Tell the Whole Story – Why Oral Histories Matter

by Jacob Roberson

Jacob Roberson is a rising senior on the varsity football team from Richmond, VA double majoring in psychology and sociology. He is a co-vice president of UR Mentoring Network, he is a part of the Dean’s Student Advisory Board, and during the 2017-2018 academic year he was an appointed student representative of the Presidential Advisory Committee for Sexual Violence Prevention and Response. Additionally, he has been inducted into numerous honor societies including Omicron Delta Kappa, Mortar Board, Alpha Kappa Delta, and Psi Chi. He joined the Race & Racism Project in the summer of 2018 as a part of Team Oral History and hopes to remain an active contributor and collaborator into and through the 2018-2019 school year.

Left to right: Ayele d’Almeida, Mysia Perry, Jacob Roberson, and Barry Greene.

I went back and read my second blog post about my preparation for interviews. I’ll tell you what, it’s hard to believe my summer with the Race & Racism Project is almost over. When I think back about what I expected to happen and what all has actually come about, I am nothing short of pleased, proud, and thankful for the opportunity to have been on the inaugural Team Oral History. In the weeks since conducting my first interview, I have sat in on three more interviews as well as had the pleasure of being the main interviewer of Barry Greene (’72), UR’s first black residential student. My approach to Mr. Greene’s interview was much different from my approach to my interview with the Mitchells because unlike either of the Mitchells, I already had some preexisting knowledge of who Barry Greene was.

If you go to the University’s main “history” page, and scroll through the timeline, the only black people you’ll find pictured are: first, Mr. Greene (under 1964—the year black students were first admitted to night classes at University College), next you’ll see an unnamed basketball player in the background of an 1988 shot, followed by Leland Melvin (’86) going to space and the Spider football team winning the national championship in 2008, and finally in 2015 our current university president, Dr. Crutcher. You might be asking yourself why I felt the need to explain what you could easily search? Because you can search these names but what stories will you find? The master-narrative the University tells of its history differs from the counter-narratives as told by the neglected students—the black students in this case—themselves.

Thanks to the master-narrative of UR, I had a starting point with my archival research of Barry Greene. But still my knowledge of him was minimal at best. I knew his name, I knew he was the first black residential student, and, with knowing what years he attended (compared to my misinformation of Mr. Mitchell), I could locate him in yearbooks and even by searching him in the Collegian online. The only reason that I was even more aware of Mr. Greene prior to this summer was because I gave a presentation involving the history of black students and black students-athletes at UR with some peers in 2017. This was when I first became aware of not only UR’s Race & Racism Project, but also of whom Barry Greene was and just how recent this monumental moment in the University’s history was. It was my exposure to that helped me realize how much of the University’s history was hidden and required intentional, extensive digging and research.

But with the Mitchells, I had no point of reference at all; which, don’t get me wrong, is a part of the fun and excitement of research, but it also is nice to know who and what you’re looking for at times. It now dawns on me that in doing that research, specific toward uncovering black student athletes and their stories, never did I come across Mr. Mitchell or even stories of his black football teammates from 1976 to 1980. It is reflective and inquisitive moments like this that reaffirms to me how important the Race and Racism project and, in particular, this new oral history component we are undergoing is. By uncovering, detailing, and publishing counter-narratives to the University’s history, we as a project are enabling future students, professors, and knowledge seekers alike to learn through and gain a more holistic lens; a diverse lens with which they hopefully use to spread the complete truth.

Thanks to gracious alumni such as the Mitchells and Mr. Greene, with their interviews, them telling their own stories, we are able to learn more about the students they paved the way for, and those who have since paved the way for us today. Why they chose to come to the University of Richmond, what struggles they faced while here, would they do it all again if they could? These are just some of the questions we have gone into detail with our interviewees. And, at least in the interviews I have sat in, I have not left disappointed or unsatisfied. The alumni are friendly and excited about what we are doing, which of course always helps, and I am just as excited to get their stories out to the world. However, as excited as I may be, I am careful and conscious to always keep in mind that these are in fact their stories, as I made a point to emphasize earlier. So when it comes to the editing process and deciding what to include and not include in a 5 to 10 minute podcast, well, as you might imagine there is not a shortage of information to include. The hardest part is figuring out, “Okay, what is the story or overall theme they left me with in their answers,” and then properly and appropriately discerning what to include from there. The whole reason for the addition of the oral history component to the project is to give voice to these stories that so often have been, and still are, silenced or neglected. Without handling their stories with appropriate care, my team and I could just as easily perpetuate this ignored narrative.

Thankfully, so far, I have had success in this discernment process, receiving positive feedback from both peers and the alumni themselves. All of us on Team Oral History have for that matter. I have great gratitude for and great faith in the future of this project. I simply hope the institution (the University of Richmond) recognizes its (the Race & Racism Project’s) importance as much as me and you reading this do. Again, this experience this summer has been amazing and fruitful in numerous ways, and look forward to contributing to a more complete history of the University of Richmond for years to come.

Jacob’s final podcast and the full oral history interview with Barry Greene and the Mitchells will be available on in October 2018–please follow us here and on social media (TwitterInstagramFacebook) to know when interviews go live.