Houston Public Library receives grant to preserve diverse oral history
African American Library at the Gregory School. Photo courtesy City of Houston Housing and Community Development.

The Houston Public Library (HPL) recently received a $50,000 American Rescue Plan Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences (IMLS) to fund HPL Oral History Collections; Preserving the Past to Impact the Future. This grant will provide HPL the opportunity to preserve approximately 469 oral history interviews (over 1,200 files) identified as relevant to the history of Houston’s diverse communities.

The items are currently held in archive at HPL Special Collections Libraries: The Houston Metropolitan Research Center and The African American Library at The Gregory School.

“As pillars of our communities, libraries and museums bring people together by providing important programs, services, and collections. These institutions are trusted spaces where people can learn, explore and grow,” said IMLS Director Crosby Kemper. “IMLS is proud to support their initiatives through our grants as they educate and enhance their communities.”

Dr. Rhea Brown Lawson. Photo by Vicky Pink.

“We are very excited about this grant award that will allow us to facilitate the preservation of our community’s experiences and personal stories. These efforts closely align with HPL’s mission and play a crucial role in our efforts to accurately and equitably capture significant moments of our city’s history,” said HPL Director Rhea Brown Lawson.

By providing for the acquisition of specialized audiovisual (A/V) equipment, the grant will further enhance HPL’s capacity to create high-quality recordings for the COVID-19 Houston Memory Project, a collection of oral histories surrounding the impact of COVID-19 on Houstonians and other culturally centered topics like race and social justice.

To get more information on the impact of the HPL oral history collection and the public’s access to it, the DefenderNetwork.com got an exclusive interview with HPL’s Senior Manager of Special Collections, Angela Kent and Gregory School African American Library Manager Miguell Ceasar.

DEFENDER: What are the oral histories that are being preserved here?

MIGUELL CEASAR: At the African American Library, our main objective is to document everyday African American life. So, you’ll find oral histories about general things like how it was to attend an event, kind of giving that first person account. Instead of always having to read about something, you can hear it via someone who would have actually participated in it. And our collection also contains visual, recorded accounts so you get chance to see who’s talking, and get a better perspective on those types of things

DEFENDER: What types of audio stories you do get? Are there any themes more popular than others?

MIGUELL CEASAR: We get a lot of stories about how it was to grow up in Houston, in the Fourth Ward and in several other neighborhoods, stories about different locations of significance, the epicenters for African American history and life during those times, to kind of give you an idea of a day in life of that person. And with African American history, it wasn’t always written out because our people had to grow up and cut through a lot of disadvantages. And, history was sometimes overlooked and not recorded. So, we get a lot of information from those sharing and telling their story via these oral and visual recordings. And it’s very important to document and make these items available. 

DEFENDER: When you say “Houston’s diverse communities” what communities are being referred to?

ANGELA KENT: We have oral histories throughout many of our archival collections. The grant that we are actually, specifically talking about, that’s focused on our oral histories that are housed in a number of different collections, not just the African American Library School collection that we have at Gregory, but also the Hispanic collections that are currently held at the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, along with the more wider breadth of oral histories that are spread throughout the [research center], collections on Houston and Houstonians throughout various periods of time. This grant also allows for those older legacy oral histories that we have to be maintained and bring them up to the kind of the digital formatting that’s required so that they remain accessible and free to everyone from every community here in Houston and beyond to be able to listen and share.

DEFENDER: What’s the process for choosing whose oral histories the HPL chooses to record? Can anyone just call in and share their stories, their histories?

MIGUELL CEASAR: We do go out and target people. Also, when someone comes in and donates and shares their stories, they’ll be like, “Oh, you should go and talk to so-and-so. You should get in touch with this person.” So, we’ll take cues like that, as well. But we do have people who will come in and start talking to us and, we come to find out this is something that we should record. For those individuals, there’s paperwork they can fill out to help charge their memory and kind of organize the stories to give them an idea of what the interview will be like before they even get here, to kind of get their thoughts together.

DEFENDER: Who do you have oral histories from?

MIGUELL CEASAR: Local activists in the Black [and other’ communities like Joyce Punch, Sandra Hines and many others. But we also have a lot histories from individuals most people don’t really know. Because when you think about civil rights in Houston, no one really understands that we had a lot of actors back in the day, actually, that we just did not get to hear about. Their stories shed a little more light on it so people can understand things were happening in the Black community. The Black newspaper was one of the main sources to go and read and find a lot of this history. We’re trying to document that as well. And we do actually have all the African American newspapers on microfilm.

DEFENDER: Why is such a collection so important?

MIGUELL CEASAR: It’s very important because African American history is American history. It’s everyone’s history. And for so long, it’s been forgotten, not taken care of. It’s important to have that piece of history to paint the full picture. And it’s important that it’s actually here and that the city actually felt like it was important enough to create an archive dedicated to African American history to document research. We also do programming around African American issues. It’s just a great monument and testament to the history. If you don’t have history, you don’t know where you’re going; if you don’t have access to it. That’s always been an issue, having access to our own history. So now we actually have that building, that monument and, I just would like people to use this resource more than what it has been used.

ANGELA KENT: The Houston Public Library currently has three special collections, which look to preserve the history of Houston and Houstonians and the African American Library at the Gregory School really highlights all of the importance of those collections. What is unique about this grant that we were awarded was that it helps us preserve the oral histories that we currently have, but it’s also supporting for our future oral histories that we’re hoping to have donated and received from the communities. The grant will allow us a portion of that funding to help with equipment so that we can continue to make high quality oral histories, as well as a lot of the subscriptions and the support and platforms that are needed to maintain them and make these oral histories freely available and accessible to everyone.

DEFENDER: Is it necessary to visit the HPL to access the oral histories or can they also be accessed online?

ANGELA KENT: This grant will allow for all of our oral histories to be made available online through the HPL digital archives. And that is again, one of many freely available resources that are there. And again, the grant helps to make sure that some of our legacy resources or legacy oral histories keep up with the continuous upgrades to digital platforms so that they remain available, and also getting some transcriptions done, as well, for some of those older oral histories that we didn’t have the transcription for.

Aswad Walker

I'm originally from Cincinnati. I'm a husband and father to six children. I'm an associate pastor for the Shrine of Black Madonna (Houston). I am a lecturer (adjunct professor) in the University of Houston...