Having the pleasure of being part of the first several Mosaic projects that involved the Borough of Steelton community members, I was able to witness the eagerness of the selected community members who wanted to share their stories. Everyone that was asked agreed to be interviewed. The age range was awesome as Mrs. Brannock was well over 100 years old and of sound mind when she passed. Everyone shared their stories to mesmerize the oral history interviewer. They shared stories of working in the Bethlehem Steel Company, the local quarry and the brick yard. They spoke of being a domestic, working labor jobs and sending their children to school with the hopes of getting a good education in the Hygienic School for Colored Children. The young high school students received the opportunity to gather information of their parents and or grandparents and were able to get a better understanding of their family lives and the importance of how it related to the church that they attended. This connection with the college helped to expose the young high school students to a bit of college life, not only to learn how to gather oral history but to expose them to the Dickinson college student. This exposure helped the young people to reach beyond high school and understand why the subject they were learning was of importance.
This program also gave more validity to the once overgrown and forgotten historic Midland Cemetery and why it was important to save the cemetery from destruction that holds the bodies of slaves, United States Colored Troops, Buffalo Soldiers, men of World War I and II and many members of the community. Some of the elders shared stories about the famous (in their minds) people that once lived on their streets which included the first ministers and civic minded people that helped shape the African American community in the early 1900's. Many of them buried at Midland Cemetery. The Mosaic program is invaluable. It allowed the community and me to have a voice to tell our stories. Having participated in the first Mosaic that focused on the Ethnic Labor Relations, I was asked and happily accepted the invitation to assist with the second Mosaic in Steelton focusing on the African American history that was not spoken of in the community or elsewhere. My focus with Dickinson College was to make sure that the professors would get their students interested in seeking the hidden history of the people by interviewing and documenting their words on paper and on tape. I was able to direct the student to eager people ready to tell their stories. Many of the people had a connection to the Midland Cemetery and did not realize how their story told history, such as the Buffalo Soldier or Mr. Fields who broke ground for the Monumental AME Church who once was enslaved and had been their neighbor. I can still hear Mr. Carelock saying that he did not know that some Buffalo Soldiers lived in the area. Mr. Carelock was in his seventies at that time of discovery. This proves that any age can learn something new about the person next door. This project also brought community, churches and organizations together on the hidden history of the African American in Steelton.
I was able to participate at the Oral History Association Conference in New Orleans to share the experience of the overall project. The panel discussion allowed me to share my experience of matching interviewees to interviewers and why the student had a great experience to sit with and direct a senior citizen who may not have been accustomed to being quizzed. The student found that if they gave a key question then it was hard to get the senior to stop talking. Some students reported that they would be with the interviewee for hours with enjoyment. Prior to the project, many of the residents had never been asked to speak about their life or experience in Steelton and the surrounding areas. The Mosaic program added value to their lives to know that they, the community members' participants, contributed to American history (not just African American history) but to share the accomplishments of the Dickinson College students. To this day I am still in contact with some of the students…the bond is ongoing. To look back at the experience is awesome knowing that their stories are documented, preserved and available to the public with the aid of the students of Dickinson College. It is comforting to know that many of those who were interviewed then, that are now deceased, have a glimpse of their life saved.
As you read over the interviews please keep in mind that these are the words of the interviewee that was done in 1997. Not modified as they had given consent for this information to be shared. Hopefully you will find it rewarding and pleased that their words are forever saved. Some of the stories will pull you into their lives and you can see how they dealt with hardships and joy. Take away what you can to apply to your own lives and perhaps this will help you to deal with your own situations of hardships and joy. I know that I have. With warm regards, Barbara Barksdale
Written Oral History - Transcripts of Interviews conducted by Barbara Barksdale