Oral Histories

Recap of 10/22/2019 Oral History Round Table

On Tuesday, October 22, the Cambridge Historical Society Oral History project team hosted a roundtable event at the Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House.

Diana Lempel, the Doing History curator at Cambridge Historical Society, led the oral history narrators, interviewers Katie Burke and Lina Raciukaitis, and Loop Lab recording team through a reflection on the Sweet Souls Oral History Project thus far. Together they discussed the history of the Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House (MFNH) and their connections to it.

Narrators George Greenidge, Selvin Chambers, and Marian Darlington Hope revisited some of the stories they shared in the oral history interviews. As a child, Selvin enjoyed the free breakfast program provided by the Black Panthers at MFNH. He recalled how the national media framed the Black Panthers as threatening, but his experience upended this depiction. Instead, he was grateful for the bacon, eggs, and orange juice he and other children received in the 1970s.

George Greenidge and Marian Darlington Hope remembered the summer camps organized by MFNH to Sharon, Massachusetts, where these trips “were an extension of the Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House.” They also mused on the “golden age” of parties in the MFNH basement, when the windows would fog up and they would dance to the music popular of that time.

Having also grown up with the MFNH and other Cambridge youth centers, Tevin Charles and Jeff Solomon from the Loop Lab team shared how many experiences described by the older generation mirrored their own—from dance parties to singing the same songs. Tevin also shared how playing sports connected kids from across different Cambridge youth centers who may not have interacted otherwise.

Following this reflection, audience members and the oral history project team sat at small tables and broke into group exercises. Each group brainstormed questions they would like to hear in future oral history interviews, as well as feedback for the project team.

Some of the questions generated included:

  • How and why were the other youth centers in Cambridge created? What was the relationship of these centers to MFNH?
  •  How was it decided that certain programs (workshops, food pantry, etc.) would/should be offered by the MFNH? Who initiated these programs?
  • What do you believe is the long-term sustainability/viability of the MFNH?

Attendees encouraged the oral history project team to:

  • Remember to ask about everyday engagement and small details.
  • Ask about place: where did the MFNH community spend their time, or not? What places were relevant/irrelevant in the community? And what spaces within MFNH hold specific memories?

These questions and feedback will help guide the oral history project team as they continue recording interviews in 2020. Our thanks to all who participated in this roundtable event, and to our oral history narrators, interviewers, Loop Lab, scholars Jane Becker and Diana Lempel, and oral history project manager Lynn Waskelis.

The Loop Lab filmed and photographed the event. Stay tuned for a link to the video soon.

This program is funded in part by Mass Humanities, which receives support from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and is an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Share Your Stories of Engagement!

Cambridge Historical Society logo

We need your help to unravel the questions that surround this year’s theme, “How Does Cambridge Engage?” How are you making a difference for the causes you believe in? How are you a part of history? Are historical events moving around you, or are they moving through you? Are you a part of the action? How will you leave your mark?

Tell us your stories of engagement in causes or historical movements below, and please share this with your friends!

“Sweet Souls” Oral History Project Underway

The Cambridge Historical Society has launched an oral history project, in partnership with the Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House and The Loop Lab. This summer, “Sweet Souls, Voices from the Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House in Cambridge” will be documenting the life stories of twelve people, or “narrators,” closely affiliated with the 117-year-old settlement house in the Port, using audio recordings and written transcripts. “Sweet Souls” is made possible through a $7,500 Mass Humanities grant, awarded to the Society in March.

The childhood home of Sarah Margaret Fuller, a noted author, feminist, and Transcendentalist, the Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House (MFNH) was established in 1902 as one of the first settlement houses in the United States. At the time, Cambridge factories were staffed mostly by recent immigrants, and their living conditions, in boarding and tenement houses, were dire. In keeping with the spirit of the Settlement House movement, MFNH was designed as an outpost of education and culture for these workers, and to ease class tensions.

In the years since its founding, MFNH has maintained the basic goals of a Settlement House: “To provide focus, education, recreation, and orientation for its surrounding community; to be the socializing vehicle whereby the middle class and working class could meet…” Volunteers and staff supplied food and clothing for women; organized day and rest trips for mothers; and helped women to find employment. Some of Cambridge’s first ESL classes took place at the MFNH, and the city’s first “Baby clinic” began there.  

In the 1930’s, boys learned wood-working at the MFNH while mothers and young girls practiced sewing and cooking. There were drama classes and community productions. In the 40’s, the house hosted a boxing ring, and in the 50’s and 60’s, teens from all over Cambridge came to Friday evening sock hops. In the early 70’s, the Black Panthers had a radio station on the third floor and sponsored Saturday morning father and son breakfasts in the basement.  The MFNH was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1984.

Today, MFNH remains a vital and vibrant part of Cambridge’s Port neighborhood, providing important services and essential resources for community residents. It also provides a reminder of the Port’s social history and struggles, a symbolic focus of pride and survival in one of Cambridge’s most dynamic and diverse areas.  

The “Sweet Souls” partnership brings together the constituencies of three Cambridge organizations in order to document and transmit significant local history. The history of the Fuller House provides a lens through which to trace the dynamics of Cambridge people engaging to support one another over time. “Sweet Souls” will contribute answers to the Society’s 2019 theme question, “How Does Cambridge Engage?” By listening, recording, and collaboratively interpreting these oral histories, we will gain a better understanding of how helping people meet their everyday needs can contribute to transformational change in a community.

The project will conclude in the fall 2019 with a Roundtable discussion where the narrators, the project team, and the public will discuss and interpret the twelve oral histories. Recordings of the histories, along with a video of the Roundtable, will be available on the Society’s website in early 2020.

“Sweet Souls” builds on the Society’s Caribbean Heritage in Cambridge oral history project, which resulted in interviews with nine Cambridge resident narrators who helped to answer the Society’s 2018 question “Where is Cambridge From?”

We need your help to bring this history to life! If you or people you know have been involved with the Fuller House and have stories to share, please connect us to them!  To find out more please contact:

  • Lynn Waskelis, Cambridge Historical Society, lwaskelis@cambridgehistory.org / 617-547-4252 OR
  • Scott Brigante, Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House, sbrigante@margaretfullerhouse.org / 617-547-4680

This program is funded in part by Mass Humanities, which receives support from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and is an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Caribbean Heritage in Cambridge

The 2018 Caribbean Heritage Oral History Project collected interviews of nine Cambridge people who were born in or have roots in the Caribbean as part of our year of asking “Where is Cambridge From?”

These interviews help us gain perspective on what it’s like to be both from Cambridge and from the Caribbean.

Read the Oral Histories here

East Cambridge Childhoods

In 2009, we interviewed four individuals about their experiences as children in East Cambridge. We wanted to document their experiences and use the opportunity of looking back at one’s childhood to draw out memories of Cambridge in a different time and reflect on how the city has changed.

The people selected were individuals who had grown up, at least partially, in East Cambridge. The questions were written, interviews conducted, and tapes transcribed by Michelle Freitas as a part of an internship with the Cambridge Historical Society.

Read the Oral Histories here

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