UF Oral History Program Digs Deep in the Delta

by Sarah Blanc
photos by Justin Dunnavant

Every year in late summer, a team of researchers at the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPOHP) in Gainesville pack into two vans and head north to visit the Deep South for a week. SPOHP director Paul Ortiz began conducting oral history field work in the Mississippi Delta in 1995 as a graduate research coordinator of the NEH-sponsored Behind the Veil: Documenting African American Life in the Jim Crow South project at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. From 2000 to 2008, Dr. Ortiz maintained a partnership with the Sunflower County Civil Rights Organization in the Mississippi Delta to collect local oral histories of the Movement. Since 2008, Ortiz has led a team of researchers, including undergraduate and graduate students from the University of Florida, to carry out the Mississippi Freedom Project at SPOHP. September 17 to 23, 2013 marked SPOHP’s sixth visit to the Delta.


First pep talk from Dr. Ortiz only a few hours down the road from Gainesville.

The structure and itinerary of the trip has evolved largely to the credit of Ms. Margaret Block, a veteran project coordinator for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Cleveland, Mississippi. A legendary woman, Ms. Block worked beside icons like her brother Sam Block, Jr., Diane Nash, Amzie Moore, and Stokely Carmichael to register local blacks to vote when it was once impossible. This “slow and respectful work” (in the words of Bob Moses) was carried out while dodging firebombs, beatings, and arrests. Ms. Block had to flee Mississippi after serious threats were made against her life, but she returned in the late 90s after decades of radical activism in San Francisco.


Margaret Block leads the group in Freedom Songs to welcome the panel at the Delta State University

Dr. Ortiz was introduced to Ms. Block during SPOHP’s first research trip in 2008, and Ms. Block recognized the opportunity to correct the “Master Narrative” of the Civil Rights Movement by recording memories from Mississippi. Indeed, this was work that Ms. Block had carried out all her life. Ms. Block’s house serves as a museum to her brother’s work in the Delta, and she travels around the country teaching students about the importance of using Freedom Songs as a community organizing tool. And most imperative to SPOHP’s work, Ms. Block is trusted by the local community, therefore allowing others to be more open to speaking with us. There has been a lot of history-mining over the last few decades in the Delta with very little return to the community or individuals. Today, the fragile memories of the Delta’s past are threatened by the reality of human mortality. It is important to overcome the gap in trust and inform potential interviewees that SPOHP will not profit off the interview they provide, but rather that interview will be shared on a free public database for students and researchers alike.


Margaret Block leads the group in Freedom Songs to welcome the panel at the Delta State University

Along with the knowledge and credibility to give SPOHP access to local figures in the Movement, Ms. Block is also our guide to important sites in the Delta. Unsurprisingly, many of the homes, churches, stores, and hallowed grounds that were iconic in the Civil Rights era in Mississippi are unmarked and vulnerable to the wares of time. However, if a site is relevant to the history of the Blues, the state pumps money into its restoration. Ms. Block makes it a point to explain this paradox, that “Blues history” has become the State’s substitute for Black history. Without Ms. Block’s eyes, we wouldn’t know we were looking at Bryant’s Grocery (site of the infamous Emmet Till “wolf-whistle”), or Aaron Henry’s home, or Amzie Moore’s general store that served as SNCC’s headquarters in Cleveland. Ms. Block is also sure to tell us when information is incorrect on the few historic markers that are established. Over the last few years, we have watched a lot of preservation take place in the Delta at these Civil Rights sites, but local people are very wary of where profits are directed in this growing form of tourism.


The infamous Bryant’s Grocery Store in Money, MS remains dilapidated because the Bryant family still owns and controls the property.

The other side of the calculation is assembling a team of researchers who are prepared to talk about a history that is all at once exhilarating and painful, hopeful but full of regret. Many of our trip participants are SPOHP interns or graduate assistants who already have interviewing experience. Our interviewer’s number one item in their toolbox is a strong chronology. Given the nature of Civil Rights History, we also created a glossary to organize the individuals and groups involved in the struggle. We also asked students to read a few articles that presented some of the ongoing conversations about the Movement in Mississippi. Graduate students and guest lecturers held workshops every day during the trip to flesh out these arguments. On the first day of interviews, we had the new students sit in as one of the SPOHP staff conducted an interview. From there, the students hit the ground running. The trip demands a great deal of patience and maturity from these students to conduct interviews, whether your interviewee is an elderly, impoverished black woman who lived most of her life as a sharecropper, or an elderly, wealthy white man who is determined to convince you that “the race problem is over down here.” The students understand the “slow and respectful work” required to set the record straight, and now SPOHP has six generations of students with that experience. It required the invaluable support of our technology coordinator, Deborah Hendrix, to upload every interview at the end of the day so we have room on the recorders for the next day’s work.


The 2013 team with local historian Helen Sims, at her museum in Belzoni, MS.

With six years under our belt, we’ve been able to show continuity and commitment to our contacts in the Delta, opening doors to new partnerships. SPOHP has had the opportunity to work with groups that are making a big impact in the Delta, including the Sunflower County Freedom Project, the McComb Legacies Project, and Friends of Justice (based in Texas). SPOHP is honored to be the sponsor of Sunflower County for the 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer next June. Our colleagues at Smathers Libraries at UF developed a mini-grant for SPOHP to expedite transcription of the Mississippi Freedom Project collection in time for the celebration. We now have over 130 interviews in the collection. We also receive support from Mr. William DeGrove, UF Office of Research, the UF Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere, UF Department of African American Studies, and UF Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research. Our colleagues at Delta State University co-host a panel with SPOHP every year where we invite leading scholars in the field of community organizing in the Deep South. This year, Akinyele Umoja, Ron Herd II andMargaret Block made up the panel. Panelists from past events include Lawrence Guyot, John Due, Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, Alan Bean, Hasan Jeffries, Emilye Crosby, and Curtis Austin.  Likewise, the students from the SPOHP team present a panel every year at the Civic Media Center in Gainesville to share their work. The panel for this year’s trip will be December 4. We hope that everybody can make it out, but rest assured that in the true spirit of oral historians, we will record it.