Collecting Oral History: Interview with Elizabeth Jacoway

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Bonnets)

2007 was an interesting year in Little Rock, Arkansas; it was the fiftieth anniversary of the Central High School integration crisis and emotions were high. Books were published reflecting every perspective of the issue. Among the many books I read and authors I met during the year, the most refreshing and honest was Betsy Jacoway. Her book, Turn Away Thy Son, approached the crisis via interviews with the myriad people involved. As a transplanted Northerner, the whole integration issue seemed foreign to me, and her book gave me a perspective I would not otherwise have had. When Betsy had a book signing at the bookstore where I worked, we clicked and became friends. I am delighted that she would share with all of us the process of collecting oral history.

Collecting Oral History: Interview with Elizabeth Jacoway

A Brief Bio

Turn Away Thy Son Elizabeth Jacoway grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she attended the public schools. As a child she lived through the Little Rock desegregation crisis of 1957–1959, but wearing the blinders imposed on a privileged southern white female by the culture of segregation, she failed to “see” or to question what was happening in her community. Not until she landed in her first graduate seminar, conducted by George B. Tindall at the University of North Carolina, did she begin to examine the flawed and tragic history of her region. In the years since that painful introduction to the realities of her own past, her intellectual focus has been on the sources, dynamics and impact of racism in American life. After receiving a Ph.D. in southern history from the University of North Carolina in 1974, she taught at the University of Florida, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and Lyon College. Married and the mother of two grown sons, she has lived for thirty years in the small, Mississippi-delta community of Newport, Arkansas. In 2007 she published the book about Little Rock that she had been working on for thirty years, Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, The Crisis That Shocked the Nation (Free Press).

Turn Away Thy Son won the 2008 Willie Lee Rose Prize, awarded by the Southern Association for Women Historians for the best book in southern history by a woman, and also the 2008 William Booker Worthen Literary Prize, awarded by the Central Arkansas Library System.

TC: Could you explain how one goes about collecting oral history, and how one does that in a sensitive environment such as race relations. Just your process will be fine.

EJ: In 1976, I was very fortunate to receive a year-long NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities] grant to inaugurate my study of the Little Rock Crisis. My graduate training had stressed the importance of starting with archival research rather than reading what other historians had written about my subject, so I simply dove into the papers of Daisy Bates (mentor to the Little Rock Nine) at the Wisconsin Historical Society, Brooks Hays (Congressman from Little Rock) at the JFK Library in Boston, and Dwight Eisenhower at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, KS. At that time, these were the major collections that were available to researchers, and as you can imagine, at each of them I encountered dramatically different impressions of the same events.

By the summer of that year I was able to compile a list of over a hundred people who were still alive and who had played significant roles in the Little Rock story, and I started studying the available literature about how to conduct an interview. That process would have been so much easier if I had had access to the Internet! As it was, I was bound to the library and to correspondence with such organizations as the Oral History Association.

Just about that time, the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina invited me to do interviews with Daisy Bates and Vivion Brewer (President of the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools), and so I prepared ferociously and jumped in with both feet. Both interviews turned out to be delightful and incredibly revealing, and I was hooked. I realized immediately that the interview was a potential source of information that could not be found in any archive or library, and that it allowed the researcher to ask questions about things that no one had thought to record. Of course the interviewee always has his or her own biases and agendas, and everything he or she says has to be checked against archival materials, but the interviewee also brings an immediacy and interest to the subject that newspapers, diaries, and secondary accounts fail to convey.

After my Bates and Brewer interviews, I began to prepare enthusiastically for what I could see was going to be the best source of information for my book. I had already initiated a spin-off project that focused on the role of the South’s white businessmen in the Civil Rights Movement (eventually published by LSU Press as Southern Businessmen and Desegregation), so for the remainder of 1976 I interviewed over thirty of Little Rock’s business leaders from the 1957–1959 period, and I also interviewed (because he happened to be in town) Harry Ashmore, editor of the Arkansas Gazette during the crisis.

I had grown up in Little Rock, and most of these men responded to me favorably because they knew me. This was just twenty years after the crisis, and many Little Rock people still felt a defensiveness about it and a reluctance to talk to outsiders about it. My being an “insider” helped me gain access to these people, but undoubtedly it also blinded me to some of the nuances I might have noticed if I had come from a different cultural milieu.

At this point, I talked only to white people (except for the commissioned interview with Daisy Bates)—in part because I was focusing on the business leadership, but also because I did not have access to the black community, and I did not feel that I understood the issues and the feelings across that racial divide. I felt very keenly my limitations in being able to bridge that divide, both as a white person and as a woman.

A series of events converged to take me away from my focus on 1957—marriage, motherhood, a move away from Little Rock, two other book projects—as well as fear that I had waded into a study that was going to make a lot of people unhappy (which it has). At length, however, the Little Rock project just reached out and grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go. To my great good fortune, my work led me into a friendship with Annie Abrams, one of Little Rock’s leading advocates of interracial harmony and an old friend of Daisy Bates. Through Annie, I developed routes of access into and a deepening understanding of black Little Rock. Also, Minnijean Brown Trickey (one of the Little Rock Nine) has become a real friend, as has Elizabeth Eckford (the stoic black child in the iconic photograph of Little Rock). I can’t pretend to understand the experiences these women have had, and an entirely different book could have been written from their perspectives, but through their generosity, they have helped me enormously to bridge the gap between my world and theirs. For me, it has been one of the most enriching experiences of my life.

TC: Betsy, this is great. I thank you.

Could you delve a little more into the actual process? From making contact, determining your questions, how you conducted the interviews—and if anyone said no (or just clammed up during the process) and how you dealt with that.

The actual interview process involves making contact, usually by phone, then followed up by letter with more of the specifics. I used to make extensive lists of questions before the interview, but I learned quickly that the interviewee will lead you off into uncharted waters and that the best approach is to let him or her run in the directions that suit them—at least until you have established rapport and given the interviewee a chance to get on record whatever he or she thinks is of importance.

The hardest part of the interview is to get your tape recording equipment set up quickly and as unobtrusively as possible, so that you and your interviewee can kind of forget about the fact that the tape is running (this always makes folks self-conscious). They will usually be nervous, so I always start with an open-ended question (one that can’t be answered with a yes or a no) and let them run with it as long as they want. Then I start to steer the interview into the subjects I want to be sure to cover. I save any delicate questions for the last quarter of the interview, and by then my subject is usually comfortable with me and willing to be forthcoming. Of course you never offer judgments on anything they share with you, you never contradict or correct them, and you never go off on tangents of your own (and sometimes that’s hard).

As a general rule, interviews should not last longer than an hour or so, because most folks get tired and lose interest in the process. The great exception to this rule is Justice Jim Johnson, who is now in his late eighties and who will still be going strong after three hours! I have interviewed him two dozen times because he is an absolute font of information, and also because he is incredibly honest with me—telling me the bad things about himself as well as the good! For my purposes, however, most people have told me all that I needed to know from them in about an hour.

Only one person has refused an interview with me, and that is Melba Patillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine. She wrote a powerful memoir titled Warriors Don’t Cry, and she thinks that’s all that needs to be said on the subject of the Little Rock crisis. She does not believe that someone who was not inside Central High School in 1957 could possibly have anything to say of value, but of course if she’s right, all historians would be out of business. I hope my book demonstrates that there are many perspectives on any historical moment, and that it broadens our understanding of the concept of “truth” to examine any incident from multiple points of view.

Governor Orval Faubus had been interviewed so many times by the time I sat down with him that I found his responses to be fairly rehearsed. I came back for a second interview ten or fifteen years later and tried to steer him away from some of the pat answers he had been giving for years. He said at one point “there are things that I know that I’m not going to tell you unless you ask me about them,” and of course this was very frustrating to me! Apparently he took many of his secrets to the grave.

The standard practice in the oral history business is for the researcher to have the interviewee sign a release form giving permission to quote from the interview and use it in subsequent printed work. Many presses require this legal documentation before agreeing to publish your work, and many libraries and archives require it as well before accepting interviews for deposit. After the interview, the researcher then transcribes the tapes (or pays someone to do it), and amazingly enough, one hour of tape requires about eight hours of transcribing. This is what makes oral history programs so expensive.

Ideally, the transcribed interview should be returned to the interviewee for editing and corrections, but since I did not have a staff to help me with this part of the process, I rarely returned my interviews for correction—and sometimes I did not even edit them myself. I conducted well over a hundred interviews, and maybe half of these yielded one or two tidbits each that found their way into the book.

The same is true of archival research. You might spend weeks in a particular collection and then use just one or two bits of information from that research trip. This can be very frustrating, but you have to immerse yourself in information to get a feel for how it all fits together. It is not unlike putting a puzzle together, or solving a mystery.

TC: This is wonderful, Betsy. What is your next project?

EJ: Well, my son is on the list for a kidney transplant and that is consuming all my time.

TC: You know our thoughts and prayers are with you. Thank you so much for taking the time for this interview.

Final Poll Results

Print Friendly, PDF & Email