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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:

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:

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 

 in process 

- 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? 

Continuing Work 

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 harlemedhistory@tc.columbia.edu.


Page in progress. Current version April 23, 2018.