Sharing the experiences of African American elders

A group of people walking along a road.

Margeret Block, center, shown walking with Dr. Stacy White (left) of Mississippi Valley State University, Sarah Blanc, project staff member, and former UF student Lauren Byers. Photo Credit: Smathers Libraries

Welcome to From Florida, a podcast where you’ll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovations become a reality because of the University of Florida. 

The Joel Buchanan Archive of African American Oral History includes 1,000 interviews with elders in Florida, Mississippi, Georgia and elsewhere about their experiences in the Civil Rights Movement and their efforts to establish churches, schools, businesses and build their communities. In this episode, Paul Ortiz and Sarah Moeller describe the archive and how they are using AI to make the stories more accessible. Produced by Nicci Brown, Brooke Adams and James L. Sullivan. Original music by Daniel Townsend, a doctoral candidate in music composition in the College of the Arts.

For more episodes of From Florida, click here.

Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where we share stories about the people, research and innovations taking place at the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

The University of Florida is home to a very unique archive, The Joel Buchanan Archive of African American Oral History, which contains interviews with African American elders throughout Florida and the wider Gulf South.

My guests today are Paul Ortiz and Sarah Moeller and we are going to talk about the archive's holdings, and the many ways the university is working to make the archive accessible to groups ranging from school children to researchers.

Paul is a history professor and director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the university. Sarah is an assistant professor of computational linguistics.

Welcome, Paul and Sarah.

Sarah Moeller: Thank you.

Paul Ortiz: Thank you.

Nicci Brown: Paul, I'm going to start with you. The archive bears the name of Joel Buchanan. Who was Joel? And, how did the archive get started?

Paul Ortiz: Joel Buchanan was a beloved member of our community, both on campus and in broader Gainesville. He was a leading Civil Rights activist, an amazing African American historian. He was in that first cohort of African American children who integrated Gainesville High School in 1964. It was a very difficult, in many ways, humiliating experience for him and he bore the scars of that. It was just incredibly difficult for African American children in this part of the country to be the first of their cohort to go into a white high school. In this case, in Gainesville, a lot of the teachers opposed him. He was attacked, beaten by fellow students. The white students accused the Black students of ruining their high school experience, etc, etc.

But Joel was a person who was able to use history as a way to reconciliation, I think. And, I first met him in the late ’90s. I was a grad student at Duke University and I came down telling people, ‘Hey, I'm interested in African American history.’ And people said, ‘Well, you have to talk to Joel Buchanan. He's the person.’ And at that time, Joel was working in Smathers Libraries as a subject librarian. And he took me around and helped me get started as an oral historian in this community. And he was very close with President Bernie Machen, a lot of people in the community. So, Joel was really our most distinguished local Black historian.

Nicci Brown: It sounds like he translated what was a very traumatic experience into something positive in many ways.

Paul Ortiz: Yes. Joel brought people together and he believed in reconciliation and people getting along, but he believed that you had to have the truth first. You had to be candid. You had to understand when terrible things had happened, how are we going to be able to come together? The first thing is the truth. Where did we come from? What was the experience of segregation like for Black people? What was the white response?

A close up photo of a man speaking.

Paul Ortiz is a history professor and director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the Univerrsity of Florida. Photo Credit: Paul Ortiz

Nicci Brown: And can you tell us a little bit more about how it actually expanded since the start and what kinds of stories it now contains?

Paul Ortiz: That's a really good question. Joel wanted us to start locally and then kind of radiate outwards if you will. And so, we really began doing a lot of oral history interviews in Gainesville proper, Alachua County. We moved down to Marion over to Putnam, St. Johns, Miami, but then we also began moving outside of the state.

And so, The Joel Buchanan Archive features these amazing oral history interviews of African American elders in Florida, but also in Southern Louisiana, up and down the whole Mississippi Delta, Georgia. Many of the people we interviewed who grew up in Florida now also live in other parts of the world. And, so some of the interviews are international. We have a growing strength, for example, in oral histories with individuals who migrated from different parts of the Caribbean or Latin America. And so, the collection just continues to grow. The Joel Buchanan Archive now has well over 1,000 oral history interviews. And, it's one of the most heavily used collections in the University of Florida Digital Collection, or the UFDC.

Nicci Brown: How do you decide what stories to collect? Are you focused on a particular subject or a type of person or geographical area? You mentioned that that's quite broad if you're talking in terms of geography.

Paul Ortiz: It's very broad. And, the question you just asked me is a question we ask ourselves almost every day in the Oral History Program, because we have so many interviewers and our students do the interview work and there's nearly unlimited number of people that we like to talk to. But we decided early on to really focus on issues like institution building. That is, men and women who are involved in building institutions, like, say, churches, businesses, labor unions, kind of institutional leaders, but also the types of experiences.

Another big issue, because we are a research university, a lot of our colleagues would give us research questions. And so, one of the questions from colleagues at the College of Education from the outset was, ‘Take us inside a Black high school classroom in 1949. Tell us what students were learning, what they were being taught. What were the limitations? What were the possibilities? Tell us why African Americans are very adamant about holding onto the histories of Black high schools?’

Black Alumni Associations now are a big thing all throughout the country, but especially in the South. What explains that connection that African American elders in their early 90s still have to their high school alma maters, even if they graduated in, like, 1949? And so, education, business, politics, the early Civil Rights Movement.
Another thing we wanted to do as researchers was to establish the fact that African Americans built incredibly vibrant Civil Rights Movements in Florida, all across the state. So, the origins of Civil Rights Movement questions were a big part of that early research agenda.

Nicci Brown: Sarah, your area of expertise is computational linguistics and I understand you're using artificial intelligence to analyze the archive. Tell us what you're doing and what, maybe, some of the challenges are and what makes the artificial intelligence aspect of it so important.

Sarah Moeller: Well, if you think about having all of these oral histories, right? So, they're recorded and then one of the things that happens is they get transcribed. And, there's a lot of information, a lot of very valuable information for history and really for linguistics as well because it's representing the way that African Americans speak. So, the unique way that they speak and I'm not an expert on it, but I could talk about the uniqueness of it. It's all represented there in the transcript. It's represented there in the recordings. But, if you think of having a document of someone talking, how are you going to get that information?

If you're looking for information on Civil Rights or on the role of Black churches in the history of Florida, most people, ‘Well, okay, I can open up a Word document. I can do a control F and I can search for a term.’ Which will get you so far, but there's a lot of tools out there already that are so much smarter than that. So, what we're trying to do is apply some of these tools, for example, to automate, finding out what is this document about? What is this oral history about? What are the main themes that are discussed in this history? And, for example, if we're looking for something on desegregation, which of these oral histories are talking about that? Which of them would be most prominent, most important, most helpful if you're wanting to learn about that?

So, we can do things like what's called topic modeling to do that. And, then some of the stuff that we have to do to make some other tools work, simple things like tagging words with part of speech automatically, which might sound fairly easy, right? You're tagging ‘This is a verb, this is a noun.’ But, actually if you set some native speakers on that task, they would probably only come to 97% agreement because once you put it into spoken language, things get really ambiguous. So, we have models that can do that almost as accurate as humans.

A portrait of a woman.

Sarah Moeller is an assistant professor of computational linguistics at the University of Florida. Photo Credit: Sarah Moeller

Nicci Brown: Do you mean assessing it by the context that's surrounding particular words?

Sarah Moeller: Yeah, that's exactly what's happening. Basically, these are statistical models and machine learning models that are looking at the context and determining, for example, what is the part of speech? We can also extract what are called named entities, which is a bit more sophisticated than just finding proper names. But the computer can say, well, this is a person's name. This is an organization. This is a time or a date. You can imagine with history how important those things are, to automatically pull that out, not just by recognizing, oh, it's capitalized, which is how we might think about finding a proper name, but the context surrounding it.

Nicci Brown: And you mentioned before, the very unique way that African Americans spoke back in other times and to this day as well. So, I would imagine that goes into the programming when you're trying to tag things.

Sarah Moeller: So, this is one of the challenges we have because English is a language that people who work in computational linguistics, or it's also called natural language processing, have worked on. There's all sorts of models, all sorts of tools, all sorts of pre-trained models out there. It's covered in my class, Google's released a model for kind of a way of finding out the meaning of a word, roughly speaking. The computer can figure that out and they trained it on billions of words, taking it from the internet or books. But the problem is the results are dependent on the data you have available in that training. And, all of these models for English do not have a good representation of African American ways of speaking.

And so, to try to apply them and get the same kind of good results on these oral histories is we don't expect them and we haven't seen that they work quite as well. So, one of the challenges we have is how to identify in the text those unique ways of speaking and hopefully get the models to recognize them so we can work with them. And, then we hope that this would provide some training and some resources for other people to create, for example, speech recognition. That's another thing, a voice-to-text application that can understand African Americans and not just general newscaster English, if you will.

Nicci Brown: Yeah. And to be clear, this is a part of the vocabulary that African American culture has, so it's not like this is the only way that they speak. But it's about these particular conversations and picking up when African Americans are talking with one another and this terminology that they might use.

Sarah Moeller: Yeah. And, it's not all African Americans speak this way. Not all African Americans speak this way all the time, but it is a unique way of speaking. And, it's also much more than just, say, different words or different pronunciation words. There's actually a unique grammatical system that they use, which is sophisticated in its own way. One of the interesting things that they don't always use these ways of speaking in the oral history. So, when do they appear? When do we see these features? For example, habitual be, using the ‘be’ to mean habitual action. What makes it appear? So, all sorts of interesting questions come out from that.

Just one of them was, well, maybe it has to do with the interviewer. Having a certain interviewer has the ability to make somebody feel at ease, so they relax. And I might start talking with you like I maybe would with my mother or my sister, and be like, ‘Hmm. Yeah,’ and just go back into this more natural way of speaking at home, opposed to a formal way of speaking, or I might say, ‘Yes, ma'am’ and ‘That's right.’ How do we get these? Where do they appear? When do they appear? How often do they appear? And, maybe from that learn how we can help people like Paul and his team interview people in a way that brings out these unique, rare and fascinating features in language.

Nicci Brown: Yeah. It makes complete sense when you think about it in that way. Paul, is there a lot of interest in the archive? I've got to imagine that there is. And if so, how are researchers and others using this information?

Paul Ortiz: Well, this collaboration is already making it easier for researchers and educators to use this archive. This is one of the most popular archives at Smathers Libraries and it's quickly becoming one of the most popular African American history repositories in the nation. Now, the challenge, though, is that when I say that I'm talking about university based researchers from the U.S. and abroad, who are working on different topics in Black studies or African American history or arts, culture, political science, etc., etc.

But if you're a K-12 educator in the state of Florida and you want to access these oral histories, that's a challenge because you're already overburdened with lesson plans, testing, etc., etc. And, it isn't good enough for me to just do an oral history with this amazing Civil Rights activist and say, ‘Hey. Here, listen to this two-hour interview.’ The teacher doesn't have time to do that.

So, this is where Sarah's team and then one of our other leaders, Dr. Rebekah Cordova who's our education coordinator, are really making this archive much more accessible. Part of the outcome of this project is going to be the creation of lesson plans for K-12 educators who are interested in plugging in certain themes throughout the course of the entire school year. Not just Black History Month and not just about what we might think of as traditional Black history, but the role that African Americans played in STEM learning, say, in the 1950s. How was math taught in Black schools and a whole raft of topics that currently we're not getting those out there. In other words, we're not translating well the cutting-edge research we do here at UF on Black history, we're not getting that out to say Hialeah High School in South Florida, or Palatka High School. And that's really what we want to do with this collaboration, is making it much easier for us to kind of break down those complex narratives and get them into classrooms, both in Florida and throughout the world.

Nicci Brown: And in so doing, I imagine giving those students a far more integrated view of what the history is and helping them to better understand the history.

Paul Ortiz: Exactly. And there's so much hunger here for this kind of history, especially the kind of area specific. And so teachers in Palatka, for example, often ask us, ‘Hey, we love your narratives, but do you have material on Palatka or Putnam County or Northeast Central Florida?’ Right? And so, these types of algorithms and new research tools that Sarah's team is really leading us on and then Dr. Cordova's education team and then also our dear colleagues in the libraries. Let's not forget. This is a wonderful project, talking about reanimating African American Oral History, I think because it's so collaborative. I was trained as a historian and I have a certain kind of training, but I'm not trained in linguistics. I'm not trained in curriculum development. I'm not trained in archival studies. And so, to be part of this research team is so exciting for me and I've learned so much.

Nicci Brown: How many people are on the team? Is there a way for you to actually quantify that? Or is that the $64,000 question?

Paul Ortiz: It's undergraduates at UF, who are essentially, Sarah can correct me if I'm wrong about this, but we have undergraduates at UF working on this project who are getting a graduate student experience. They're kind of like graduate RAs. And we do also have graduate RAs and we have full-time faculty like Sarah, myself and also colleagues in the libraries, but it's an expanding team. Here's kind of an inside thing. Maybe I shouldn't say this out loud, but people are constantly asking me, ‘Hey, can I join this? I want to play with you guys!’

Nicci Brown: Are you sure you want to be on this podcast right now? You might get more inquiries.

Sarah Moeller: Well, there's so many questions we could be investigating. So, I say, ‘Yeah, come on. Come talk to us.’

A portrait of an African American woman.

Margaret Block was a key Civil Rights activist in Mississippi. Photo Credit: Smathers Libraries

Nicci Brown: Sounds good to me. Well, we've been talking about some of the mechanics and what you're doing to evaluate things. But, let's talk a little bit about the stories that have to be just fascinating. Have there been any that are particularly inspiring or surprising that you've come across?

Paul Ortiz: How many hours do we have? Margaret Block is a person who was, at one point in her life, the project director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Bolivar County, Mississippi. So, she was a key Civil Rights activist. Her life was constantly under a threat. And the stories that she's told are students at UF, year after year, because for many years Miss Block was our guide into the Mississippi Delta and I would take van loads of UF students, drive to Bolivar County and then at that point we were in Margaret Block's hands. And, she would take us to talk to different Civil Rights movement leaders in the Mississippi Delta. And so, she literally adopted generations of UF students. Students just loved her.

And, if I get teary eyed, Margaret passed away a few years ago, it was very difficult for us. But one of the stories she told was about having to teach people in her community how to defend themselves from the Ku Klux Klan. And they had to learn how to make Molotov cocktails, for example. And, the students like, ‘Wow, you had to do that in the United States?’ And she's like, ‘Yes.’ And, she actually left Bolivar County late one evening, she was under a death threat by the Klan, she was hidden by her community, drove out in a car in the dead of night. So, there's a lot of stories like that about harrowing experiences that Black women in particular had.

I can also think of Laura Dixie. So, Mrs. Dixie, when she passed away a few years ago in Tallahassee, she was called the Mother of the Movement in Tallahassee. And, Laura Dixie told these incredible stories about being a rank and file organizer for the Tallahassee bus boycott, which is one of the historic events of the Civil Rights Movement in this entire country and having to organize that boycott, again, against the threat of constant violence. This is a woman who was a certified nursing assistant. She founded the Hospital Workers Union in North Florida, but she also had to go to work armed because there were white supervisors who physically threatened her constantly. And so, she was never able to live the kind of free life that she made possible for other people to live. So, when you listen to Mrs. Dixie, you're listening to a person who made it possible for us to do so many things that we take for granted, one of them being voting.

And so, I think the thing that's really amazing for our students to hear these narratives is they'll say, ‘Well, I always took voting for granted. I just thought you could always vote.’ But, a lot of these interviews we have with people who were talking about the first time they ever tried to register to vote, the hostility. The other narrative that comes up, I’ll limit myself, one more.

So, John Dew, who recently became an honorary doctorate holder at the University of Florida, the university granted him an honorary doctorate two or three years ago.

As a young man, he went to Florida A&M Law School. And, he graduated in the early ’60s and the first thing he did after he graduated from law school was go to McComb, Mississippi, and take depositions of African Americans who had been denied the right to vote. Some of our listeners have probably seen the movie “Selma,” where there's that really powerful scene in the beginning where the African American woman is trying to register to vote. And, they keep on turning her away, turning her away, but she's persistent.

John was one of the people taking depositions to prove that people were being denied the right to vote. You had to prove it. You couldn’t just say anecdotally, ‘Oh, 100 people were denied the right to vote.’ He was beaten by the police. He was arrested multiple times. And, just thinking about him as a young law graduate, his first job, going to McComb, Mississippi, and taking depositions from Black people denied the right to vote, what courage. Just incredible. And so The Joel Buchanan Archive of African American Oral History at UF is full of those types of amazing stories. You could listen to it for years and they're inspiring. They're dramatic. They're tragic. They're joyful. They will bring tears to your eyes. It's unlike any other archive I've ever done research in.

Nicci Brown: Sarah, what are some of the things that you hear from the students who are actually involved in this project? We’ve heard about some of the surprises but anything else that really springs to your mind?

Sarah Moeller: First of all, I'll say on the linguistics team we have some really great students. We have two undergraduates, linguistic majors, and two graduate students and they've been doing a really excellent job. They've had to do some tedious work, marking up the transcripts and moving little lines on the computer to get the sentences and the transcripts matched up with the audio. And so we've talked a lot about the linguistic features, less about the content, but I do remember what was interesting to me.

So, one of the exciting things for me about this project on a larger scale is that it's training students in humanities to be ready for a job in the market with all the AI technology. So, there are linguistics and honestly there aren't a lot of jobs you can go into and just say, ‘I'm a linguist. Hire me.’ Because you're not necessarily just translating, you know, people think of linguists as translators. But this is people who analyze the language. So, a little bit less useful maybe, but more interesting.

One of the students, when I was talking with her about working with us on the project and about the qualifications, one of the things I said is, ‘One of the things we're looking for are native speakers of African American English.’ And, she kind of looked at me, kind of laughed a little bit. And later on in the conversation, she said, ‘I never thought about my ability to speak African American English as a job qualification.’ And I said, ‘Yes, it is. It's a unique way of speaking in and of itself. And, yeah, you're a linguist. It's a language. You should put it on your CV. It is a skill that you have.’ So, that was an exciting story for me to see, not from the oral histories, but to see the reaction of the students who are involved in the project and their growing realization of what they have to give as well as their growing skills as they work on it.

Nicci Brown: Absolutely. And I think it also is this reflection of the importance of AI across the curriculum, which is quite unique to the University of Florida and just how it is equipping our students to go out and practice their skills when they have jobs and be ready on Day One.

Paul, when we are thinking about the lesson plans for these K-12 students, are you envisioning that they'll actually hear the individuals that you've spoken with? That will be part of the experience for them?

Paul Ortiz: Yes. And we actually began, even before we received a grant, Dr. Rebekah Cordova was able to take some of our oral histories and kind of test this idea out. And, you're exactly right. As a writer, I love to write and read and everything like that. But after all these years doing oral history, I still radically underestimate the visceral power of listening to someone and the power that has on students. And, so one of the pilot projects was taking some of the oral histories of African American elders who'd been involved in STEM-related fields, medicine, nursing, science, etc., etc. and taking those in and actually having students in high schools listen to them.

And so, Rebekah did that a couple of years ago in the Duval County School System. And, they were used in a STEM research high school class. And, we were able to kind of watch and listen to these high school students respond to hearing someone who had been the first African American graduate of the College of Nursing, say, in the 1960s. And the response and the reaction of high school students to these interviews was remarkable. They began to say things like, ‘Well, you know, if Black people could overcome this adversity to become a doctor or a nurse in the 1960s, wow! That makes me even more committed to pursue this professional pathway.’

And again, that's something I kind of take for granted. I never thought of that, wow, this is a really powerful use of oral history. It can be used to really encourage people to go down a career pathway that maybe they didn't think of before.

Nicci Brown: Right.

Paul Ortiz: So, they're already kind of filtering out there, but this project, reanimating African American oral histories, is going to allow us, I think, to exponentially improve our ability to get those oral histories from UF into Florida's public school system.

Nicci Brown: So, empowering on many different kinds of levels.

Paul Ortiz: Yes.

Nicci Brown: Where can listeners find the archive?

Paul Ortiz: Well, there's a number of different ways. If you grew up in the analog era, as I did, you can actually go to George Smathers Libraries and listen to them there. Or, you can just log on to the UFDC, the University of Florida Digital Collections. And once you get there, you just type in Joel Buchanan Archive of African American Oral History and you're on your way. But see, as you're looking through the archive, you'll notice quickly why this project is so important because there are thousands of stories. And so, to me, the excitement of this project, again, is that one of the outcomes is going to be, it's going to be so much easier to navigate this extraordinary archive.

If I was retired, that's all I would do. I would just log out of this archive, listen to stories day after day after day. But obviously, you've got to write a dissertation or do a film documentary or a podcast. And so again, I think one of the promises of this project is it's going to allow you as an end user, if I can use that language for a moment, whether you're a teacher or a minister or a museum professional or a curator of any kind, it's going to allow you a much smoother entree into this enormous archive, into these special topics you may want to look at.

Nicci Brown: So, it will touch many different places.

Paul Ortiz: Yes.

Nicci Brown: Sarah and Paul, thank you so much for joining us today. It's been a real pleasure to learn more about the archive. And, good luck and stand by the phone. You might be getting some more volunteers!

Paul Ortiz: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Sarah Moeller: Thank you.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for another episode of From Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown. Our executive producer is Brooke Adams and our technical producer is James Sullivan.

From Florida April 12, 2022