What questions should I ask my parents about their recollections of growing up in the civil rights era in Montgomery, Alabama?
August 21, 2011 1:48 PM   Subscribe

What questions should I ask my parents about their recollections of growing up in the civil rights era in Montgomery, Alabama?

My parents are in their late 50s, and both grew up in Montgomery, AL. While they were too young to remember the bus boycotts, I am interested in their getting a sense of their perspectives on everything that was going on at the time - both locally and nationwide. I'd really like to hear more about my grandparents' involvement/lack of involvement as well. My only living grandparents are quite closed-minded on issues of race (to put it nicely) and would not take kindly to questioning.

I'm close to my parents, but we don't discuss politics or current events much in my family. From what little I know of my family, I don't think my family was directly involved in anyway but I'm just curious to have a more first hand idea of the time. If I just ask them broadly to describe the time around they were growing up around the civil rights era, they'd probably give a very short, polite answer. I don't think they'd be opposed to talking more - I just need an opening question along with more concrete list of questions to ask to keep the conversation going. Of particular concern is how to gracefully deal with asking about my grandparents, who may have been on the wrong side of history. Thanks, mefi.
posted by quodlibet to Grab Bag (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Ask them about their schooldays. Don't put a civil rights slant to the question...just ask about school.

You'll end up with a LOT of questions...and they might not even realize what the focus of your questioning was. It'll get you all the info you want, without them trying to ham it up.
posted by hal_c_on at 1:52 PM on August 21, 2011

I think the key is to gently but persistently keep asking questions.

You: What was it like when you were growing up?
Parent: Oh, things were different then.
You: Different how?
Parent: Well, for one thing X and Y.
You: Wow. What was Y like for you?

Etc etc.
posted by bunderful at 1:58 PM on August 21, 2011

Have they read The Help by Kathryn Stockett, or seen the new movie version? It's set in Jackson, MS in the early 1960s. Chatting about the book or movie would lead naturally into their own memories of the time.
posted by Quietgal at 1:59 PM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm assuming from the way you've framed this that they are white.

I'm about 15 years younger and grew up in the same area. By the time I was in school, integration was a done deal (at least legally) and the worst of the kinks had been worked out with busing and the like. They, on the other hand, would have been schoolchildren as legal segregation was unraveling. That's the thing they would have noticed the most. They may or may not, depending on where exactly they lived, have really seen a lot of black students. As I recall (and I was not in the Montgomery school system; I lived in a suburb), Sidney Lanier High was a pivotal high school in this change - it went from being white-only to majority black in a relatively short time, and the neighborhood it was in went from being upper-middle-class solid white to being mixed and a combination of super-rich-mostly-white to middle-and-lower-middle-mostly-black in about that same timeframe (although the change in the neighborhood took place over a longer period. Lee was integrated but stayed more "white" longer, while even into the '80s Jefferson Davis High was very white and the students who lived in that neighborhood were reputed to be very well off. G.W. Carver high was and remained majority black; there is also a story to tell there of white students who were uprooted and sent there amid much resentment on both sides.

You might also ask them about a hostage situation that took place concerning the WXVI radio station in downtown Montgomery in the early '70s, if memory serves, and what they thought about Emory Folmar, who was mayor from 1977 to 1999

However, don't expect their memories to be as dramatic as you might think. While the oppression and racism was real enough, most people, black and white, were mainly trying to get on with their lives. Cameras don't show up unless something's on fire.

Given their age, you may find out some interesting stuff that *doesn't* make the history books much: how a deep south city practically dealt with the aftermath of the landmark decisions that you read about in the textbooks. At the risk of making a bad pun, it's not all as black and white as it sometimes seems.

DM me if you are interested in anything further.
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:12 PM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Seconding The Help. Great jumping-off point for discussions.
posted by pupstocks at 2:29 PM on August 21, 2011

If you're going to do this, I think you need to decide about your motivation. Are you genuinely curious? Or do you want to find out something that you can use as a stick to beat them with? If you think your grandparents were on the "wrong" side of history, can you keep an open mind and reserve judgment if you do hear their stories? It's very hard to do with family, I think, and I'm not sure that you're the best person to do their oral history, as it were. (I've done interviews for Shoah, and people told me things they'd not told their children, and didn't ever want their children to know.)

But maybe you could get them to participate in a local oral history project, and preserve their memories while keeping the family peace. You can always read the transcripts later.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:40 PM on August 21, 2011

I'm not sure why you need to be subtle. You say you don't discuss politics, etc., but what you're really after, it seems, is their personal experiences of growing up in the place and time they did. For what it's worth, I've had this same conversation with a parent who grew up near where your parents did. Asking them point blank how race relations changed during their youth, what personal memories they had of race relations in their area, triggered a storm of anecdotes, some less disturbing, some more disturbing. We were walking around their hometown at the time, and a lot of the places we passed evoked memories that they said they hadn't thought about in years. So, maybe that's one good way to do it -- to ask your parents to take you on a tour of places in Montgomery that were important to them when they were kids, and to ask how these places, and social relations in them, were different back then. But I see no harm in stating that one of your chief interests is trying to understand what the world was like back then, with experiences of desegregation a key focus. (Of course, you know your parents best, so YMMV!)
posted by artemisia at 4:15 PM on August 21, 2011

Perhaps some of the questions from StoryCorps' Great Questions List might be of help?
posted by sugarbomb at 4:17 PM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think the best way to get relatives talking about their youth is to make a project of it. Not just, hey, what was that like, but here's the tape recorder and a few sheets of questions that we'd like to help store your memories. I'd never been able to get my grandmother to talk much about her later childhood (after immigration, basically) before. But with a tape recorder and some gentle questions she was able to tell a lot (and also know that she doesn't have to have the conversation again, because I have the recording). Knowing that they only have to do it once can make it easier to delve into some of the more painful memories. (I'm only guessing about the painful aspect, but you said they've never talked about it before.)
posted by Margalo Epps at 4:25 PM on August 21, 2011

Here is the Smithsonian Guide to doing an Family Oral History Interview.
I think the Smithsonian is still collecting Oral Histories from American families.

Pages 22-27 have what you are looking for -
namely, what questions to ask, and how to approach certain subjects.
posted by Flood at 4:55 PM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the advice so far - really helpful. The StoryCorp and Smithsonian will help me develop some good direct questions. I haven't read The Help but my mom has so I may ask her about that. I have asked about their schools - but as randomkeystrike indicates they went to a pretty white, well to do high school and that didn't really spark any conversation.

Just to clarify - I have no desire to interview my grandparents - just ask my parents about my grandparents. It would not be a positive experience to speak to my grandparents about this.

As for motivation, I have no desire to stick it to them - not sure where that came from. Just genuinely interested in this time period and want to know more about my own family. No interest in the brazil nuts line of quesstioning. Never heard of that. But my grandparents unfortunately still freely use the N word amongst themselves.
posted by quodlibet at 5:17 PM on August 21, 2011

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