Memories of the Past: Oral History, Archeology, and Community Involvement
Why are oral history interviews important in an historic archeological project? How do the memories of twentieth-century informants relate to the historical archeology of a nineteenth-century farmstead? In the case of this project, the answer is simple.
The oral history stories that we gathered and the archeology of the Williams farmstead are intimately related. The oral history, historic documents, and archeological remains represent different types of evidence used for the same basic purpose—to reconstruct an accurate historical narrative of African American life. The historic documents and archeology tell the first half of the story, detailing the lives of the Williams family members from the antebellum period through the turn of the century. The oral history narratives tell the second half of that story, following the lives of many people who lived similar farming lifestyles in the early twentieth century and documenting how the Williams descendants and others transitioned to an urban life after they abandoned their farms. In many cases, there are significant overlaps between the oral history and the archeology because the interviewees were following social and cultural practices that were passed down to them by their elders.
For our part, we wanted to share the history and archeology of the Williams farmstead site with the descendant community, in particular, and to raise public awareness of African American history in Texas. The oral history project we initiated in 2009 helped us to address these concerns. To start, it enabled us to open lines of communication with people who were interested in our research.
Most of the individuals we eventually spoke with had deep roots in Travis and Hays counties and identified closely with the local history. Given this, it was important to ensure that their personal and collective memories would become a part of the larger historical record. In all, we formally interviewed 27 individuals who were raised in Austin, Buda (Antioch Colony and the Prairie), and/or Manchaca. All are part of the broader descendant community in this region who are historically connected to and invested in the area’s past.
We began outreach efforts locally and were fortunate in that people generally responded favorably to interview requests and were open to sharing knowledge about themselves and their family’s history. All of the interviewees were “project stakeholders,” having spent at least part of their youths near the Williams farmstead. The majority recalled what rural life was like when most people farmed for a living and easily related to what the archeology revealed about the day-to-day experiences of the Williams family.
In terms of finding people to interview, for some we had nothing more than a surname identified in archival records to start with. Internet searches and the phone book garnered some success. Most of our outreach, however, relied on word of mouth to raise visibility of the project, and to locate more potential interviewees. A prime example of this was our outreach with the Manchaca/Onion Creek Historical Association (MOCHA).
Our project historian, Terri Myers, posted a flier at the Manchaca Post Office as part of our efforts to locate potential interviewees and Williams family descendants. A MOCHA member responded, and over the course of this project the group visited the Williams site excavation and hosted lectures by our project team members. Sharing our research proved to be productive for both the project team and MOCHA. Marilyn McLeod’s ancestor, Victor Labenski, was a neighbor of the Williams family. It was McLeod who contacted KLRU producer Michael Emery and told him about our project, which led to its inclusion in the 2010 Juneteenth Jamboree program. Thanks to MOCHA we were also able to find more interviewees. This included MOCHA members Joanne Deane and Lillie Meredith Moreland, both longtime residents of Manchaca/Bear Creek and descendants of the area’s earliest non-native settlers. Deane and Moreland were able to provide an account of life in the area from the perspective of Euro-American descendants.
Narrators of the Past
Most of the interviewees hailed from Buda, located roughly 5 miles south of the Williams site. Following on the heels of emancipation, freedmen purchased land there and founded Antioch Colony. During her archival research, historian Terri Myers discovered a likely kinship connection between the Williams family and the Buntons of Antioch. During the 19th century, this settlement was the largest all-black enclave near the Williams farmstead and boasted its own church and school.
Undoubtedly, Ransom and Sarah knew of Antioch. Since there are descendants of the 19th-century settlers currently living in Antioch Colony, it was not difficult to find people who were interested in learning more about the project, and who wished to be interviewed. Likewise, narrators who were born in Manchaca—just a couple of miles from the Williams farmstead—expressed deep sentiments about their local heritage. It is very likely that the Williams family went to church with the parents and grandparents of some of our interviewees
The remainder of our interviewees called east Austin home, including direct descendants of the Williams family. The capital city’s east side has historically been largely African American, at least since the late 1920s when city authorities strategized to segregate blacks to that section of town. It was around this time when African Americans across the South relocated to cities in large numbers in search of jobs or to further their education. Since Austin was the urban hub of central Texas, every interviewee spent time there at some point.
Of the 27 narrators, 25 were African Americans and two were Euro-Americans. The majority of them were women (20 of the 27) and most of the narrators were over the age of 70 years at the time of their interview. Over half of them grew up in farming households either as landowners, tenant farmers or sharecroppers. We interviewed direct descendants of the Williams family, the great granddaughters of Ransom and Sarah. They are Jewel Andrews, Lourice Johnson, and Corrine Harris.
We also co-produced oral histories with the following individuals: Anthy Lee Walker (d. 2010); Estella Black; Robbie Overton; Moses Harper, Sr. (d. 2009); LeeDell Bunton, Sr.; Samuel Harper; Essie Mae Sorrells (d. 2012); Lillie Moreland; Joan Limuel; Ruth Fears (d. 2012); Marcus Pickard, Jr.; Kay Randall; Winnie Moyer; Earselean Hollins; Annie Axel; Floris Sorrells; Lillie Grant; Lee Dawson; Rene Pickard; Joanne Deane; Cedel Evans; Earlee Bunton; Minnie Nelson; and Marian Washington.
Stories of Family and Community in Travis and Hays Counties, 1920s-1970s
During recording sessions, narrators mainly recalled their experiences growing up in central Texas. While we discussed a wide range of topics, family life emerged as a major theme. Narrators talked about their relationships with various family members, and expressed why their parents and grandparents were cherished role models.
For most, since living out in the country required hard work, narrators also spent time relating how their families were largely self sufficient. In particular, they singled out their mothers and grandmothers, remembering how they took care of the house, nurtured their children, and picked cotton alongside their husbands and children. Many women also worked for white families, taking in laundry, cleaning house and cooking, and caring for children. Despite the hardships, however, narrators remembered happy childhoods and were thankful for the values that were instilled in them.
The archeology of the Williams farmstead tells an amazing story of a successful farm family, but the story ends rather abruptly when the family left the farmstead in 1905. The story might have ended there if not for the oral history interviews conducted by Dr. Maria Franklin (assisted by her graduate student, Nedra Lee). More
MF 1 (video): LeeDell Bunton, Sr., worked with members of the RSWFP team and helped to make the oral history project and public outreach efforts a success. In this video clip, Mr. Bunton talks about the connection between the archaeology of the Williams farmstead and the history of Antioch Colony, of which he is a descendant of its founding settlers. Video clip courtesy of Instructional Technology Services (ITS), University of Texas at Austin. (Select html5 or quicktime to play).
MF 2 (audio clip): Lillie Meredith Moreland and Joanne Deane recall the Depression and how people in Manchaca fared.
Stories of Family and Community in Travis and Hays Counties, 1920s-1970s
MF 3 (audio): Robbie (Dotson) Overton expresses the importance of family and what her mother, Carrie (Bunton) Dotson, means to her.
MF 4 (audio): Estella (Hargis) Black discusses the diverse chores her parents undertook in order to feed the family, and how her mother made extra money by selling homemade butter.
MF 5 (audio): Although Samuel Harper states that his father was the breadwinner, he quickly follows up by observing how his mother, Emma (Tennon) Harper, worked hard to balance household chores with childrearing and picking cotton during harvest time.
MF 6 (audio): Winnie Moyer talks about the sacrifices her mother, Emma (Tennon) Harper (see figure-14), made in working for white families in Buda, including being forced to use the back door during segregation.
MF 10: Ruth (Harper) Fears recalls the different toys that boys and girls played with when she was a child in Antioch Colony; toys play a role in socializing children along gender lines.