Legacies of Family and Community History
“If we stand tall, it is because we stand on the backs of those who came before us.”
“We will not ignore the past, or for that matter, the present any longer! A community’s longing for its heritage is most powerful. It bids us back to learn more, to know more about our people, our culture. We must go back and honor their legacy.”
Majella Chube Hamilton
In 1998, as the guest editor of Child Times of Birmingham magazine</em>, Black History Month edition entitled “The Legacy of Families,” I wrote, “In the lives of our children, few things matter as much as the sense of love, reassurance, and security they receive from family traditions and experiences. More specifically, I mean the memorable situations influenced by relatives and close friends, such as environment, structure, traditions, interactions, beliefs, and principles. As we love and nurture our children each day and hope the best for them, we may not realize how much they absorb and appreciate the experiences, past and present, of family.”
This task, which is both a gift and a responsibility, must not be deferred. We must act to create an intrinsic institution that will foster and convey the urgency and importance of oral histories in families and the larger communities, to make stories of the past available and relevant to present and future generations.
In order to begin addressing the issues that impact residents of Birmingham, the Ballard House Project, Inc., a charitable, non-profit organization, began hosting “Community Collective Memory” sessions several years ago. Because many facts are not shared widely in the African-American community, and rarely conveyed more broadly, the collective sense of the community “self” has suffered and must be restored.
One specific example would be the memories of Colonel Stone Johnson, a now deceased Birmingham, Alabama Civil Rights activist. Colonel Johnson was a close friend and security guard for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, the leader of the Birmingham Movement. Colonel Johnson was always eager to share his stories about the Movement and was a frequent participant on civil rights panel discussions in Birmingham. He was also a good friend of my father-in-law, Dr. Herschell Hamilton, who was labeled “Battle Surgeon” and “Dog-Bite Doctor,” due to his strategic and financial support of the Movement and his medical care of the foot soldiers.
One day, Colonel Johnson and I found ourselves seated next to each other in a government building waiting area. We both had been asked to remain following a meeting and enjoyed our discussion for some time. As always, I asked him endless questions about the past and he was gracious enough to indulge me and convey his perspective. Then, I said, “Colonel Stone, I would like to do an oral history interview with you. I’ve got to get your information on tape.” Before I finished the sentence, I paused and said, “Of course, I’m sure you’ve been interviewed by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and they already have this information documented in their oral history project.” He calmly replied, “Well no. I’ve done more than one oral history taping for them, you’re right… But, they’ve never asked me the questions you ask. They want to know about the Movement, but you are asking me questions like, ‘What was ordinary life like for us in those days and beyond?’ No one has ever asked me that before.”
About one year before he passed, Colonel Stone Johnson sat down with me for an oral history taping at the historic Ballard House in Birmingham and shared much of what he remembered as a boy, having grown up just a few blocks away from the Ballard House. I found out then that he had a photographic memory, filled with vivid descriptions of the early 20th century – the people, events, and businesses that laid a foundation in Birmingham’s early African American community.
My editorial column continued, “Likewise, history has a way of bridging us to the past, while preparing us for future growth. Knowing the experiences of those who came before us, I believe, is critical to cultivating a strong sense of self in our children and in our communities. Oral histories of families and communities truly enrich our lives and serve as resourceful stepping stones for our children. Best of all, kids, young and old, are always eager to receive information about the past. It is my hope that this issue will inform and inspire us all to look both inward and outward to nurture healthy families and a strong sense of community in our children.”
This type of information is being collected and shared through The Ballard House Project, Inc. Oral History Initiative. If you have information, insight, or photos to share, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. More to come …
Majella Chube Hamilton
The Ballard House Project, Inc.
A Personal Case for the Power of Oral Histories
Looking back at the hundreds of stories I wrote and edited for Southern Living Magazine, I realize now how much I wrote about the transformative, intergenerational benefits of oral history. The following published excerpts are just a few examples:
1. Oral Histories Build a Sense of Community / Passed Down Skills / Creative Heritage
Article: “Around the Quilt In Gee’s Bend,” Southern Living Magazine, 2005, by Majella Chube Hamilton
The women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama continue a time-honored tradition. “In years past, as the Alabama hot sun took its rest every evening, generations of women from tenant farming families in rural Wilcox County gathered in a full circle around makeshift quilting frames. There, at the end of a hard day’s work, they bonded through shared experiences. There they created warm and vivid bed coverings for their families.”
“‘We were making those quilts, singing around them, laughing, and praying around them. We learned around the quilt,’ according to quilter Arlonzia Pettway.”
“Today, these extraordinary women are reaping the rewards of a craft passed down from their ancestors. Living in poverty without the benefit of education and isolated from the world at large by a God-given bend in the Alabama River southwest of Selma, they banded together to turn a simply joyful pastime into modern-day American art.”
“Since the late 1800’s, Gee’s Bend quilters have pieced together scraps of well-worn clothing to provide functional coverlets. Today’s quilters-turned-artists, often compared with the great artists of the 20th century, follow the same vivid representation of design and color that are unique to their community, their skills, and the cultural techniques passed down though the years.” “These women have sewn and sown the very fabric of a community, and we all reap the benefits from that labor of love.”
2. Oral Histories Enhance a Legacy & Culture of Responsibility and Service
Article: “Southerners / Marian Wright Edelman,” Southern Living Magazine, 2006 by Majella Chube Hamilton
“If you are a parent, the inclination to protect your child is a personal one. If you’re in the trenches, competing for resources to provide quality education, health care, or extracurricular programs, your fight on behalf of children is one of fairness. If you work for poor or homeless families, your crusade is one of justice. If you are Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), which advocates for the critical needs of all children, your fight is a formidable one.”
“Leave No Child Behind has served as her battle cry for nearly three decades. Mrs. Edelman started CDF in 1973, and it maintains one goal-to ensure basic rights and necessities for all of America’s children…”
“This children’s advocate is first, a Southerner. She was born in Bennettsville, South Carolina, the daughter of a Baptist minister and a resourceful mother – both role models in faith, integrity, and service. The product of a segregated era, Mrs. Edelman bloomed during a time in our history when racial barriers were daily obstacles, when money was scarce but hearts were rich in spirit. Her childhood resembles those of many African-American children during the Depression era, exposed to the realities of a prejudiced society, yet insulated from its devastating impact by a supportive community.”
“Marian Wright Edelman considers the work she does for America’s children just like the work of her parents did in Bennettsville for their community – just on a different scale. ‘We always knew who we were; that the measure of our worth was inside our heads and hearts and not outside in our possessions,” she writes in her book, The Measure of Our Success, ‘We were told… that being poor was not an excuse for not achieving; and that extra intellectual and material fits brought with them the privilege and responsibility of sharing with others less fortunate. In sum, we learned that service is the rent we pay for living.’”
3. Oral Histories Further Tradition, Set Expectations and Standards of Excellence
Article: “Windsor Jordan Caters to Tradition,” Southern Living Magazine, 2004, Majella Chube Hamilton
“In these times of keen competition and unlimited choices, it’s not just what you know, but who you know – and Atlanta-based caterer Windsor Jordan knows everybody. In addition to a love of food and Southern culture, this tried-and-true culinary expert shares a storehouse of knowledge about barriers broken, the value of networking, and building on a tradition of success.”
“Windsor, the youngest son of Atlanta catering legend Mary Jordan and brother of Washington, D.C., businessman and political insider Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., carries forth their mother’s prized family recipes and her dogmatic assertiveness, disciplined initiative, social style, and strong work ethic.”
“Mary set the standard in the 1930’s when her savvy business sense, uncompromising perfectionism, constant drive, and extraordinary penchant for cooking let her down a path of social forays previously unexplored. ‘My mother served the food at the premier gala of Gone with the Wind at the Belle Air Building on Peachtree,’ Windsor explains. ‘Mary Jordan created the trail. She took the food industry by storm. Food opened doors for her.’”
“Windsor says he and his brothers learned valuable lessons about attention to detail, planning strategically, and never underestimating the power of relationships. Windsor, who says he caters more than 900 events a year, is well-known for enhancing Mary’s legendary menus with an updated twist. He specializes in using diverse cultural influences and seasonings in his recipes, always blending unexpected flavors. ‘I’m fortunate that she left our family a solid legacy, and I share what I learned with my children and staff.’”
4. Oral History Opens Minds, Builds Understanding and Diverse Perspectives
Article: “Past Meets Present at Williamsburg,” Southern Living Magazine, 2007 by Majella Chube Hamilton
“There’s always a story behind a story – especially at the country’s largest living-history museum. Step back to 1774, and you’ll happen upon a pre-American Revolution street debate between patriot and loyalist neighbors. Turn the corner, and you’ll witness enslaved residents whispering behind a shed about their plan of escape. From choreographing protest meetings to scripting daily activities in the homes and businesses to tradespeople, Rex Ellis brings to life the stories behind the great events at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. ‘It’s the names, faces, personalities, and situations to residents endured that permit us to provide a human connection,” says Rex, vice president for Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s 301-acre Historic Area.”
“Rex knows how to measure success. ‘If we’ve challenged your thinking or changed your perspective,’ he says, ‘our mission of bringing real-life stories from the past to today’s audience is working.’”
Build Lasting Strategies of Community Impact
For the past seven years in Birmingham, The Ballard House Project, Inc. staff have captured and documented oral histories from individuals and small groups and their memories of what life was like in the community, how people lived, worked, socialized, and served their community. The project is ongoing with plans to exhibit key educational elements from our digitized oral histories of individuals from a cross-section of the city.
Serving as a cultural think-tank, the Ballard House Project, Inc. endeavors to capture the past, gain a greater understanding of the individual and community challenges and opportunities, amid the real-life historical context and backdrop of the times. “If we are to properly understand the past, we have to try to understand what it meant for those who lived it. We must try to place ourselves in their situation.”
Majella Chube Hamilton