Thinking Out Loud: Columbia's integration told in oral histories

Mar 25, 2014

Roxanne Foster preserved some of Columbia's historical memory last year. In pursuit of her Masters Degree in News Reporting and Writing from MU's School of Journalism, Foster interviewed and recorded the stories of ten black and white Columbians who lived here during the desegregation era. On this week's Thinking Out Loud, KBIA's Trevor Harris visited with Foster about her subjects, their common themes and more. The State Historical Society of Missouri's Oral Historian Jeff Corrigan was Foster's advisor. Together, they recorded, transcribed and archived stories unique to Columbia in the late 1950s through the mid-1960s.

Roxanne Foster interviews Jim Nunnally for her Journalism Masters Degree. Foster spoke with 12 people - black and white - who lived in Columbia during the desegregation era.
Credit State Historical Society of Missouri

Roxanne explained how the idea to interview Columbians who had attended Douglass and Hickman High Schools during desegregation came to her when she was attending a One Read event in Columbia.

I was in a News Reporting class my first semester and chose to go on an assignment to write a story about the One Read event that the library puts on. The book, I think it was two years ago, was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. As I sat in this room with people discussing this book, I was really amazed at how three African American women captivated the room talking about their experiences with medical system in Columbia during the time of segregation. It was fantastic because they felt emboldened to tell their story but the people that were there really wanted to hear them. [They] held them over afterwards as people were asking them questions. I went back to my editor and I told him about that experience and he suggested I look into doing oral history. My advisor Jacqui Banaszynski encouraged me to think outside the box and do an oral history project for my Masters project.


Roxanne's oral history-focused masters project led her to collect oral histories from twelve individuals who went to high school in Columbia between 1954-1961. Most of her subjects are now in their 60s. They discussed attending Douglass School and then Hickman High School. The Brown vs. Board of Education Topeka supreme court decision that led to desgregation of public facilities was not a historical abstraction for these Columbians.

One of Foster's subjects was Marva Jo Brown. Foster's interview with Brown resulted in three hours worth of stories captured that likely would not have otherwise been archived. What's so special about Brown's experience? She was among the first black Columbians to attend a previously all-white school; in Brown's case she went to Hickman High School after starting her academic career at Douglass School. A Columbia native, Brown grew up near modern-day Providence Road and Business Loop. In the now-archived State Historical Society recordings, Brown told Foster how it felt to be among the first students to integrate Hickman High School:

I come from Douglass [and] we had thirteen kids graduating from my class I was in. I walked from Douglass being a much smaller school into this sea of white faces. The building is much larger and that's all you see. Do I get to see the other four girls that was there? No. Usually not during the day. Oh my, where are the classrooms? How do I get to class? Where do I go? Who do I ask? But, somebody must have helped me go to classroom... After the first year it wasn't as bad, because then it was more kids that came to Hickman and then I knew people like on a first name basis that I could say "What did you do in your class today?" or "How did this work?" or "What did that do?"

Preserving the stories of people like Marva Jo Brown is a career for Oral Historian Jeff Corrigan. He explained that it is his role to capture stories from Missourians. He is also a national trainer in oral history collecting methods. To get good audio, Corrigan recommends allowing enough time to talk about what may be a wider range of topics than expected. He also notes the importance of sitting in a quiet room, silencing phones and clocks and getting your subject's permission to record them.

Did you hear Jeff Corrigan recommend some resources in this story? Are you interested in collecting oral histories? Here are some good places to read up on the ethics and practice of oral history:

State Historical Society of Missouri Oral History Program

Baylor Institute for Oral History Introduction to Oral History

Listen to Thinking Out Loud each Tuesday and Friday at 6:30 p.m. and Saturday at 6:00 a.m. on 91.3fm KBIA.