Alexandria Legacies — The Alexandria Oral History Program
City Archaeologist interviewing Virginia Knapper, 1981.
Read Oral Histories
Read transcriptions of more than 75 interviews conducted with long-time City residents by the Alexandria Legacies Project.
About Alexandria Legacies
Alexandria Legacies, the Alexandria Oral History Program, was developed through the City of Alexandria’s Office of Historic Alexandria in the early 1980s. Since then, the City of Alexandria, through the Alexandria Archaeology Museum, the Lyceum and the Alexandria Black History Museum has collected oral histories of long-time Alexandria residents. The Oral history program was expanded in 2005, and volunteers are actively conducting interviews and preparing transcriptions.
The Alexandria Archaeology Museum first began conducting oral history interviews in 1982 through a grant received for its “Alexandria African American Neighborhood Project.” Oral histories became an important component of the Neighborhood Project as a result of the museum’s quest for information about the history of Alexandria’s African American communities. The Office of Historic Alexandria has continued to record oral histories of those who grew up in Alexandria’s various neighborhoods. In the 1990s, oral histories associated with black history of the Fort Ward and Episcopal Seminary areas were recorded. More recently, oral histories associated with the World War II housing complex Chinquapin Village, as well as the annexed neighborhood of Del Ray have been collected, too.
What is Oral History?
Oral histories record and therefore, preserve memories, reflections, and thoughts of living people about their past experiences. According to the Oral History Association, a membership organization for all persons interested in oral history, “Oral history is both the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word, and one of the most modern, initiated with tape recorders in the 1940s and now using 21st-century digital technologies.”
An oral history differs from a personal written history in several ways. Oral history should always consist of two source materials – an audio recording of an interview and a transcript of that recording. The audio recording can be recorded on cassette, or in a digital format. Both source materials - the recording and transcript – are important because each contribute to the historical record and can do so mutually, as well as independently. The transcript can be easily read and used by both researchers and family members. The audio recording contains emotions and accent, neither of which can be captured in a written document, but both of which are important aspects of the interviewee’s persona and the associated words and stories.
Oral history also differs from a personal history because it always involves two authors – the person being interviewed and the interviewer. The questions asked by the interviewer guide the focus of the oral history. Oral history projects might, for example, focus on interviewing former Torpedo Factory workers to find out what working in the factory was like, or they might focus on people's memories of particular events such as Pearl Harbor or desegregation.
Ethel (left) and Sidney (center) Abramson, with interviewer Claudia Weatherford (right), 1981.
Why Do Oral History?
Oral history broadens the study of the past in areas where there are no written documents or physical artifacts. Moreover, oral history recognizes that everyone’s and anyone’s memories, reflections and past experiences are important and contribute to the historical record.
Share Your Memories of Alexandria
The City of Alexandria seeks people with memories and stories from their families of living and growing up in Alexandria. If you would like to share your memories, or if you know someone who has memories to share, please contact the Alexandria Archaeology Museum at 703.746.4399.
Volunteer with Alexandria Legacies
Alexandria Legacies seeks volunteers to assist in collecting memories, both interviewers and transcribers. If you would like to volunteer in either capacity, please complete the Office of Historic Alexandria Volunteer Form. No experience necessary; training provided.
Alexandria Legacies & Living Legends Collaboration
Living Legends is a A 501(c)(3) nonprofit established in 2007 that identifies, honors and chronicles the living legends of Alexandria, VA. Honorees have included several Historic Alexandria volunteers and staff, along with other prominent members of the community. Alexandria Legacies and Living Legends have joined forces in a collaborative effort to record oral histories of Living Legends nominees. Additionally, Family Legends is a outgrowth of Living Legends and a new initiative where (for example) kids interview their grandparents to capture their history. The goals are to foster artistic creativity in children and to help them develop an appreciation of and skill in photojournalism and storytelling. With these efforts, the reach of Historic Alexandria's oral history program will be expanded to children and families.