African American communities impacted by racial terror lynchings will now have a place to tell their stories, thanks to an ambitious Arkansas project.
Arkansas Project Seeks to Amplify Black Voices of the South with Whiting Foundation Seed Grant
African American families and communities impacted by racial terror lynchings will now have a place to tell their stories, thanks to an ambitious Arkansas project that seeks to amplify the Black voices in the Washington and Pulaski counties.
Dr. Valandra, an associate professor at the University of Arkansas, recently received the Whiting Public Engagement Seed Grant to pursue her project, ‘African American Oral Histories and Placemaking in Washington & Pulaski Counties.’
“One of the purposes of this project is to create public narratives about African American life experiences based on the common and unique ways African Americans define their lives and sustain their histories, culture, and traditions. Many times when Black life is depicted, it is done by people who are not a part of that lived experience. For example, scholars outside of Black communities will describe Black life, neighborhoods, or living based on their external lens. A major goal of this project is for Black people to define that for themselves and create their own narratives,” said Dr. Valandra.
The African American Oral Histories and Placemaking in Washington & Pulaski Counties project is referred to as phase two of the Washington County community remembrance project that began in 2018.
The project started in coalition with the Equal Justice Initiative to create a memorial marker for three African American men who were lynched in Washington County in 1856. In addition to having a memorial marker in the county, part of the mission is to give space for the relatives and descendants of people who experienced racial trauma to share their stories with community members. The goal is to have frank conversations about racial trauma and how it manifests itself in current times.
Pulaski County was invited to participate in the project to shed light on their memorial marker honoring the life of John Carter, a Black man who was lynched in 1927.
The project also invites Black residents of Washington and Pulaski counties to share their beliefs about publicly remembering and memorializing racial terror victims and lynchings.
“A project like this gives me an opportunity to meet with other Black people to hear about their lived experiences and to share my own,” said Dr. Valandra. “It’s not just the one-on-one interview, it’s a conversation. I get to connect with people and share our collective humanity through this project. And, I hope to offer individuals an opportunity and the space to share their truth how they want to.”
The project will be broken down into three parts. The first one is the memorial markers. The second phase is the stories of Black life, resilience, and racial trauma told from the perspective of the Black families. Part three of the project will ask people how they cope with and heal from histories of racial trauma.
Part of the inspiration for the project comes from Dr. Valandra’s personal family roots in Arkansas. Her maternal grandparents are from the state, and she has traced her lineage back to Helena, Arkansas, where her great, great, great grandmother settled in 1870. Her grandparents were born in 1919 in Marianna and Wheatley, AR.
“I’m in the process of doing my own family genealogy and discovering the lived experiences of my own family and recognizing that, as Black people, we have a very rich history in Arkansas. But those stories are not always framed through the lens of our own voices,” said Dr. Valandra.
The project will involve community organizations, including the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), the Washington County Community Remembrance Project, Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, the Fayetteville Public Library, Arkansas Soul, Visionaire Enterprises, and the Arkansas Peace and Justice Memorial Movement.
Organizers will also invite Black residents of the two counties to be a part of an advisory committee to help shape the public engagement project and have a say in how their stories are told. The project will also include a website and K-12 educational materials.
“One of the things I really appreciate about this project is the collaboration and partnership between organizations that live in these communities. They have walked the life of Black people in this state and in the Washington and Pulaski Counties. It is uplifting and creates a more authentic narrative, a narrative that’s grounded in grassroots activism, resilience, and persistence,” said Dr. Valandra. “I feel happy, privileged, and honored to be able to work on this project.”
The grant will serve to provide financial support to the organizations and participants involved in the project. In addition, all interviewees for the project will receive a $100 stipend for their participation.
While the stipend does not cover the time, attention, and energy people will provide to the project, said Dr. Valandra, scholars have a long history of going into communities of color and just taking without giving back. The grant will help give back to the community, even if it’s a small contribution.
In addition, the grant will help shed light on the project on a national level. The Whiting Foundation will publish and disseminate some of the stories from the project on their national website, amplifying Black people’s stories as told by them.
The first part of the project is to connect with the community in Washington and Pulaski Counties and the organizations that are involved to begin the early stages of publicizing, recruiting, and meeting with residents.
The art installation piece and promotional material for the gallery talk are scheduled for Spring-Summer of 2023. The gallery talk will include stories from individuals in the community who want to share their lives.
By the fall of 2023, project organizers will be working on developing the K through 12 educational materials based on the content from the interviews. Promotion for the material will be done through the Spring of 2024.
“The biggest success of this project will be when people hear, see, or talk about Black lives; it will be knowing that these stories are produced and grounded in the lived experiences of the people who have lived here, not people who are on the outside looking in,” said Dr. Valandra.
Project organizers hope that the project inspires people in other counties to be aware of their racial histories and remember and honor the lives of individuals who have been victimized by racial terror in the state.
“We’re planting the seed. We hope that we might be able to interview long-term Black residents in other counties about the richness of their lives, the challenges they face, and how they honor their culture,” said Dr. Valandra.
“I want to continue to build on [past historians who amplified Black voices], create a legacy and a new way of really amplifying the lives of communities of color; the richness of our lives in this project gives me an opportunity to do that.” If you’re interested in participating in the project or would like more information, you can reach out to Dr. Valandra, African American Oral History Project Coordinator, at Valandra@uark.edu or 479-575 -2460.