The Athens African American Oral History Initiative

  • Location: Athens-Clarke County, Georgia
  • Directors: Christian Lopez (Oral History Program, UGA Libraries), Barbara McCaskill (English)
  • Schedule: Fall 2019-Spring 2021

This Initiative builds on four years of community-engaged work of the Russell Library Oral History Program through its Athens Oral History Project and Hot Corner Mural, Athens, Ga.Athens Music Project Oral Histories outreach. These projects collected over two dozen interviews from the community. That modest number speaks to the difficulty of such work. The Initiative’s model of shared-agency and shared-authority invests oral history resources and most of the grant funding in the community itself.

The project will examine the impact of urban renewal and land-use plans in the North Oconee River and Hancock corridors, the influence of local hip hop and its intersections with politics and the Athens music scene, challenges of small businesses, and dynamics between generations. Interviews will be wide-ranging and inclusive: narratives of neighborhoods, music, art, foodways, civics, politics, religion, and activism. Interviews will inform societal and historical questions of development and displacement, civil rights, education, culture, and economic vitality, and will illuminate values, motivations, and generational and societal transitions. To share this information among community members, students in Professor McCaskill’s English 3880S experiential learning class (Fall 2019 and Fall 2020) will create portable banners exhibiting the cultural and social impact of African-American communities in Athens. Many of these communities have been lost to urban renewal or are imperiled by gentrification and development.

This project is based on established models, whose foundations lie in the term “shared-authority”, which dates from oral historian Michael Frisch’s influential work in 1990. It recognizes that historical authority rests not solely with historians, scholars (or archives) but must be shared with the public in interpretation and meaning-making.  StoryCorps on National Public Radio is a popular, simplified, example of shared authority in oral history. eBlack Champaign-Urbana is a collaborative model and portal engaging African American history and culture. Among its goals are to centralize information on local African American history and to create new knowledge, and to collaborate with the community by soliciting its contributions and personal memories. The Athens Initiative echoes these goals through its shared authority, and builds on them through a model of compensation and shared agency in the collaboration of resources and practices.