Listen Up For This New Oral History Project Capturing Black Life


courtesy of the Independence Seaport Museum

Philadelphia’s the Independence Seaport Museum (ISM) has a new multi-year project: “Breaking Uncommon Ground on the Delaware River.

This innovative “oral history project collects the personal narratives of Black Philadelphians who have worked or lived along the Delaware River waterfront.” Their stories are showcased “in a reinstallation of the museum’s exhibition Tides of Freedom: The African Presence on the Delaware River and in a permanent public archive.”

Museumgoers will be able to listen to powerful stories from the Black men and women who lived along the Delaware River in the 20th and 21st centuries, before they were displaced by Interstate 95 construction. The collection presents their “perspectives on organized labor, the impact of highway construction on waterfront neighborhoods, and the role of Black women in waterfront culture and work.”

Professor Darwin T. Turner described the significance of the oral history tradition within the Black community, explaining how “[o]ral history is important for still another reason. Recalling memorable events that will never be inscribed in history books, it reminds us that history is the story of the lives of human beings—not merely the record of great battles, changes of authority, and momentous discoveries.”

Artist teacher and Penn Museum’s resident storyteller Paul B. Best is spearheading this remarkable initiative. Best told ESSENCE, “Since its founding, the fabric of Philadelphia and its culture has been woven by Black lives. While there are many Black men and women of Philadelphia who have made significant impact on Black history in America, there are countless Black men and women whose everyday contributions to the identity of America have not been recorded, yet alone told.”

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“The Independence Seaport Museum acknowledges these gaps in our history, specifically concerning Black Presence on the Delaware River.,” continued Best. “‘Breaking Uncommon Ground’ is the active pursuit of collecting the stories of Black men and women whose presence created culture and sustained commerce along the Delaware River, and whose absence was forced due to the construction of I-95.”

“The significance of this project lies not only in the topics the stories cover, but the approach being used to receive and learn them,” Best stated. “I understand that the Black Oral Tradition has been a vehicle that has preserved the history of Black people throughout time and despite any technological advances, will always be the primary way we learn as a people.”

“This is not a scholarly pursuit. These stories will be received over hot coffee, on a park bench with dominoes, after church service, and over some freshly fried catfish and coleslaw. These stories are sacred, and reflects Black people’s lives,” Best added. “They will not be sold. They are a gift, and will be given to me as a result of relationship with these Black Elders and their descendants who carry them.”

Best is extremely passionate about his latest endeavor, saying “down the road when this expansion of Tides of Freedom is complete, I want the exhibit to be a fire that lights my people and all who experience it with a passion to find the stories within their own families and communities and actively tell them and put them on record. As the stories of my people are preserved, so shall we be.”



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