Watch and Search Newly Digitized Conversations with 148 People Who Witnessed the Great Depression


In March of 1992, many years after pho­tog­ra­ph­er Dorothea Lange’s 1936 image of a migrant moth­er in Cal­i­for­nia (above) became one of the most icon­ic images from the Great Depres­sion, a cam­era crew sat down with two daugh­ters of the sub­ject of Lange’s pho­to. For about 40 min­utes, Nor­ma Rydlews­ki and Kather­ine McIn­tosh shared their sto­ries with Black­side, Inc., a com­pa­ny found­ed by award-win­ning film­mak­er Hen­ry Hamp­ton. In the footage and tran­script of that con­ver­sa­tion, acces­si­ble for the first time along with many more such inter­views through Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Libraries, the family’s dai­ly chal­lenges come to life. The sis­ters describe not only their strong, beau­ti­ful moth­er but every­thing from field work and play­ing with dirt clods as chil­dren to ear­ly union meet­ings and the eco­nom­i­cal “sav­ing grace” that was World War II.

When The Great Depres­sion, Blackside’s sev­en-part doc­u­men­tary series, debuted on PBS in Octo­ber of 1993, the pro­gram wove togeth­er short seg­ments from exten­sive inter­views with 148 peo­ple who expe­ri­enced the Great Depres­sion, includ­ing Rydlews­ki and McIn­tosh. As illu­mi­nat­ing as the doc­u­men­tary is in its own right, the many addi­tion­al hours of oral his­to­ry that Black­side record­ed in the process of cre­at­ing it are a trea­sure trove of pri­ma­ry source material—all of it now view­able, brows­able, and search­able online through the efforts of WU Libraries’ Visu­al Media Research Lab and Dig­i­tal Library Ser­vices (DLS).

The diverse range of indi­vid­u­als whose reflec­tions on the 1930s are now eas­i­ly acces­si­ble include a grand­son of Franklin D. and Eleanor Roo­sevelt, cel­e­brat­ed authors Maya Angelou and Gore Vidal, long­time New York Times polit­i­cal reporter War­ren Moscow, actors Karen Mor­ley and Ossie Davis, Mor­ton New­man, who worked on the Upton Sin­clair cam­paign for gov­er­nor in Cal­i­for­nia, and many more from all walks of life. The mul­ti­cul­tur­al, mul­ti­re­gion­al approach brings need­ed depth and col­or to an era that is often remem­bered and depict­ed as a mono­lith­ic event drag­ging the nation down for a decade, says Spe­cial Col­lec­tions assis­tant Ali­son Car­rick, who man­aged the work­flow of the dig­i­ti­za­tion project.

“When we think about the Great Depres­sion, images of the dust bowl and bread­lines imme­di­ate­ly come to mind,” Car­rick says. “And that is part of the his­to­ry Black­side cov­ered with this series, but they also revealed com­plex and live­ly sto­ries that are often overlooked—from union strug­gles, to heat­ed polit­i­cal cam­paigns, Works Progress Admin­is­tra­tion projects, the New Deal, and more. What Black­side man­aged to do with this series and these inter­views was to bring that peri­od of his­to­ry back to life in a vivid, engag­ing way.”

The intent behind The Great Depres­sion Inter­views project is to pro­vide a seam­less, pow­er­ful tool with much poten­tial for inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research.

“One of the best fea­tures of the site, thanks to DLS, is that it is text/keyword search­able,” Car­rick says. “This cre­ates a way for users to pin­point a sub­ject, name, or event and quick­ly look to see where it occurs in each tran­script. Our hope is that this fea­ture will lead users to oth­er tran­scripts they might not have thought con­tained sim­i­lar sub­ject mat­ter.”

This post was writ­ten by Evie Hemphill (@evhemphill), a writer and pho­tog­ra­ph­er for Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Libraries in St. Louis.

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