TARRYTOWN, N.Y. - Professor Roger Panetta, Ph.D., knows that history isn't made in the classroom, so he sends his students out into the community to discover it in their own backyards. For their latest project, Panetta's students documented the oral histories of approximately 15 African Americans who migrated to Westchester County from the south in the 1970s and 1980s.
The oral histories, including transcripts, tape recordings and videotape recordings, are part of an exhibition called "The Great Migration: Stories from the South to the North" now showing at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers. After the exhibit closes on May 12, the histories will become part of a permanent and accessible collection at the Westchester County Historical Society.
"Documenting oral histories enables students to hear directly from those who remain under-represented in traditional historical texts," said Panetta. "Conducting these interviews helped students understand what racism means in a very human way. The process animated the history. To see passion and pain in-person has a different impact on the student."
Through their interviews, the students learned of oppressions experienced by the migrants that seemed to belong in a previous century. According to Panetta, one woman describes in vivid detail the process of picking cotton, the way her fingers cracked and bled, how the pickers were forced to wait until the morning humidity had burned off the cotton before they could begin picking because they were paid by the weight of the cotton they picked, and drier cotton is lighter. She told of how she and other cotton pickers were replaced by technology, which led her to move north to Westchester County. Other interviewees came north armed with college degrees but feeling that racism hindered advancement in the south. "In spite of the litany of obstacles and oppression, the students were impressed by the equilibrium of the people interviewed," said Panetta, "of the doggedness and determination and their refusal to be broken."
Students also learned that the migrants did not find fairy-tale lives awaiting them in the north. "They found the dream, slightly tarnished," said Panetta. "The overwhelming majority says they are glad they came north but were surprised by and unprepared for the racism that they also encountered here. This was a very sobering view for the students."
As a Catholic women's college, since 1907, Marymount College has strived to give women an increased voice in the world. Said Panetta, projects like this shows his students that there are others in the world who are historically under-represented and in need of a voice. "This is important," he said. "It's easy for everybody to see their own oppression. But it's hard to look outside yourself."
Panetta's students are continuing to look beyond their owns experiences this semester, as they interview 21 additional black migrants in an effort to bring more of their stories to the public domain. But the next course that Panetta, who has already taught classes on Latinos in Westchester and Feminism in Sleepy Hollow, plans to teach is one where many of his students will be able to bring their own stories to the discussion: Westchester as the American Suburb.
Effective July 1, 2002, Marymount College will consolidate with Fordham University to create a new model of a Catholic women's college, one that will enjoy the academic and administrative resources of a major university while retaining the character of a small, liberal arts college. This union builds upon a long relationship between the two institutions and promises to strengthen Marymount's religious and intellectual traditions. Founded in 1841, Fordham is New York City's Jesuit University, enrolling approximately 14,000 students among its four undergraduate and six graduate schools. Marymount College will become the University's fifth undergraduate college.
To see photos and read portions of the oral histories from the exhibit, log on to the Hudson River Museum Web site at http://www.hrm.org/Migration/MigrationThumbnails.htm