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Archives Month flashback: oral histories for bicentennial

by Samantha Sunderland | October 28th, 2013

N-B1 76-29-028 Charles Lewis.tif

This 1975 photo shows Esther Hall Mumford (left) and Charles Lewis. Mumford interviewed Lewis for an oral history project for America’s bicentennial celebration in 1976. (Photo courtesy of Washington State Archives)

When you think of Washington state history, you might think of old faded photographs of pioneer towns and wilderness from 150 years ago. Yet, recent history can be interesting, too. In fact, a collection exists containing hours of interviews and photographs chronicling the history and culture of Washingtonians almost 40 years ago.

In 1975 and 1976, the Washington State Archives documented the lives of everyday people through six oral history projects for the nation’s bicentennial celebration. Over a two-year period, 293 interviews were conducted and numerous photographs taken for the collection.

The six oral history projects focused on different communities of Washingtonians. They included Black Project, Filipino Project, Kittitas Project, Pacific Project, Wahkiakum Project and Whatcom Project. Each investigated a particular way of life, where the interviewees had different things in common, such as geographic location, occupation, race, time-frame, etc. The results were snapshots of life as it was experienced by a number of people within a given context.

The Black Project interviews were conducted by noted local historian Esther Hall Mumford. These interviews produced more than 3,000 pages of transcripts. Almost 30 years after the project was completed, this collection remains one of the richest but least-used sources of research into the history of the African-American community in Seattle and King County.

Copies of these interviews were distributed to many area libraries.

The State Archives is celebrating Archives Month throughout October in Washington. This year’s theme is “Hearing History,” and focuses on the goal of preserving Washington voices through oral histories and other audio recordings preserved by the State Archives and other institutions across the state.

Archives Month is co-sponsored by the Washington State Archives, a division of the Office of Secretary of State.

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