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Incalculable Odds: The story of how one professor (unintentionally) wound up at UC Berkeley

by Sonia Kahn from the Bancroft Digital Collections Unit.

Berkeley is known for its world-renowned professors. Just walking through the campus today you can spot parking spaces reserved for Nobel laureates. Of course, this is hardly a new phenomenon at Berkeley, which has had prominent faculty on its staff for decades. Perhaps one of the most distinguished members to grace the Berkeley faculty, and one with a fascinating history to boot, was a professor in the mathematics department named Alfred Tarski.

Newsclipping with photograph of Alfred Tarski

[BANC MSS 84/69 c], Alfred Tarski Papers, BANC MSS 84/69 c, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

Alfred Tajtelbaum (who would later change his last name to the more Polish sounding Tarski) was born January 14, 1901 in Warsaw, Poland. He was born to Polish Jewish parents but would later convert to Roman Catholicism due to the discriminatory hiring practices of Polish universities in the interwar period.

In 1918, Tarski began his academic career, entering the University of Warsaw. He studied mathematics under prominent logicians and philosophers of the time. In 1924, Tarski graduated with a Ph.D., becoming the youngest person to obtain a doctorate from the University of Warsaw. Between 1924 and 1939, Tarski worked intermittent positions at the University of Warsaw, but mostly made a living by teaching math to secondary school students. This was actually a common practice in Europe prior to the Second World War as university positions tended to pay poorly. Meanwhile, as he taught the basics to teenagers, he wrote various papers and books, earning himself an international reputation as a mathematical logician and for his ideas on truth, which the current writer will not attempt to summarize here because they are well beyond her.

In 1939 Tarski was invited to attend the Unity of Science Congress in September, held at Harvard University. In August 1939, Tarski boarded a ship bound for the United States. It would be the last ship to leave Poland before Nazi forces invaded the country on September 1, igniting World War Two. He left behind a wife and two children in Warsaw who he would not see again until 1946.

Effectively exiled in the US, Tarski worked at various research institutions including Harvard, before settling on the world’s best research university: UC Berkeley. In 1942 he joined Berkeley’s mathematics department, and was eventually tenured in 1945 before being awarded a full professorship in 1948. In 1946 his wife and two children, who had all survived the devastation of the war, joined Tarski in California.

Tarski stayed on at Berkeley, helping to create an esteemed graduate program in logic, until 1968 when he retired, becoming a professor emeritus. However, he remained devoted to Berkeley and students even in retirement, continuing to teach until 1973, and supervising doctoral theses until his death in 1983.


Today the Bancroft Library maintains a collection of materials relating to Tarski’s tenure as a mathematician at UC Berkeley. Among them are personal documents of Tarski’s, from his Polish passport, to a dinner menu saved from his sailing voyage to the US in 1939.

Digital reproductions of selected items are available: Alfred Tarski papers (BANC MSS 84/69 c)


Professor Susan Ervin-Tripp: 2016 Class of ’31 Interviewee in University History

Professor Susan Ervin-Tripp

One of the great joys of being an oral historian is getting to talk to people you otherwise wouldn’t have known. We have the privilege of asking people about their lives, putting their experiences in context of the larger historical landscape, posing questions that others don’t have the opportunity to ask. I had the opportunity to do just this when I interviewed Professor Susan Ervin-Tripp in 2016.

Professor Dan Slobin puts it best in the introduction he wrote for Ervin-Tripp’s oral history:

Throughout her long and productive career, Susan Ervin-Tripp has repeatedly been a path-breaker. And the paths that she helped explore have become well-traveled roads. I is remarkable to see so many innovations in one life story: psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics, embracing new directions in the study of first-language acquisition as well as bilingualism; repeated applications of new technology: computers, tape recorders, video recorders, wireless microphones; design of new methods of transcribing and documenting the many layers of speech interaction; cross-linguistic and cross-cultural research, with attention to both individual and interpersonal dimensions of language. Along with these contributions to the scientific side of her profession, Ervin-Tripp has given equal attention to the institutional and political dimensions of academia, focusing on the treatment of women and minorities. Wherever possible, she used her academic skills as a psycho- and sociolinguist to provide a scientific foundation to her advocacy.

Slobin is not the only one who values Ervin-Tripp’s many contributions. Her interview was part of our Class of ’31 series, in which faculty and staff, both current and retired, are nominated by admirers to the subject an oral history. Ervin-Tripp received numerous, passionate nominations which conveyed a resounding eagerness to document her work in academics and equity, knowing that we could all benefit from learning about her trailblazing work.

I sat down with Ervin-Tripp for our first interview in May of 2016. It was immediately clear that she was a practiced speaker, having taught for many years, with a healthy sense of humor. She was poised and articulate, prepared with her notes. Over the course of our six hours of interviews, we discussed her childhood during the Great Depression in Minneapolis, Minnesota, her undergraduate education at Vassar College, her doctoral work at the University of Michigan, and her career at UC Berkeley, which began in 1958. She detailed her work on the Southwest Project in Comparative Psycholinguistics studying the connection between language and cognitive performance, her time as a professor in the Psychology and Speech Departments at Berkeley, her early adoption of technology in her research, her participation at Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences and with the 1985 Scientific Exchange program in France. She talked about the significant advances that she made for women’s equality on campus and the multiple efforts she made to create such change.

It was a pleasure to have interviewed a woman whose career has impacted Berkeley so greatly. There are many lessons to learn from this interview, particularly the courage and persistence it takes to create an equitable environment. Professor Susan Ervin-Tripp’s oral history is one that is rare for her generation and one that should be celebrated.

Shanna Farrell, Interviewer, Oral History Center

A Truly Perilous Journey

by Sonia Kahn from the Bancroft Digital Collections Unit.

“We pray the God of mercy to deliver us from our present Calamity if it be his Holy will,” wrote Patrick Breen on New Year’s Day 1847. In the midst of a snow storm, with provisions running short and several members of his party already dead from starvation, Calamity was not an overstatement.

Breen was a member of the now infamous Donner Party. An Irish immigrant, he had set out with his wife and seven children to make their way westward from Illinois to the California sunshine. The Breens composed just one family in the group of 87 people to make the trek led by George Donner and James Reed. Only 48 would survive the ordeal.

title page

[BANC MSS C-E 176:01], Patrick Breen Diary, November 20, 1846 – March 1, 1847, BANC MSS C-E 176, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

The Donner Party set out from Springfield, Illinois in the spring of 1846, expecting to arrive in California by late summer. Their downfall, however, came with an idea from an Ohio lawyer named Lansford Hastings. Hastings was convinced he could come up with a faster route to California than the standard voyage which involved traversing Wyoming, the southern border of Idaho, and northern Nevada. He devised a cutoff that diverged from the typical route, sending the party south into Utah (rather than north into Idaho) and rejoining the original path in Nevada. The shortcut backfired as the voyage through Utah’s Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake desert expended more time and energy than originally planned. Many wagons, oxen, and livestock were lost in the Salt Flats, and by the time the Donner Party reached California in late October they were weeks behind schedule and running low on food and supplies.

Calamity struck the Donner Party while in the Sierra Nevadas. Stuck in the first blizzard of the season, the party was unable to continue the journey. The blizzard, unfortunately, was not a quick setback but the harbinger of a terrible winter to come.

Patrick Breen began recording in his diary on November 20, 1846. “It continueing [SIC] to snow all the time we were here we now have killed most part of our cattle having to stay here untill [SIC] next spring & live on poor beef without bread or salt,” wrote Breen. “Poor beef” would hardly seem such a terrible meal when a few weeks later the party had resorted to eating animal hides. The situation deteriorated even further, and as members of the party perished, Breen described how other members thought about, or claimed to have engaged in, cannibalism. When one woman mentioned that she was considering consuming a dead comrade out of desperation, Breen quite simply wrote “It is distressing.” Such bare simplicity perfectly describes the feeling one is faced with in reading the trials of the Donner Party.

On February 19, 1847 the first rescue party arrived bringing a few provisions. The relief team of men from California took with them 21 members of the party, but the Breen family was left behind. 170 years ago today, on March 1, 1847, Breen made the last entry in his diary which recounts the arrival of the second relief team. This second rescue team guided 14 people, including the Breen family, to safety in Sutter’s Fort, California. A third relief team later rescued all the remaining children of the Donner Party but was forced to leave behind five stragglers. By the time the fourth team arrived, only one man was still alive.

The history of the Donner Party and the epics detailed in Breen’s diary are a reminder of the lengths to which people once went to reach this golden state, and the sunny days we often take for granted.


The Bancroft Library maintains the original Breen diary and has digitized the journal.

View the collection: Patrick Breen Diary (BANC MSS C-E 176)


Event: Views of the women’s liberation, feminist movements of the 1970s, 1980s

A New Women's Symbol

A New Women’s Symbol, 1971, The Bancroft Library, BANC PIC 2012.054

Bancroft Library’s first Roundtable of the semester will take place in the Lewis-Latimer Room of The Faculty Club at noon on Thursday, February 16. Cathy Cade, documentary photographer, will present “Views of the Women’s Liberation and Feminist Movements of the 1970s and 1980s: Selections from the Cathy Cade Photograph Archive.”

Cade was introduced to the power of documentary photography as she participated in the Southern Freedom Movement of the 1960s. In the years that followed, she took an array of images that depict the women’s liberation movement, union women, trades women, lesbian feminism, lesbian mothering, lesbians of color, LGBT freedom days, fat activism, and the disability rights movement. Cade will speak of her personal experiences with social justice causes and the connections between these movements and communities. She will feature highlights drawn from her extensive photograph archive acquired by The Bancroft Library over the past several years.

Event details
Bancroft Roundtable
Thursday, February 16, noon
Lewis-Latimer Room, The Faculty Club
Presented by Cathy Cade, documentary photographer

Rare Books and Mystery Buff: Bancroft Cataloger Showcases Recent Donations at Oakland Book Fair

While most of Randal Brandt’s work involves sleuthing out cataloging information for the rare volumes that routinely cross his desk, he also finds time to curate Bancroft’s California Detective Fiction Collection.

Randal Brandt. Photo by Cade Johnson for the University Library.

This collection will be showcased, along with examples of fantasy and science fiction and western fiction, at the upcoming 50th California International Antiquarian Book Fair, Feb. 10-12, in an exhibit Brandt curated. Many of the exhibited books are recent donations acquired through Brandt’s extensive network in the mystery writing community. Some of these include:

  • Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller presented the library with a gift of over 700 volumes in 2015, of books written, compiled, or edited by the “Mulzinis,” as they are affectionately known by their friends.
  • The Thomas H. Reynolds Collection of Ross Macdonald was received as a gift by Bancroft in 2016. Comprised of 37 exemplary copies of first editions and other rare volumes by Ross Macdonald, the collection was compiled by Thomas H. Reynolds, who, before his retirement, was the foreign and comparative law librarian at Berkeley.
  • The Anthony Boucher Collection was donated to the Bancroft Library in 2016. Boucher, who earned an M.A. from Berkeley, was a prolific writer of mysteries and science fiction, but is noted primarily for his reviewing and other activities. His renown in the field is such that the premiere annual conference of mystery authors, fans, and aficionados is known as Bouchercon.

Anthony Boucher

Also featured in the exhibit will be materials from other recent Bancroft acquisitions.

  • The Kenneth Perkins Papers were donated in 2015, including a wide-ranging array of hardcover novels, manuscript drafts, plot outlines, summaries, and synopses, research notes, correspondence, personal materials, newspaper clippings, and ephemera. Perkins, a prolific writer of westerns and mysteries, graduated from Berkeley in 1914.

Photo by Joseph Driste

  • The library also acquired the Frank M. Robinson Papers in 2015. Robinson moved to San Francisco in the 1970s to be a speechwriter for politician Harvey Milk. Shortly thereafter he started writing techno-thrillers and science fiction novels. The collection comprises books, manuscripts, and photographs, including shots taken during the 2008 production of the film Milk in which Robinson had a small part playing himself.

Photo by Joseph Driste

Why American Concentration Camps Became Legal (and Then Illegal)

by Jacob Dickerman from the Bancroft Digital Collections Unit.

76 years ago, on December 7, the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor military base. The next day, the United States declared war against Japan. Following the attacks and declaration of war, hostilities were high, as many Americans vilified and mistrusted their fellow Japanese American citizens. Of course, the vilification and mistrust were unfounded.

Two months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the “Munson Report,” an intelligence report commissioned by the State Department, concluded that there was no question of loyalty to the U.S. among the majority of Japanese Americans and that they posed no threat to the nation’s security. Despite such exculpatory reports and a lack of cause for suspicion or detainment, the FBI, as soon as December 7, 1941, began arresting Japanese American community leaders, totaling 1,291 arrests in just two days.

Today, this seems unfathomable, but hostility toward Japanese Americans had been a long-established and prominent issue, socially and politically. On October 11, 1906, the San Francisco–San Francisco–Board of Education passed a measure to segregate children of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean descent from the rest of the student population. (President Theodore Roosevelt called the measure “wicked absurdity.”) In 1908, Japan and the U.S. made a “Gentlemen’s Agreement” to end migration of Japanese laborers to the U.S. In 1913, California passed the Alien Land Law, prohibiting those ineligible for citizenship from owning (and, later, leasing) land; at the time, all Japanese immigrants were considered ineligible for citizenship.

As it turned out, the draconian laws against Japanese immigrants, who mainly labored in agriculture, were neither followed nor enforced too heavily. Unfortunately, the relative leniency drew resentment from labor unions, statewide, as the population of Japanese Americans steadily increased. This intensified the presence and influence of anti-immigrant interests and politicians in government, contributing to the height of tensions when Pearl Harbor was attacked.

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized military authorities to exclude civilians from any area, without trial or hearing. This was effectively aimed at Japanese Americans on the West Coast. In March of that year, the Wartime Civil Control Administration established the first Assembly Centers (detainment camps, or “concentration camps,” in FDR’s words), where they detained about 92,000 persons of Japanese ancestry. The count would eventually increase to 120,000 persons, when the permanent camps were established by the War Relocation Authority, in May 1942.

BANC PIC 1967.014--PIC

BANC PIC 1967.014–PIC Photographer: Lange, Dorothea — Oakland, California. 3/13/42

In January of 1943, the War Department announced the formation of a segregated unit of Japanese American soldiers. Soon after, on February 1, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was activated at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. During seizures, arrests, and the unconstitutional detainment of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans, thousands were wounded, killed, or went missing in action while serving the nation in the 442nd RCT. Though President Obama awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to Japanese-American World War II veterans, in 2010, the nation failed to express appreciation to the same Japanese Americans during the war.

A year after forming the 442nd RCT, the U.S. reversed its policy on excluding Japanese Americans from the draft and reinstated it, requiring men in the internment camps to serve. Hundreds refused to serve in the same military that oversaw the indefinite incarceration of their friends and families. Most of these men were imprisoned for resisting the draft. In 1947, President Truman pardoned 63 draft resisters imprisoned in 1944. The 63 were detainees at Heart Mountain, a concentration camp in Wyoming, who organized an effort to challenge the legality of their detainment by refusing to show for their physical examinations.

Amache Summer Carnival Parade. -- Photographer: McClelland, Joe -- Amache, Colorado. 7/10/43

BANC PIC 1967.014–PIC Photographer: McClelland, Joe — Amache, Colorado. 7/10/43

The last camp left, Tule Lake “Segregation Center,” closed on March 20, 1946. Though the Truman administration sent a friendlier message to Japanese Americans, the nation was slow to learn from the crimes committed against its own citizens. Only in 1980 did Congress formally begin to question the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066, that which granted the military the liberty to take liberties away from other Americans.

Commenting on the possibility of the government’s legally detaining Americans without due process, the late Justice Antonin Scalia said, “You are kidding yourself if you think the same thing would not happen again.” The nation should prove him wrong.  


The Bancroft Library maintains a collection of over 7000 photographs from the War Relocation Authority.

View the collection: War Relocation Authority Photographs of Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement (BANC PIC 1967.014–PIC)

How we’ve come to Bridge the Gap

by Sonia Kahn from the Bancroft Digital Collections Unit.

Today the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, known to locals as just the Bay Bridge, is an essential part of many Bay Area commuters’ daily routine, but a mere 80 years ago the bridge many now take for granted as just one more part of their traffic-filled commute did not exist. On November 12, 2016, the Bay Bridge celebrated its 80th birthday, having officially opened to the public on that date in 1936. Today the Bay Bridge is oft overshadowed by its 6 month younger brother, the Golden Gate Bridge, as an iconic sign of San Francisco. But since the 1930s the Bay Bridge has played an essential role in bridging the gap between the East Bay and San Francisco.

It’s impossible. That was what many critics charged at those who explained they wanted to build a bridge across the San Francisco Bay. The idea to construct a bridge connecting Oakland to San Francisco had been around since the 1870s but saw no real progress until the administration of President Herbert Hoover, when the Reconstruction Finance Corporation agreed to purchase bonds to help fund construction which were to be paid back with tolls. But was building such a bridge really possible? In some places, the Bay was more than 100 feet deep, and on top of that, construction would have to take into consideration the threat of an earthquake. Interestingly, engineers planning for the bridge were more concerned with the threat brought about by high winds which could affect the bridge’s integrity.

Ground was broken for the bridge on July 9, 1933, and was welcomed with celebration. The United States Navy Band played at the event, and an air acrobatic left a trail of smoke between Oakland and Rincon Hill where the bridge would connect the East Bay to San Francisco. Celebration was well warranted. The feat of engineering was constructed in just three years, sixth months ahead of schedule!  At a total cost of $77 million, the Bay Bridge was an engineering marvel which spanned more than 10,000 feet and was the longest bridge of its kind when it was completed.

Anchorages Yerba Buena, San Francisco, Center; Cables, Yerba Buena Viaduct, West Bay, Catwalks, Unit #1 Stiffening Truss, 1935-36 No. 373-558

Construction Photographs of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge [BANC PIC 1905.14235-14250–PIC]

On November 12, 1936 the Bay Bridge officially opened. Four days of celebration followed the grand opening but it was not long before the Bridge was overwhelmed. By the end of 1936, the Bay Bridge saw traffic beyond the figures predicted for a decade later. Low tolls on the Bridge saw many previous ferry users jumping ship to cross the expanse on the newly constructed bridge instead.

From its opening until 1952, cars were not the only passengers on the Bay Bridge. The two-decker bridge saw cars traveling in both directions up top while trains and trucks traveled in both directions on the lower deck. In 1952 trains were scrapped, and in 1958 the upper deck was reconfigured to handle five lanes of westbound traffic as the lower deck accepted passengers headed for Oakland.

Since the 1950s the Bay Bridge has seen many developments. HOV lanes were added for high-occupancy vehicles, and the 1970s saw a decrease and eventual elimination of tolls for these vehicles. A metering system to regulate vehicles entering the bridge was also added which reduced traffic accidents by 15%. In 1989, the infamous Loma Prieta earthquake caused a portion of the upper deck of the Bay Bridge’s eastern span to collapse, proving that the structure was still susceptible to particularly strong tremors despite its strong moorings. This led to retrofitting procedures on the bridge. Most recently a new eastern span was built and was opened to the public in September 2013 after a decade of construction.

Today the Bay Bridge sees more than 102 million vehicles a year cross its decks, more than 11 times the number it carried in its first year. So perhaps next time you cross the Bay Bridge take a minute to appreciate the 80-year-old engineering marvel that makes crossing the Bay a breeze-if you don’t get stuck in the Bay Area traffic!

Pier #4, Towers #3, 5, W5; Guy Derrick, Catwalks, San Francisco Anchorage, North and South Cables, Yerba Buena Cable Bent, 1935--No. 187-372

Construction Photographs of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge [BANC PIC 1905.14235-14250–PIC]

The Bancroft Library maintains a collection of over 1,100 photographs from the construction of the Bay Bridge.

View the collectionConstruction Photographs of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (BANC PIC 1905.14235-14250–PIC)

From the Archives: Fiona Thomson’s Interview With former Black Panther Ericka Huggins

This month, in conjunction with the “All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50” exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California, we’re highlighting Fiona Thomson’s oral history of Ericka Huggins. In this interview, Huggins talks about her personal and spiritual history, her leadership role in the Black Panther Party, and her lifelong commitment to social justice.

In 1968, at age 18, Huggins became a leader in the Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panther Party with her husband John Huggins. Three weeks after the birth of their daughter, John Huggins was killed and Erika Huggins was widowed. After returning to New Haven, Connecticut, to be with John’s family, Ericka Huggins was invited by community members and students to open a party chapter there. She accepted the invitation.

In May 1969, Huggins and fellow Party leader Bobby Seale were targeted and arrested on conspiracy charges, sparking “Free Bobby, Free Ericka” rallies across the country. The resulting trial, one of the longest and most celebrated of the era, spawned several books.

While awaiting trial for two years before charges were dropped, including time in solitary confinement, Huggins taught herself to meditate as a means to survive incarceration.

From 1973-1981, Huggins was Director of the Oakland Community School, a groundbreaking community-run child development center and elementary school founded by the Black Panther Party. In 1976, Ericka Huggins became both the first woman and the first Black person to be appointed to the Alameda County Board of Education.

Ericka Huggins

Ericka Huggins

A lifelong writer and poet, upon release from prison in 1971, Ericka became writer and editor for the Black Panther Intercommunal News Service. She is the co-author, with Huey P. Newton, of Insights and Poems, published in 1974. Huggins is now professor of Sociology and African-American Studies in the Peralta Community College District.

In her four interviews with Thomson, Huggins talks candidly about her experiences as a child in segregated Washington, DC, and as a mother, activist, spiritual practitioner and teacher, and friend and lover. The oral history adds to the Bancroft Library’s archive of materials related to the Black Panthers, including the papers of Eldridge Cleaver and the photographs of Stephen Shames.

If you are in the Bay Area, be sure to visit the multimedia exhibit at the Oakland Museum (open until February 12, 2017), to learn more about the Black Panthers and the contributions of Ericka Huggins and many others to the ongoing struggle for social justice.

Linda Norton, Senior Editor

From the Oral History Center Director: Looking Back on 2016

Reading through year-end reviews of 2016 is decidedly not a lighthearted pursuit. So many favorite musicians of my, and many other, generations have left us and though we have the gift of their music we also have sadness. Events on the world stage seem to descend only deeper into violence and chaos. And an ugly and contentious election cycle in our country — not to mention the surprise result — have left many fearing for the future of our democracy.

While remaining mindful of past disappointments and future challenges, I think that it is important to recognize achievements, successes, and positive outcomes too, for these sustain us and give us hope. We, at the Oral History Center, want to revisit some of the new and exciting developments of the past year that give us — give me — great optimism going forward into 2017.

As many of you may know the Oral History Center experienced a great generational transition beginning around 2011, with the retirements of our three most senior interviewers, associate director, and director. After many years of rebuilding, in 2016 the office has again built-out to roughly full capacity with the arrival of two additional interviewers: Todd Holmes and Cristina Kim. Joining Shanna Farrell and Paul Burnett (both of whom joined us in 2013), Holmes and Kim hit the ground running and by the end of the year have each conducted substantial life history interviews, played key roles in our Summer Institute and the first season of our new podcast series, and have begun developing what promise to be important new oral history projects.

The four lead interviewers, combined with Rosie the Riveter project interviewer David Dunham and I, conducted approximately 425 hours of interviews in 2016 — very likely a record level of productivity for our office. Each and every hour of interview contains something special and irreplaceable: a first-person account of a lived experience, of disappointments and failures, and of hopes and dreams. Projects completed or begun in 2016 include the Freedom to Marry project; Economist Life Stories; Global Mining and Materials Research; Getty Trust; Rosie the Riveter; and many others. Individual life history interviews were completed with leaders in the fields of environmental regulation, genetics, labor, health systems, music, law, education, philanthropy and community service, and foodways. In 2017 expect to see the release of the Freedom to Marry interviews, more interviews with artists and curators in partnership with the Getty Trust, as well as new interviews on the California Coastal Commission and the emergence of ethnic studies in the United States — to mention just a few areas.

Historic oral history transcripts at the Oral History Center

Historic oral history transcripts at the Oral History Center

The oral historians here at Berkeley have long been productive scholars and authors, publishing magazine articles, journal essays, and books. In 2016, however, we expanded our scholarly engagement activities by producing a podcast series “Tales from the Campanile.” The first season (we hope to produce two seasons annually), “From the Outside In: Women in Politics,” featured six episodes, each running 15-20 minutes in length which looked at a century of women’s role in politics leading up to the historic candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Lead producers Todd Holmes, Shanna Farrell, and Cristina Kim selected audio clips from our amazing interviews with leaders including suffragist Alice Paul, congress member Jeanette Rankin, and California secretary of state March Fong Eu; we were thrilled that Emmy Award-winning journalist Belva Davis agreed to narrate the podcast. For 2017 and beyond we have seasons in the works that will look at the history of the AIDS epidemic and California’s uber issue: water. Stay tuned!

The Center continued our educational offerings with great success. In March we hosted our annual “Introduction to Oral History Workshop” and in August our “Advanced Oral History Summer Institute.” A diverse and engaging group of participants attended both trainings and, as always, we were impressed by the enthusiasm and intelligence of the attendees, which we take as a harbinger of great oral history projects to come! We look forward to our 2017 Introductory Workshop, which will be held on Saturday February 25th and our Summer Institute, scheduled for the week of August 7th.

In addition to the new oral history projects, podcast seasons, and educational offerings, we are looking forward to getting our latest partnership with the National Park Service off the ground in 2017. David Dunham wrote about this in the previous newsletter, but, in brief, it entails nothing less than an expansion and improvement of the interview search on our website as well as, ultimately, streaming of complete oral histories online — a real first for the Center.

Finally, I want to conclude by offering my gratitude to the many people who make all of this work possible. Given that all of our interviews must receive external funding (the university does not pay the salaries of the interviewers, transcription, or equipment, for example), I want to thank all of the individuals and institutions who have invested in us over the last year. We strive to always improve the quality of our work and we very much hope that our dedication to the craft of oral history shows. We also invite everyone interested in supporting our work to assist us by making a tax-deductible donation to the Oral History Center. We are also always interested in hearing from our supporters about ideas for new projects and new interviews, and how we might go about finding sponsors for those projects.

I also want to thank my regular staff — Julie Allen, Paul Burnett, David Dunham, Shanna Farrell, Todd Holmes, Cristina Kim, and Linda Norton — for their essential contributions; I also extend my gratitude to our interns, student employees, emeritus interviewers, and Library colleagues. Last but not least, my heartfelt appreciation goes to our interviewees. We have never paid an interviewee for the time (sometimes numbering dozens of hours) that they give to our oral history projects.

Thank you and we look forward to staying in touch throughout 2017!


Martin Meeker 

Charles B. Faulhaber Director

Oral History Center

“The Gift to Sing”: Bancroft exhibit offers tour of African American history and culture

Treasures from legendary professor Leon Litwack’s African American history and culture book collection are on display through February in the Bancroft Library Gallery. Browsing “The Gift to Sing” exhibit offers viewers a chance to revisit milestones in the long journey of African Americans in this country towards full equality, freedom, and cultural expression.

Photo by Alejandro Serrano for the University Library.

Slave narratives and autobiography, drawings and photography, collections of spirituals, newspapers, novels and poetry, historical and sociological works — all with rich significance outlined in curator David Faulds’ captions — are among the works included.

Litwack’s collection, most of which will come to the Bancroft as a bequest, originated in his teenage years in Santa Barbara in the 1940s, when the young Leon haunted a used bookstore called the Book Den. Langston Hughes volumes purchased then for a dollar or two are on display in the exhibit.

Over six decades of continued collecting later — informed by his celebrated scholarship in African American history and culture — Litwack’s library is considered one of the best in private hands.

On display in the Bancroft exhibit are Harlem Renaissance first editions in strikingly illustrated dust jackets; Bobby Seale’s copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which Litwack had the good fortune to pick up for $5 at Moe’s Bookstore near campus; a copy of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave inscribed by famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison; and Ida B. Wells’ rare and important pamphlet on lynching, The Red Record.


Photo by Alejandro Serrano for the University Library.

Exhibit visitors can also see the first book by an African American, Phyllis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, which was published in 1773. This edition is one of the treasures from the Bancroft’s current collection which are also exhibited in “The Gift to Sing.”

The exhibit is organized in seven sections including the arts; California, society; literature and history, modern and early 20th century; slave narratives; and racial uplift (1890-1910).

The oldest book in the exhibition dates from 1744 and reports on the execution of thirty blacks and four whites for their role in the Conspiracy of 1741, a supposed insurrection by slaves and poor whites. Like the Salem witch trials, this event is now seen by some scholars as a case of mass hysteria, in which a number of acts of arson were attributed to a criminal conspiracy.

A 1919 history of African Americans in California took shape through research at the Bancroft itself. Author Delilah Beasley spent many years in Bancroft poring over California and black newspapers and archives to research her book.

Less well-known materials are displayed alongside famous items such as the most popular novel of the 19th century — Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the 1852 anti-slavery classic by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved.

The range and depth of the collection reflects Litwack’s lifelong quest to uncover and to teach the history of race relations in America and the experiences of people long absent from the historical narrative. He has authored four major books and countless articles, and has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

Prof. Leon Litwack discusses his writing experiences Tuesday, March 12, 2002, as part of the Berkeley Writers at Work lecture series. (Photo by Noah Berger).

Litwack retired from Berkeley in 2007 after forty-three years. His final lecture on America’s racial divide was entitled “Fight the Power.”

Litwack has long been a passionate advocate for the importance of the Library, an advocacy which dates back to his undergraduate years at Berkeley, starting in 1948. “What I coveted more than anything else was a job in the UC Library,” he said. “And I was fortunate enough to get one . . . That was just fabulous.”

“The Gift to Sing: Highlights of the Leon F. Litwack and Bancroft Library African American Collections” is on display in the Bancroft Library Gallery through February 17, 2017, from 10 am to 4 pm.

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