Making a People's History: Community Archives and Movement Activism in ArkansasHistorians in the News
tags: archives, Arkansas, local history, community
Acadia Roher is a a graduate student in public history.
In the summer of 2015, I was standing in line for baked chicken and greens at a grassroots organizing training in a Uniontown, Alabama, church hall. Behind me was Anna Stitt, a new friend and fellow organizer from Arkansas. We had driven over with a small group from our home state to build connections with others involved in the Southern Movement Assembly, which is made up of frontline, grassroots organizations building strategy together in the South. Ahead of us in line was an older woman I knew only by reputation: Suzanne Pharr, author of nationally lauded books and co-founder of a powerhouse Southern queer liberation organization. When she heard we were from Arkansas, she told us that she had done some of the best organizing work of her life there, though she now lived in Tennessee. We were floored. We had no idea that in 1980 she had founded the Women’s Project, a multiracial feminist organization that fearlessly challenged the status quo in our state for decades.
Anna and I were independently part of organizations that sought to learn from social movement history in Arkansas, but these efforts were often thwarted by paywalls, academic siloes, and, perhaps most of all, limited connection to our elders. We had each eagerly studied what we could find on subjects like the Depression-era work of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and the socialist experiment of Commonwealth College. Meeting Suzanne highlighted how disconnected we were from so many of those who had transformed Arkansas’s political landscape before us. Anna and I began brainstorming ways to overcome these obstacles and realized that we would have to create the resources we needed. And so that weekend, in the sweltering Black Belt heat, the Arkansas People’s History Project took root.
The project seeks to do community-based history in reciprocal ways that strengthen intergenerational relationships, build skills, and shift power while challenging dominant narratives. Knowing the central role of personal relationships in organizing work, Anna and I began envisioning ways of uncovering and broadening awareness of hidden histories, and not in extractive ways that suck information out of communities without any follow-up, recompense, or ongoing commitment. The potential to support or spark movement work is one of the main criteria we use in identifying promising historical moments. Many of these overlooked histories, from sharecropper uprisings in the Delta in 1890 to labor organizing in Ozark poultry plants in 1990, are precedents for today’s struggles. Because organizers and our communities have been systematically disconnected from our own histories of resistance, we often tread these wagon ruts unaware.
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