This year marks the 50th anniversary of the sweeping civil rights legislation passed by Congress in 1964 and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. It is also a 60-year milestone for the historic Brown v. Board of Education case, passed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that separate but equal schools were unconstitutional. Like most Southern cities of that era, Newport News, Virginia, was segregated, a legacy that lives on in the memories of many who still live in the area, and who want to tell their stories. A CNU history professor and her students are listening.
Dr. Laura Puaca directs the Hampton Roads Oral History Project (HROHP), an initiative that seeks to preserve, in their own words, the lives of local residents, and to gain a perspective often missing from historical or official accounts: that of ordinary people. Puaca first became interested in oral history during college at Rutgers University, where she worked with the Rutgers Oral History Archives, an experience that would later serve as a model of sorts for the HROHP. “It was a really meaningful experience for me, because I got to learn firsthand how the things we learned about in history books affected people on a day-to-day basis,” Puaca recalls. “It made history come alive in ways that few other things did, and it also helps other people, students, historians and the general public understand the subject better.”
Puaca pursued her PhD at the University of North Carolina and continued to study oral history there, both through graduate coursework and by working as a research assistant for the Southern Oral History Program, a well-known initiative that began in the 1970s. “Its slogan, ‘you don’t have to be famous for your life to be history,’ was something that stayed with me and informed my approach to the Hampton Roads Oral History Project,” Puaca says. After she arrived at CNU, she developed a course called The Long Civil Rights Movement in consultation with English Professor Dr. Roberta Rosenberg, as well as with staff at the Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center and the Newsome House Museum and Cultural Center, two organizations that preserve local African-American history in Newport News.
The class includes a service component requiring students to complete interviews and other archival tasks for the HROHP. Students work in pairs to prepare questions and interview members of the Hampton Roads community who lived through the civil rights era. The interviewees include ministers, teachers, housewives, soldiers, nurses, people from all backgrounds and professions. Ebony Tyler (’13) took the class and became heavily involved in the HROHP and the goal of preserving the memories of these aging community members. For her, oral history is a means of documenting the human experience directly through peoples’ thoughts, and its significance lies in the differing perspectives offered. “Although a group of people can experience an event together, no two accounts will be the same,” she says. “Each person will recall it differently. As a result, we gain a better understanding.” She and her partner in the class, Emily Caldwell (’13), interviewed Flora Davis Crittenden, a longtime resident and icon in the Newport News community. “Having the opportunity to interview a woman who has lived such an influential life was absolutely inspirational,” says Tyler.
Crittenden, 89, had a long and significant career as a teacher and guidance counselor in Newport News. She was elected to the Newport News City Council and, in 1993, to the Virginia House of Delegates, where she served 10 years. She was also a member of CNU’s Board of Visitors from 2009-11, and is the recipient of numerous local and national humanitarian and social justice awards. “After the interview, it was not only her accomplishments that amazed me but how humble she was regarding her achievements,” Tyler says. “After all she has accomplished, she still maintains that there is much work to be done in obtaining equality for all people and making the world we live in a better place.”
As the tape unwinds, Crittenden begins to tell her story as Tyler and Caldwell question and converse with her. Crittenden recounts her early upbringing in New York before she moved to Newport News after elementary school. She attended Huntington High School, an all-black school where her life would be transformed. “The teachers were really engaged with young people because they also felt that education was what would put us ahead,” she recounts. “It was just a marvelous experience for me because they were so interested in what we did, and they were so dedicated to us. I learned so much in high school, not just about academics, but about life.” She attended college at Virginia State University, then began her teaching career in 1949 at Carver High School (which later became a middle school and was renamed in her honor) where she taught for 15 years. Crittenden attended Indiana University in the 1950s, where she earned her master’s degree. She then became a guidance counselor, a position she held for the remaining 17 years of her career.
Crittenden’s tale is a sprawling one, spanning seven decades and many places. She experienced outright segregation in Newport News, both in school and in the neighborhoods where she lived, as well as the more subtle forms of racism she experienced in the North and Midwest. Many of the HROHP participants spoke about what it was like to live under segregation, while others discussed how the process of integration in schools, the military, other sectors of employment and public facilities affected their lives. “While many interviewees addressed the prevalence of discrimination and the hurtfulness of racism, a significant number also highlighted the strength of black communities, the resiliency of black families, the dedication of black educators, pride in black schools and a desire to succeed no matter what,” Puaca says. Another common thread is the struggle for civil rights, both the movement’s successes, as well as what still remains undone.
Some of the interviewees took part in the struggle, either directly through marching or other protests, or more from a distance, as Crittenden did. She joined the NAACP and became a champion for better schools, which she viewed — and still views — as the best means of gaining equality. As she tells Tyler and Caldwell, “I did participate in the movement, but I always thought that education was a way to improve race relations and to advance the cause of civil rights. I worked with my students all the time to try to prepare them for good citizenship and for contributing to the community, improving themselves and trying to establish good relations with others. I did that when we were all black, and I did that when we integrated, because citizens have to fight for their own rights.” It’s a message not lost on Tyler and the other students involved in the project. “The passion with which Mrs. Crittenden discusses social activism makes you feel not only compelled but obligated to get involved,” says Tyler.
Charles Dailey, a graduate student in CNU’s Master of Arts in Teaching Program, has also been involved with the HROHP, conducting and transcribing interviews. For him, the project’s value lies in the rare opportunity it offers to listen to others tell their stories in their own words, a unique and particularly moving way to study history. “It’s one thing to read the text, but listening to the recordings themselves is another experience — they are powerful,” he says. “Having lived here I knew most of the places they spoke of, but was unfamiliar with the segregated world most of the interviewees lived through in the 1950s and 1960s. Knowing the importance and relevance of the project makes me extremely proud to have been involved with it.”
Puaca notes that many told their stories in the hope of teaching younger generations the lessons of the past, and in so doing to shape and inform their future activism. It’s a role Puaca is particularly eager for the HROHP to fill. “It is my hope that people of all ages will consult these interviews to get a better sense of both past and present conditions in Hampton Roads and the ongoing nature of the civil rights movement,” she says.