Untold history: Grandma's Voice seeks to capture hidden stories

Who will remember the history of our city if some stories were left out of the books? Grandma's Voice, a multimedia project that seeks to capture multigenerational stories of community elders, hopes to do just that by interviewing and archiving the lived experiences of local African American women. 
The Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives is set to land a brick and mortar space by late 2016. In the meantime, the new museum, dubbed GRAAMA, has launched a multimedia project called Grandma’s Voice thanks to a $25,000 grant from The Michigan Humanities Council through funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. In a fun play on the acronym and core mission of the museum, Grandma’s Voice seeks to capture stories from an aging generation of African American Grand Rapidians, who can offer insight into the experiences of a now bygone era.

“Part of what we want to do as a museum is to tell the story of local people here. [Grandma’s Voice] is a series of conversations with the elderly in our community… about things that happened mainly in the '40s, '50s and '60s,” says George Bayard, executive director of the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives.

Although the project will expand and connect with varying age demographics, the intent is to speak with the elders in the community while they are still able to give voice to their experiences. “The people we are contacting are in their 80s, 90s, and a couple people are [around] 100 years old,” says Bayard. “We want to get this information on tape before the stories are lost forever.”

While the ambitious interview gathering process has just begun, a multi-generational perspective has already emerged. One of the first interviewees was flanked by other women in her family, encompassing three generations. “It gave us a wider spectrum of how things were,” says Bayard. “And you could see the difference of how some things changed and some things stayed the same,” he adds, referring to the cultural climate in our area. “What happens in our community a lot of times is that history is written by someone else.”

The core mission of Grandma’s Voice is to focus on cultural experiences within the region and reveal untold or marginalized histories, from basic events to areas of specific expertise. Many of the people who have shared their stories thus far originally came to Grand Rapids by way of the south. Central questions have been “Was it really different here? Was Grand Rapids a more welcoming place?” Other questions revolve around specific topics. “A gentleman here who [is participating in the project] played in the [local] Negro leagues, so we will probably be talking to him just about that,” says Bayard.

Paula Lane, who is set to be officially interviewed for the project next month, says she was excited to participate in Grandma’s Voice: “I like to go back, way back to where I was from.” Originally from Arkansas, Lane moved to Grand Rapids when she was sixteen, following her sister who already resided in the area. Lane notes that the city has changed considerably since she moved here as a young woman and is looking forward to sharing her story. “We have all walks of life here and we come from different places and it’s important to sit down and share.”

While not every person slated to tell their tale is a grandmother, Grandma’s Voice does strive to highlight women’s words and lives, in part because often women’s perspectives have been left out of history books, but also because of their unique role within the community. Bayard explains that, when speaking to a grandmother, her daughter and granddaughter, he “asked about the men in the family and they said, ‘Oh, they don’t know the history like we do.’”

“I think that the women tended to be the ones that held the histories in the family, the African American histories anyway,” says Bayard. “Men were traditionally working and didn’t have the time to care for a lot of the family things. Everyone always ran to grandmas with problems or, she was the first one to hear when someone was having a baby or something.”

Beyond keeping the oral tradition alive and preserving family histories, African American women in West Michigan also played other major roles, like moving into areas that at times were not available to African American men. According to Bayard, one interviewee shared that when she first moved to Grand Rapids, “a lot of black women were able to get jobs in places where the black men couldn’t because of the stereotypes toward black men.” Those are the types of stories Grandma’s Voice is looking for, he explains.

“[Grandma’s Voice] is helping bring untold stories to the forefront and uncover a lot of African American stories that haven’t been told before,” says Joseph Cialdella, manager at Heritage Grants Program within Michigan Humanities Council. “I think it’s really helping to build a greater understanding in the community and [emphasize] connections between people in a public way, rather than an academic book per se. I am a historian so that is what appeals to me.”

The planned multimedia approach of incorporating video, audio and photography elements in documenting the interviews allows the public to experience personal stories from Grand Rapids and West Michigan in a palpable and perhaps even visceral way. And it will also allow the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archive to present the material in a variety of forms, from online to projected hands-on exhibits that Bayard hopes become a focal point of the museum.  

For media needs, Grandma’s Voice has connected with the Kutsche Office of Local History at Grand Valley State University, which is involved in oral history work and provides equipment to rent out for community and cultural projects. “Building those connections between those organizations seeks to get [the project] out to a broader audience outside of universities,” says Cialdella, “and gets action on the ground and more people can learn from the expertise in the community and build a sense of community around humanities programming.”

You can find out more about Grandma’s Voice and the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives at www.graama.org.

Audria Larsen is a freelance writer, entrepreneur and professional entertainer. Her work has been published in Rapid Growth Media, Revue Magazine, Michigan Blue Magazine and Hooping.org. She is the founder of Audacious Hoops, Grand Rapids' original "hula" hoop company and produces a myriad of art and entertainment ventures. 

Photography by Adam Bird