The Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 4, 1999
October 4, 1999
VOL. 29, NO. 6


Recording the History of Baltimore's Civil Rights Struggle

By Glenn Small
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

When Paul Kramer, an assistant professor of history in the School of Arts and Sciences, teaches his 50 undergraduate students this fall about the civil rights movement in Baltimore, he wants them to get a good grounding in a number of issues relating to that struggle.

His students will read and discuss such things as racism, what makes a city, how segregation laws affected African Americans, the role that black soldiers returning from World War II played in the struggle--and a host of other areas.

And then he wants them to hit the streets. With tape recorders.

Paul Kramer is hoping his students will capture the memories of civil rights leaders.

"This is sort of the 'Blair Witch Project' part of the class," Kramer told his students on the first day of class, "where we equip you and send you out to record interviews."

The course is called The Baltimore Civil Rights History Project, and it was inspired by an article Kramer read in The Sun. It was about Baltimore civil rights leaders getting together to share memories. The story ended with those leaders lamenting the fact that no one had written their history, and the fear that much will be lost, if someone doesn't do it.

Kramer, a Johns Hopkins graduate who earned his doctorate at Princeton, decided he could help. With training in recording oral histories and an interest in the civil rights movement, he began working up the course.

The key part of it is getting the students out of the classroom and into the living rooms and kitchens of aging civil rights activists.

"I want students to get excited about history, and I think this is a way to do it," Kramer said.

At the end of the course, Kramer hopes to be able to deposit his students' interview tapes--precious Baltimore oral history--at a historical society or library, such as the Maryland Room of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Transcripts of the interviews might even be published in book form, he said.

To make the project work, Kramer applied for grant money to pay for tape recorders, tapes and transcribers. He also began compiling a list of people who had worked in the civil rights struggle in Baltimore.

Students will work in teams of two, and each team will do at least two interviews, Kramer said. Before he sends them out, Kramer will train students on both the technical and the reporting sides, things such as how to hold the microphone for best sound and how to ask good questions. His two teaching assistants, Walima Kalusa and Francois Furstenberg, will supervise the oral history interviews and lead the class discussion sessions.

Part of what Kramer did to prepare for the course was to gather names of Baltimoreans involved in the civil rights struggle, a database that now has roughly 150 names in it, Kramer said. A large number of the names Kramer got from a list of those arrested in protests to desegregate the old Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in northwest Baltimore back in the 1960s.

While many of the names on the interviewee list will be recognizable leaders, Kramer said he doesn't want his students to stop there. He wants them also to interview just ordinary folks who worked at the grass roots level.

If anyone knows of someone who had involvement in the civil rights struggle in Baltimore, Kramer would like to hear from you, so that person could be added to the list. He may be contacted at 410-516-3326 or by e-mail at

And while Kramer did get a $3,000 Kenan Grant to help purchase tape recorders and tapes, the budget only allowed for the purchase of one cassette transcribing machine. He would like to know if anyone on campus might have one that his class might borrow.