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Legacies of Family & Community History

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Oral Histories:
Legacies of Family and Community History

“If we stand tall, it is because we stand on the backs of those who came before us.” 
Yuroba Proverb

“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 mchubehamilton@aol.com.  More to come …

Majella Chube Hamilton
Writer/Editor
Executive Director
The Ballard House Project, Inc.

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