CAUSE compiles black oral history

The home of jazz legends such as pianist Earl Hines and vocalist Lena Horne, as well as photographer Teeny Harris and playwright August Wilson, Pittsburgh has long been a strong matrix of African-American culture. Soon, that culture will be recorded for future generations. The commencement of an oral history project to record the experiences of African-Americans in Pittsburgh was announced in a press release on October 3 to Carnegie Mellon?s campus.

The project will be led by the Center for Africanamerican Urban Studies and the Economy (CAUSE) within CMU?s department of history. Its goal is to document the African-American experience in post-World-War-II Pittsburgh by collecting and preserving the oral histories of the city?s African-American residents after the war.

The oral history project will be CAUSE?s first major research project on Pittsburgh, but CAUSE has supported similar research projects, including a comparison of poverty rates between the Pittsburgh and Detroit metropolitan areas.

?Many of the people are now senior citizens,? said Joe Trotter, a history professor and the director of CAUSE. ?We want to capture some of the history that?s in danger of disappearing.?

The project is set to unfold over the course of several years, primarily so that CAUSE will be able to document the many different ways in which the city?s African-American citizens have kept black culture alive and thriving in Pittsburgh.

?What?s great about Pittsburgh is that there are, and have been for quite some time, a lot of African-American arts organizations,? commented Heather Clark, the Director of Marketing & Communications of the African-American Cultural Center, which is scheduled to open in November 2007.

Pittsburgh also serves as an important backdrop for CAUSE?s study because of the way the city is structured. ?Pittsburgh is both like and quite different from some other cities in the U.S.,? remarked Trotter. ?One thing which is unique about Pittsburgh is how it has many different African-American neighborhoods within the city, instead of one centralized community.?

The oral history?s main intention is to provide an additional source of information for future students, as well as to attract a new generation of scholars to the study of black history. CAUSE is collaborating with archivists at CMU?s Hunt Library in an effort to save a place in time for the oral histories. The project?s organizers hope to make the recollections available electronically and in manuscript form.
CAUSE was established in 1995, and is staffed by director Trotter, assistant director Tera Hunter, and administrative assistant Nancy Aronson. Its main goal is to link historical interpretations of race, work, and economic change with contemporary analyses of the urban labor force, employment policies, and community development.

CAUSE hopes to initiate a new program for training graduate students in the methodology of oral history, and the overall hope is to finally gain a sense of what life was like after the 1940s.

?The post-World-War-II years are replete with unanswered questions about the nature of black migration, work, culture, and political change from the vantage point of ordinary people and everyday life,? Trotter said in the online press release. ?[Pittsburgh] had a profound impact on the development of the class structure in the African-American community.?