Oral history project spotlights political empowerment strategies in Philadelphia’s Black, Latinx communities

February 28, 2022
image of Dallas Taylor
Power Politics project coordinator Dallas Taylor said it's important to pass this history down and make sure it’s documented properly.

Throughout the year, PA Humanities will feature select PA SHARP grantees and their on-the-ground humanities work. Scribe Video Center is a Philadelphia-based nonprofit founded in 1982 to explore, develop and advance the use of electronic media, including video and audio, as an artistic medium and as a tool for progressive social change.

By Karen Price

Despite Philadelphia’s rich heritage of Black and Latinx community organizing and political activism, many of the stories and figures involved remain untold pieces of the city’s history. 

Scribe Video Center is working to change that with Power Politics, a project that is documenting the ways African Americans and Latinx people have worked to secure their representative share of political power for their communities. By collecting oral histories from those involved beginning in 1945 through the current day, they hope to show the full mosaic of people who’ve been part of the journey of political empowerment in the city. 

The Philadelphia-based nonprofit recently received a PA SHARP grant – Sustaining the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan – from PA Humanities to continue this work.

screen shots from Power Politics interview sessions
Some of the people who’ve been interviewed for the Power Politics project so far include, from top left to right, Anthony Monteiro, Rev. Pam Williams, Wilfredo Rojas, Senator Vincent Hughes, Cecily Banks, and Senator Anthony Williams.

“We need to pass this history down and make sure it’s actually documented properly,” project coordinator Dallas Taylor said. “Unless you were there, I feel like it’s hard to know about these stories. I’m 22, and I’d never heard of some of these people before I joined this project. I’d heard of Cecil B. Moore, I’d heard of Hardy Williams, but you don’t learn about Gussie Clark.”

The project pairs high school and college students with experienced journalist mentors to research their subjects, craft questions and conduct interviews on film. The initial list of interviewees was developed with assistance from staff, including Scribe executive director Louis Massiah, and mentors, including longtime journalist Karen Warrington, who served as press secretary for Mayor W. Wilson Goode from 1984 to 1992. It has grown organically in recent months as interviewees mention and suggest others.

“The overall principle of the project is to collect these oral histories and hope they can serve some efforts in the present and future by learning from the strategies that have worked in the past,” Taylor said. “(That way) we’re not reinventing the wheel, but can grab from the past and say, ‘This is what so-and-so did in the 80s to try to get better voter turnout,’ or whatever it may be. That’s the goal of the project.” 

Augusta, or “Gussie,” Clark served on the Philadelphia City Council from 1980 until her retirement in 2000.

The list of interviewees includes cultural leaders, historians, electoral figures and those pursuing empowerment and liberation for Black and Latinx people outside of the electoral model and framework. They are the stories not only of Moore, Williams and Goode, but also of the many lesser-known individuals who made up the Black Political Forum, for example, and whose efforts and accomplishments in the 1960s and 70s aided in Goode’s election as mayor in the 80s.

They currently have 32 interviews spanning over 52 hours, and a list of 34 interviews yet to be completed – a number Taylor expects to grow. They began presenting segments online in the Power Politics Screening and Speaker Series last fall, with themes including “Building Tools, Building Movement” and “Lost Spaces, Lost Histories: Placemaking, Politics and Gentrification.” The project will be archived at the Charles Blockson Collection at Temple University, and interviews will also be broadcast on area radio stations including Scribe’s low-power FM station WPEB.

Student involvement is a key component of Scribe’s Power Politics project as well as others, including the 2021 Documentary History Project for Youth shown here. Photo by Erica Hawkins.

Support from the PA SHARP grant will help fund the student interns – or oral historians – to continue working on the project, Taylor said. It will also help provide honorariums to interview subjects as they move forward with hosting in-person screenings and Q&A sessions that will allow audiences to connect more deeply with the subjects. Involving young people is a critical component of the project, Taylor said, and aids in the overall goal of collecting these oral histories in order to serve the present and the future.

“It’s really interesting that we’re all sort of learning together, and it shows that this picture has not been fully understood by anyone,” Taylor said. “It’s something we’re all trying to piece together. I find it fascinating that we’re all still learning the story and it’s not just the kids trying to learn, it’s the adults, too. It’s the people who’ve been part of it that are still learning how it all really happened and piecing together the picture.”

Funding for PA SHARP comes from PA Humanities’ federal partner, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), as part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. Additional funding comes from Spring Point Partners to support 16 organizations that serve Philadelphia’s BIPOC and new  immigrant communities.

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