SUBJECT: AHA/NEH Progress Report—South End Oral History Project
This memorandum is in response to the requirement for an interim progress report by February 15, 2023, on our AHA/NEH Grant. As suggested the headings are taken from sections 8 and 9 of our agreement with the AHA.
The intent is to capture the oral history of Boston’s South End during a period of rapid social and cultural change, often characterized as “gentrification,” from the 1960s through the 1980s. Professionally conducted audio interviews of one to two hours with a cross-section of community members are to be collected and transcribed. The audio files and transcripts are to be deposited in the University of Massachusetts Boston Archives. The material will be maintained by UMass Boston and will be available to the public for research and historical purposes. The goal is to have a final total of between 40 and 50 interviews depending on time and resources.
Performance and Progress
Upon receipt of the AHA/NEH award in April 2022 a press release was produced that generated some response in the local print media. At that time, an outreach letter was sent to a wide network of community groups soliciting input on potential persons to interview. That inquiry generated a useful list of names and expressions of support.
Subsequently, a job description for interviewers was prepared with the help of UMass Boston, and announcements of the independent contractor position of oral history interviewer were sent in the late summer of 2022 to history and social science departments in Boston area colleges and universities. This generated many respondents. The list was narrowed to eight highly qualified prospects who were interviewed by Zoom, and five finalists were selected and signed to memoranda of agreement. These include two graduate students in history from UMass Amherst and Boston University, a MS in library science graduate from Simmons University with an undergraduate degree in history, a history graduate from Suffolk University, and a journalism graduate from Boston University.
These five interviewers attended a half-day Zoom orientation session in mid-October 2022 on the history of the South End and oral history best practices. They had been sent specific printed material (including Boston ‘s South End: The Clash ofIdeas in a Historic Neighborhood) and online links for review. The session included pro-bono talks by Russ Lopez, PhD, a sociologist and historian, and author of the book; Kate Kruckemeyer, PhD, a folklorist and practicing oral historian, who had grown up in the neighborhood; and Nicholas Juravich, PhD, a member of the history faculty at UMass Boston, with extensive experience in interviewing in New York City and Boston.
Five state-of-the-art digital audio recorders were purchased at non-profit discount after consultation with UMass Boston faculty and signed out on hand receipts to the interviewers. And a separate bank account for the Oral History Project was opened by the South End Historical Society, with a private donation of $10,000 in startup money. The Audio Transcription Center of Boston and Wakefield, Massachusetts was highly recommended by our UMass Boston advisors. We were able to get a substantial non-profit discount from them and signed a memorandum of agreement estimate for the project.
The preliminary list of interviewees was finalized by Paul Wright and Judy Watkins, and interviews began in late October 2022. Approximately 20 interviews have been recorded and transcribed to date. Metadata is in preparation, and final work product should begin uploading to UMass Boston by early spring 2023. The quality of both the audio recordings and the transcriptions has been excellent. A second round of interviews is in progress, and the work product from that round will be uploaded to UMass Boston before the end of the grant period.
Changes and Problems
It became clear early on that April was the cruelest month to begin the project, just as academic advisors and contacts were dispersing at the end of the semester for the summer. And community leaders were likewise on the move. Also, the lingering but still pertinent COVID restrictions made face-to-face interaction difficult. The AHA graciously allowed us to alter our performance period to begin on August 1, 2022, and conclude on July 31, 2023. The resulting breathing period was used for planning and preparation for the August launch.
As originally conceived the Project would have been managed on a stipend basis by an experienced oral historian on the UMass Boston faculty—Maria John, whose seminar had generated a pilot round of interviews in 2018. Professor John became unavailable because of childbirth and subsequent maternity leave. It was decided that management would be taken over pro bono by Paul Wright and Judy Watkins, and that the stipend intended for Professor John would be directed toward augmenting the stipends for interviewers to insure the best possible professional personnel.
One problem, which was made less pressing because of the $10,000 private gift, is the issue of managing expenditures for a small-scale operation on a reimbursable basis for prior cash outlay. It would be much easier and more realistic to have a drawing account up to the limit of the grant for estimated expenses, or best of all a lump sum disbursement to begin with.
It is difficult to assess the impact of the Project in the interim. Word of mouth response has been positive and widespread. At the conclusion of the grant period a community meeting is planned to discuss our experience doing oral history in an urban setting. This meeting should give us a gauge on community impact and directions to move forward.
The support, consultation, and cooperation of the University of Massachusetts Boston public history faculty and the UMass Boston Archives personnel has been outstanding. There is a fortunate conjunction of interests and priorities in collecting local history that works to both our advantages. The Board of the South End Historical Society has been unreservedly supportive as we developed the Project’s access to the recent social and cultural history of an exceptionally diverse historical neighborhood. The South End Historical Society has generously permitted its executive director to commit a small portion of his time to bookkeeping and accounting for the Project, and they have allowed use of their offices for some of the interview sessions.
Grant funds have been spent to date, on equipment purchase, stipends to interviewers, and cost of transcriptions, with incidental amounts for books, duplicating, and mailing. No extraordinary change from this is expected. An interim Financial Report and Reimbursement Invoice Form is submitted concurrently with this memorandum.