UF African American Oral History Symposium uses sound to connect students with history

Mikayla Carroll, Alligator Staff Writer | Mar 25, 2019

Justin Hosbey, Randi Gill-Sadler, Raja Rahim and Justin Dunnavant speak on a panel to discuss the challenges of collecting oral history. (Photo by University of Florida)  Courtesy to The Alligator

Justin Hosbey, Randi Gill-Sadler, Raja Rahim and Justin Dunnavant speak on a panel to discuss the challenges of collecting oral history. (Photo by University of Florida)

Courtesy to The Alligator


Joel Buchanan’s voice flooded students ears as he discussed the hardships of segregation on Thursday.

But the civil rights activist wasn’t there in person. He died in 2014.

Students listened to an audio clip from the first UF African American Oral History Symposium, a three-day gathering to unveil the Joel Buchanan Archive of African American Oral History.

Buchanan was a longtime member of the community, a civil rights activist and a librarian at UF, said Paul Ortiz, the director of the UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program.

He is well known for being the first African American male student to integrate Gainesville High School in 1964. Buchanan died in May 2014 at the age of 65.

“Joel was an icon in the African American community,” Ortiz said. “People loved him. He brought people in our community together across lines of race and class.”

UF President Kent Fuchs helped welcome those in attendance Thursday morning. He said he believed it was one of the largest and most significant events dedicated to African American history ever held at UF.

“There’s no better inspiration for our continued civic engagement or active participation in democracy than the account of the African American pioneers in the Buchanan archive,” Fuchs said in his opening remarks.

This year also marks the 10th Anniversary of the African American History Project, Ortiz said. The project is an archive of more than 600 oral interviews with African American residents of Gainesville and from across Florida in the form of audio clips and accompanying transcriptions detailing black life in Florida, Ortiz said.

These interviews were conducted in The collection includes topics ranging from life under Jim Crow laws, which enforced segregation in the southern U.S., to food security to civil rights activism, Ortiz said.

The process of archiving oral interviews will cost about $5,000, Ortiz said.

The Office of the Provost has been a main sustainer for the project, but funding and organizing the event has been a group effort, Ortiz said. The College of Medicine, the African American Studies program and Student Government are just a few others on an extensive list of supporters.

“In my 20 years as an academic, I rarely have ever seen people come together so beautifully for one event,” Ortiz said. “I think that is really a testament to Joel Buchanan’s legacy.”

Ortiz also hopes Buchanan’s legacy will reach the rest of Alachua County. Teachers and educators were welcome to pick up a flash drive with eight gigabytes of history information downloaded onto it, Ortiz said. The history is in the format of lessons and can be easily used by public school teachers.

“Teachers in Alachua County and across the state and the country are really hungry for African American history lessons,” Ortiz said. “At UF, we can give them material that’s classroom ready.”

Many students, like Youssef Mohamed, a 20-year-old UF biomedical engineering junior, attended the symposium to gain a new perspective on African American History.

The oral history aspect of the event intrigued Mohamed, he said.

“Much of the history that we know is written, so sometimes it can get distorted,” Mohamed said. “In some cultures, the main form of history is oral history, and this can have more cultural references and legends.”

Mohamed is part of Gators for Refugee Medical Relief, an organization that tutors refugees from the Congo, he said. He hopes the information he received at the symposium will help him relate to the children he tutors on the weekends.

“Now that they’ve assimilated into American culture, they’ve somewhat become accustomed to African American issues,” Mohamed said. “I feel that having a different perspective and knowledge base will help me communicate with them better.”

Ebony Love, a 23-year-old UF law student, was a part of the early stages of the symposium, she said. Love served as an intern for the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program for a year in 2017.

As part of the African American History Project, Love helped transcribe the oral history being collected for the project, she said.

After researchers conducted their interviews, which ranged anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours long, Love wrote up the transcripts in order to make these histories more accessible for researchers.

“Anyone researching the black voices or the marginalized voices in Gainesville or in the state of Florida now has the opportunity to do that using these documents that we’ve transcribed,” Love said.

She appreciates the approach to the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program because it gives people the opportunity to hear the voices that are typically left behind, she said.

“In academia, we tend to value written documents, or tangible items, more than we are willing to value the voices of other people,” Love said. “At the symposium, we’re able to hear from the people who have lived through these experiences, and we can put value to their voices.”

Love, a member of the Zeta Phi Beta sorority chapter in Gainesville, found that one of the oral histories came from a charter member of her organization, Cora Roberson, who helped establish the first African American Greek letter organization in Gainesville in 1951.

Love, living in the time of the Black Lives Matter era, was able to find a connection with Cora Roberson, who lived during the era of segregation.

“I hope that people can feel that they’re a part of something bigger than just going to a symposium,” Love said. “They’re actually telling the story of their own personal life as well as other people’s lives who have come before us.”

Love said the unveiling of these historical collections will show that inequities from the past are still present today in the form of disparities, whether health-related or economic.

“Perhaps looking at the past may give us a guide to how we can cure current ails that are happening in our society and Gainesville specifically,” Love said.