's climate, just having something our young people can identify with."
He wants, in this ongoing project, to give a full view of the country's and the county's history and make it tangible and connect with real people and places.
"All stories are history," he said.
The NAACP began talking about this project more than two years ago, partly spurred by a recent history of the Berkshires that included almost no African-American people or stories beyond a brief reference to W.E.B. DuBois.
And yet the Berkshires have had a close and vibrant black community for more than 200 years, Powell said. Some locals have had a national influence — from Elizabeth Freeman proving slavery illegal in Massachusetts in 1781, to James Van Der Zee photographing the Harlem Renaissance.
And they all have a rich network of stories to tell.
The Oral History Center and the NAACP have reached out to elders who have seen the black community grow and evolve here over the last 70 years.
Mabel Hamilton — "We call her Mother Mabel," Powell said — is a matriarch and a longtime advocate for justice, and a musician and a teacher.
Maggie Adams moved here from Alabama and in 1983 led the way in re-invigorating the local chapter of the NAACP.
Churchill Cotton has served on the Pittsfield City Council and he is a direct descendant of Frederick Douglass; he talks about gathering with Douglass' living family at a reunion every year.
"It's an amazing project," said Judith Monachina, director of the Oral History Center. "When you get to sit and listen to people tell stories, and give time, you're not just there for the story, but for the telling of it."
The experience of sharing a conversation with people willing to talk openly about their lives means making a place where people can come together honestly, she said, and she would come from each conversation feeling deeply lucky to have met them.
"I was surprised when I was interviewed," Powell said, "and to the credit of Judith and her team, it's amazing how much you can remember about your life."
It is at times tearful remembrance, he said, and at times joyful, and powerful.
The west side in the 1940s and 1950s was a community of immigrants. He remembers Polish markets and an Italian bakery where his family would get hot rolls to eat with butter.
"West Street was nothing but restaurants," he said. "We lived over the Busy Bee, and they were famous for their meatballs and spaghetti."
" It's a joy to think back. That whole area, we had a beautiful park then, and a train station like Grand Central."
The neighborhood children would run into the building made of Berkshire marble and yell to hear the echo.
"It would have made a beautiful beginning for a pedestrian mall," he said.
And the city took it all down.
"I came out of the service, and everything's gone," he said. "There's little I can walk to and say this is where I grew up, because everything has been destroyed."
He looks back on his old neighborhood as a warm and safe place.
"We couldn't walk two houses (down) without someone's mother saying `what're you doing?'"
His mother raised him, and his father had left, but he had men in his life who stepped in.
"That's what leads me to do the work I do," he said, "because of what I received as a child. They took care of us and raised us like they were raising their own kids."
Now he and people in his community talk about the changes they have seen and national events, Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination and John F. Kennedy's, and recent presidential elections. They talk about their loves and their families, their work and their communities.
And they give perspective on historical events going back to Agrippa Hull from Stockbridge, who fought in the Revolutionary War. Wray Gunn, who gives his own history in the show, is his direct descendent.
Berkshire Museum has created a timeline the oral histories touch on, going back to 1777, says Craig Langlois, chief experience officer; the show includes audio clips from the oral histories, and portraits of each storyteller by Julie McCarthy.
The oral histories project will continue under the NAACP's guidance, Powell said, and he hopes in a future to ask young people to talk about their experiences growing up here and, years from now, find them and see where they are.
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