Breanna Reeves |
From the Editor:
“An earlier version of this article incorrectly quoted one of the first Black persons in San Bernardino as being a Freemason. Biddy Mason was actually the name of the woman who was brought to San Bernardino as an enslaved person by the Mormons.”
Initially established in 2007 by Wilmer Amina Carter and her late husband, William Henry “Ratibu” Jacocks, “The Bridges that Carried Us Over” oral histories archive project is being reinvigorated with the help of Professor Jennifer Tilton of the University of Redlands and her students.
The project was launched by the Wilmer Amina Carter Foundation and from its inception has been a collaborative effort between the foundation and local community organizations. Co-sponsors of the project include Black Voice News, REST Program at the University of Riverside, California (UCR), COPE, NexGen United, UCR Public History and Second Baptist Church.
Tilton joined the project after former Assemblymember Cheryl Brown mentioned the work Carter and Jacocks had been doing. Despite doing her own research on local Black and Brown histories, Tilton was always frustrated that more articles and resources weren’t available for her students.
“And so that was sort of the origin of realizing that both Ratibu and Amina had done all of this work with other community members, collecting oral histories and collecting archival materials,” said Tilton. “And I knew that I wanted to try to support that effort.”
Connecting students with local Black history
Tilton teaches courses on Race and Ethnic Studies and a course called “Black History of the Inland Empire.” Students from her class participate in the collaboration as a way of educating themselves and helping to publicize local oral histories by recording and transcribing interviews and helping to identify narratives that may emerge.
“In some ways, I developed the class out of an interest to think about how students could be engaged in the project of recording stories (and) recording some oral histories and helping to build that archive,” said Tilton. “And then thinking about how we could tell those stories publicly. So, that’s sort of the path to the class.”
Students working on the project have helped transcribe nearly 50 interviews that had already been recorded by Carter and community partners. Some collections of stories and images identified by Tilton, her students and the University of Redlands Program in Race and Ethnic Studies have been shared using StoryMaps.
“I feel like what we’re doing is helping to finish some of those oral histories and then do the labor-intensive work of transcribing those interviews and then lifting up pieces of those stories to share more publicly which is something the archive has been doing all along,” Tilton said. “But we’re also trying to think about how to do that on a kind of bigger scale. And we’ve brought in other folks into the collaboration.”
The relaunch of the project is being done in partnership with the California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB) John M. Pfau Library. Joining the collaboration is History Professor Marc Robinson of CSUSB. Robinson was welcomed to the project after hearing about the partnership and reaching out to Tilton last year during Black History Month.
“I think I can be the bridge to make sure that Cal State San Bernardino and the larger African American community are in communication and collaboration and working together,” said Robinson.
Robinson has been teaching at CSUSB for about four years and while he does not consider himself an expert in the history of the Black Inland Empire community, his background in African American history and interest in learning more about the local region where he works adds to his commitment to contributing to the oral histories project.
“I have a background in African American history and so in terms of thinking about what are some larger trends over time, you know, how does the story of the Inland Empire’s Black community fit in to broader traditions of struggle or traditions of African American achievement, I can offer comments and observations in that regard, of course,” said Robinson.
Bringing history to the present
The project is labor-intensive and has no clear end date, but Tilton hopes that as the archive grows and interviews are completed that the public will be able to access the materials and that teachers will also implement these histories into their curriculum.
“It’s sort of a work that could be endless because every oral history you do, raises more people that you could try to interview,” Tilton explained.
Some people are interviewed and then re-interviewed in order to capture the depth of their stories and histories. Local Black leader Lois Carson was re-interviewed to document more about Carson’s personal history and activism in San Bernardino.
“We interviewed her again, I think, three or four days before she died,” said Tilton. “And she was wonderful and really shared some powerful memories and stories, particularly some of the civil rights struggles for fair housing that she had been engaged in, in the ‘60s and ‘70s.”
“Overall, I think a long-term vision would be that Black history in the Inland Empire would be very visible,” said Tilton. “(Amina) started this project because when she read a history book of San Bernardino, there were no Black people in it, except for Biddy Mason who came with the Mormons as an enslaved person. And she was deeply frustrated by that glaring absence.”
“Overall, I think a long term vision would be that Black history in the Inland Empire would be very visible,” said Tilton. “(Amina) started this project because when she read a history book of San Bernardino, there were no Black people in it, except for one of the FreeMasons who came with the Mormons as an enslaved person. And she was deeply frustrated by that glaring absence.”
“My fundamental hope is that no one could write that kind of book again because it would be too easy to find the rich stories of Black contributions to the Inland Empire.”
Robinson hopes his participation in the project will help honor and affirm the community as more stories surface among the archives. He hopes the project will encourage more collaborations between the community and the university.
“My involvement in this project is definitely coming from a spirit of really wanting to invest in the local community here and really wanting to, as I said before, make sure that our university is doing what we can to inspire, to motivate, to serve those who live in this area,” explained Robinson.
Breanna Reeves is a reporter in Riverside, California, and uses data-driven reporting to cover issues that affect the lives of Black Californians. Breanna joins Black Voice News as a Report for America Corps member. Previously, Breanna reported on activism and social inequality in San Francisco and Los Angeles, her hometown. Breanna graduated from San Francisco State University with a bachelor’s degree in Print & Online Journalism. She received her master’s degree in Politics and Communication from the London School of Economics. Contact Breanna with tips, comments or concerns at firstname.lastname@example.org or via twitter @_breereeves.