- Featured Schools
- Youth Historians
- Our Book
Documentation: Wadleigh Oral Histories
The Development of the Project
In 2013, Ansley Erickson began a Teachers College graduate class on oral history with a focus on the history of education in Harlem. Initially, students interviewed Harlem educators and residents who connected to the students’ own research in progress. Via collaboration with a local partner, however, the classes came to focus more on one school site.
Erickson met Paul McIntosh, librarian at Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing and Visual Arts. In conversation, McIntosh heard of Erickson’s interest in oral history and began to discuss the need to document Wadleigh’s history. He explained that the school’s network of alumni leaders and several veteran teachers were important figures whose knowledge should be documented. Could oral histories be conducted with these individuals?
This conversation became the starting point in a relationship between members of the Wadleigh community and the Harlem Education History Project around the school’s history. This work would add to the school’s rich tradition of self-archiving (manifest in the work of the alumni association to construct a collection of materials and donate them it to the Schomburg Center, and to the documentary work of the school yearbooks from the 1960s onward, as examples). Oral histories would augment this historical record, which was in this case as in many others tilted to bureaucratic and external perspectives. Oral histories would be one step toward ensuring that the experiences of students and teachers at the school, as narrated and shaped by those individuals, would be preserved.
Contacts with potential interviewees came from multiple sources: from the suggestions of other interviewees, from individuals named by McIntosh or by alumni network leader Deborah Lucas Davis, from alumni who responded to an invitation sent by Davis to the 600-plus person network, from to those who spoke with Erickson at an alumni picnic in the summer of 2016, and from social media.
To date, interviewers including Teachers College graduate students, Youth Historians in Harlem, an intern from the Columbia Oral History Master of Arts program, and Ansley Erickson have completed 22 oral history interviews in individual or group configuration with members of the Wadleigh community. Interviewees include:
♦ 4 former teachers & 18 former students
♦ 8 men (6 from when the school was co-ed, 2 teachers) & 14 women (5 from when the school was all-girls, 7 from when it was co-ed, 2 teachers)
♦ 3 students who participated in the Wadleigh Scholars program & 15 who did not
♦ 5 alumni from classes before 1950 (1 individual interview, 1 group interview), 2 alumni from classes between 1951 and 1960, 10 alumni from classes between 1961 and 1970, 1 alumna from classes between 1971 and 1980, & 0 alumni from classes after 1980
Principles and Practices in the Project
The interviews were guided by a commitment to oral histories as open-ended, co-constructed narratives that are responsive to the interviewee's knowledge, interests, and wishes in offering their recollections.
Most interviews were conducted using the following process. Interviewers:
♦ Received names and contact information of potential interviewees (recruited as described above) from Erickson.
♦ Organized interview time and location, by phone, email, or combination of the two. Interviewees indicated whether interviews would be at their home, at TC, or at another space of their choosing and interviewers coordinated logistics.
♦ Prepared research memo in advance of the interview, summarizing relevant historical context and specific research on the interviewee’s time at Wadleigh (via newspapers, yearbooks, other interviews).
♦ Shared with interviewees a short introduction to oral history from the Columbia Center for Oral History Research, the project release form, and (beginning in 2nd year of interviews), a document listing project themes and possible topics.
♦ Conducted the interview (usually in one session, but in a few cases in two sessions).
♦ Transcribed the interview (but in some cases transcription was done by a service).
♦ Returned transcript to the interviewee, with an invitation to edit the transcript to correct any factual errors and to remove any sections that they would not want to have included in the public record of the interview.
Once approved transcripts were received, then the project team (Erickson and graduate research assistants at Teachers College, primarily Esther Cyna and Rachel Klepper) reviewed transcripts, selected clips where needed, and added interviews to this digital collection.
Different interviews were processed on different timelines, based on project team time as well as interviewee responses. Interviews included in the Wadleigh Voices page were included when they were fully processed and finalized. The clips were chosen because they captured an engaging aspect of the interview clearly connected to the interviewee's experience at Wadleigh. Neither the clips nor the full interviews included on the page offer a comprehensive view of students' or teachers' experiences at Wadleigh.
Challenges and Revisions
- What are the challenges and opportunities in interviewing across identity categories, including race, age, professional status, and affiliation with a university that has treated community neighbors unjustly?
- How did the experience of early interviews shape and lead to alterations in our process and approach? How do we share evolutions in our work in progress even as our work continues to evolve?
Members of the Harlem Education History Project team and Wadleigh community members, including alumni from multiple generations and former teachers, and librarian Paul McIntosh began to meet to plan next steps in the Wadleigh history project beginning in fall 2017.
One result of these discussions was planning for a second wave of oral history interviews, to be conducted by alumni interviewers as well as interviewees and to focus on recording oral histories that would address gaps in the earlier interviews. One focus will be on conducting interviews with more recent graduates of the school.
This work is currently in progress. If you are interested in learning more or in participating as an interviewer or interviewee, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Page in progress. Current version April 23, 2018.