Philadelphia Immigration is a collaboration between students in West Chester University’s spring 2018 HIS 480: Digital History, HON 451: Immigration and Digital Storytelling, Professors Janneken Smucker and Charles Hardy, archival partner Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries, and numerous regional institutions who have generously supported the project.
In the early 1980s my West Chester University History Department colleague Charles Hardy interviewed aging Philadelphians, many of whom had settled in the city after emigrating from Europe around the turn of the twentieth century. Hardy used these oral histories to produce I Remember When: Times Gone But Not Forgotten, a series of 13, 30-40 minute radio documentaries broadcast on WHYY in 1982-83. The programs—think of them as nascent podcasts—explored the history of Philadelphia during its industrial heyday through the memories of those who had lived through it. But the audio cassette tapes sat in Hardy’s basement for the next 35 years. Extending our partnership with the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries, Hardy transferred ownership of the tapes so the Nunn Center could digitize them.
Each student worked closely with one interview, getting to intimately connect with the experiences of a young person growing up in the Jewish Quarter, in South Philadelphia’s Italian enclaves, in the Polish neighborhood of Port Richmond, or in row houses clustered among the factories of Kensington. Using OHMS (Oral History Metadata Synchronizer), an open source platform developed by the Nunn Center, students curated the interviews, making the audio searchable, situating interview segments in space through GPS coordinates, and adding period photographs that illustrate the interviewees’ recollections. Students then created exhibits about the interviewees’ lives using photographs and other primary sources generously lent from local archives with rich collections from this era, including Temple University’s Special Collections Library, Hagley Museum and Library, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and The Library Company of Philadelphia. Students then produced digital storytelling projects centered on themes including the Stetson Hat Company, the influenza pandemic, assimilation and ethnic identity, and the types of work immigrants found in Philadelphia. I have great pride in the work all of our students created, but perhaps the short video produced by a team of students focused on Stetson best exemplifies what is possible when we set the bar high and given students great autonomy to be creative. Leonard Lederman, the lead student who created the video, edited it from excerpts of a silent “industrial film” created by the Stetson Hat Company in the 1920s, with narration by individuals who recalled in their oral history interviews the details of the hat making process, along with period music. Lederman and fellow student Nicole Strunk joined Hardy and me to present a mini-workshop on strategies for using archival oral history in the college classroom to produce digital projects at the recent meeting of the Oral History Association (see Scholarship narrative for details). Strunk also presented with me and Hardy at Lehigh University in April and with me at the 2018 meeting of the Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region in Washington D.C. Having students take ownership of their scholarship in these public settings was rewarding to me as their professor, and empowering to them as they develop professional identities as burgeoning historians.
In Spring 2019, we are continuing the project, exploring these same themes within a 21st century context. Today, one out of four Philadelphians is a first- or second-generation immigrant. We are partnering with the Free Library of Philadelphia to conduct new oral history interviews in contemporary immigrant communities, creating the next layer of the Philadelphia Immigration digital project. In 2020, students will work on a new wave of digital storytelling projects that compare and contrast immigrant life experiences separated by 100 years—in the early 1900s and early 2000s.
Read more about Philadelphia Immigration on Hidden City Philadelphia.