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The year 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great Migration, one of the most significant historical transformations of the twentieth century. Between the First World War and early 1970s more than six and a half million African Americans fled the American South for northern and then western cities in a great mass exodus that transformed America and helped lay the ground work for the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. 

In fall 2014, Janneken Smucker and Charles Hardy taught “Digital Storytelling and the Great Migration to Philadelphia,” a combined course teaming West Chester University graduate students enrolled in Professor Smucker’s graduate seminar in digital history with undergraduate Honors College students and history majors enrolled in Professor Hardy’s special topics course. In spring 2016, reprised the course.

Over the course of each semester, students worked closely with twenty-two oral history interviews with southern Blacks who migrated to Philadelphia in the early 1900s and Black Philadelphians who witnessed their arrival. First, the students created a digital archive of more than 400 images, newspaper articles, and other sources from national and regional collections, including previously unpublished images and ephemera from the Charles Blockson Afro-American Collection and Special Collections at Temple University Libraries and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

The students then audio edited the oral history interview transcriptions, creating a taxonomy of over to 1,000 keyword terms.  They created detailed interview indexes using OHMS (Oral History Metadata Syncronizer), a system developed by the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History in the University of Kentucky Libraries, tagging and describing interviews, linking GPS coordinates, websites, images, newspaper articles from the Philadelphia Tribune’s vast archive, and other documents to animate each interview segment.

The students continued their research, creating biographical sketches of fifteen narrators, and then worked in teams to create six digital storytelling projects, utilizing a variety of platforms and media. 

The course enabled two storytelling teams to work with Philadelphia archives. One group created a project highlighting materials documenting the First Great Migration and Black life in early twentieth-century Philadelphia housed at Temple’s Charles Blockson Afro-American Collection. Another group conducted research and digitized images at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Emerging digital platforms offer new ways to curate and expand access to oral history interviews, spurring creativity in the public presentation of historical content.  In this course students have helped create a multifaceted website that serves as an archive of primary sources documenting the First Great Migration to Philadelphia and African American life in the city in the early 1900s, providing interlinked ways of accessing curated oral history interview content in a variety of digital platforms and media. They have given new life to old oral history interviews.

The interviews are from a larger collection archived at the University of Kentucky Library, most of which Charles Hardy conducted as part of a public history project in the early 1980s through the Philadelphia History Museum. From these he produced Goin' North: Tales of the Great Migration,” a series of public radio documentaries accompanied by an educational supplement published by the Philadelphia Daily News. We are pleased to resurrect these projects through technologies not imagined at that time. 

Four of our students won WCU Student Creativity and Research Awards for their work on Goin' North. The Oral History Association bestowed Goin’ North with its award for best oral history project in a non-print form. And the Mid-Atlantic Region Archives Conference gave it the C. Herbert Finch Award for best digital project. 

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Class participants, Fall 2014

Robert Bennett         Derek Duquette         Richard Fontanet

Kristen Geiger          John Hashagen          Andrew Hiles

William Horstmann   Suzanne Irvin             Stephanie Loeh

Olivier Loignon         Kevin Mihalcik            Tina Moore

Alexander Raimo      Shila Scott                 John Smith III

Benjamin Spohn      Jeremy Tonnessen     Margaret Tracy

Amanda Tuttle          Kristen Waltz             Randall Wilson  

Class participants, Spring 2016

Anastasia Amand      John Berry                 Drew Blumenthal

Sarah Budzik             Elizabeth Dellaquila   Patrick Doherty

Alessandra Fonseca  Dan Harlow               Sara Hasted

David Jones               Erica Knorr                Michael Lewis

Lauren McClusick      Ahleah Miles              Jason Miller

Kirk Mullen                 Kelsee Noden            Melanie Pezdirtz

Cassidy Reddig         Kaitlyn Sheeran          Dante Silicato

Anthony Smith           Jeremy Tonnessen     Renee Williams

We also wish to acknowledge the assitance of peer mentors Derek Duquette, Richard Fontanet, Olivier Loignon, Shila Scott, and John Smith, along with graduate assistant Ben Spohn.