Oral History Project Oberlin in Africa Town, 2014-2019

Janet Fiskio of Oberlin College

By: Janet Fiskio (Associate Professor, Environmental Studies and Comparative American Studies at Oberlin College)

In July 2014, I volunteered at the Tar Sands Healing Walk, a ceremony and prayer for the healing of the earth led by First Nations in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. I had travelled to the Healing Walk to learn more about the environmental justice impacts of tar sands production on communities of color. Tar sands are a form of fossil fuel that are more polluting than conventional oil. When on a tour of Detroit with my students led by local activists, I learned that there were tar sands refineries throughout the Rust Belt where I live; in Detroit, we saw a processing plant located in an African American neighborhood. My job at the Healing Walk was to coordinate the registration table, which gave me the opportunity to meet and welcome allies from across North America. This is how I met Mrs. Mae Jones, Mrs. Louise Moorer, and Ramsey Sprague, who had travelled to the Healing Walk representing the Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition (MEJAC). The organizers invited the Africatown elders to share their story, and this is how I learned about Africatown.

I was so moved by the story of Africatown’s unique history and current struggle against environmental racism, including a tar sands pipeline and tank farm, that I invited Major Joe Womack and Donna Mitchell to Oberlin in Fall 2014 to tell us more about Africatown’s history, present, and hopes for the future. When I asked what Oberlin could do to support Africatown’s work for justice, Major Joe invited me to bring students for our spring break 2015 to learn and volunteer. Since then, I have returned to Africatown with students seven times, and students have returned independently for Winter Term projects and attended the MCTS 50th reunion this past Thanksgiving. We’ve gone door to door conducting surveys, recorded oral history interviews, scanned archival documents, presented research projects, attended community meetings and church services–and learned more than I ever could have imagined.

In October 2017, with the support of a grant from the National Science Foundation Arctic Social Sciences Program, the MCTS AA, and MEJAC, we held a community history workshop at Union Baptist Church, led by the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida. The goal was to train community members and Oberlin faculty and students in best practices for oral history research, and to develop relationships with Iñupiat elders from Alaska who are also impacted by climate change and environmental injustice. With this grant, we purchased recording equipment and an archival-quality portable digital scanner, now the property of the MCTS AA. My students, Oberlin librarians, and I are building a website, the Africatown Digital Archive, where we will upload the video interviews, audio recordings, and scanned photographs and documents so that they are publicly accessible to everyone in the Africatown community and beyond.

Looking to the future, we hope to continue collaborating with the MCTS AA on the oral history project, and to recruit local youth to interview elders and become stewards of their proud history. We are also working to develop new grant proposals to continue our oral history work and engagement with the community. What is most essential is that the Africatown community direct and guide our work. Africatown’s willingness to welcome us and the hospitality we’ve been shown have been transformative for me as a teacher, researcher, and citizen, and has had a deep impact on Oberlin students. I am profoundly grateful to all of you who have so generously shared your time and insights, and I look forward to many more years of friendship between our communities.