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Birmingham's African-American stories have home at UAB

Posted Jan 16 2013 9:56am

Michelle Clemon and her father, U.W. Clemon
Michelle Clemon knew her father, U.W. Clemon , was a history maker, but it wasn’t until she sat down with him in a recording booth that she learned the stories behind his story.

“The history books tell a lot,” she said of her father, who retired as Alabama’s first black federal judge, “but the equally meaningful story is how his mother influenced him. In all the years, we never had a conversation like that.”

Their candid and touching interview, along with nine others, will be featured Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013, during an open house at the state-of-the-art Digital Media Commons , located on the third floor of the University of Alabama at Birmingham's (UAB) Heritage Hall. The event is from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.  and is free and open to the public. There also will be a reception from 4 to 5 p.m.

UAB students collaborated with the StoryCorps Griot Initiative to collect and edit interviews of Birmingham-area African-Americans in an effort to preserve their stories in an oral history collection. (Griot is a West African word meaning “storyteller.”) Interview subjects include civil-rights foot soldiers, a musician and poet, Birmingham Mayor William Bell and several others.

“I was blown away by the experience,” said Gabe Turner, a 21-year-old history major who worked on the project.

The Pinson native collected stories from residents of the historic Rosedale community, one of the first areas in Alabama where African-Americans could own land. Among them is an interview between two old buddies, Norman Floyd and Percy Harris.

The men laughed, joked and reminisced about growing up together in their old neighborhood. It was a delightful challenge for Turner to boil down their 45-minute conversation into a two-minute sound bite, but he feels good about the story he told.
Norman Floyd and Percy Harris

He captured the men’s chat about how a young Harris got in trouble for taking some chewing gum from the neighborhood store. The very worst thing that could have happened to him did: His mother found out. The young boy’s punishment was to take out the trash for the store owner for weeks.

Collecting stories like those makes history something that is living and breathing, Turner said. “It was more than just memorization.”

Clemon and her dad were both history majors and see the value of collecting family stories.

“I hope people will understand the importance of oral history and passing down your story,” she said. “It is important to know your own story, and you don’t know that until you sit down and talk.”

About the blogger: Marie Sutton,  masutton@uab.edu , is a media specialist in the  UAB Office of Media Relations . Her beat includes humanities, social sciences, the School of Education and student life.
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