Other Voices: NJ Art & Oral History at the Newark Public Library
By Armand V. Cucciniello III
NEWARK, NJ – Written history is frequently incomplete, and at times inaccurate. Napoleon once said: “History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.” Too often notable figures, events, and phenomenon get misrepresented – or go undocumented altogether.
In honor of Black History Month the Newark Public Library is helping to correct the written record by making available to the public an oral history collection and art exhibit that illustrates the history of African-American migration to and life in Newark.
“We Found Our Way: Newark Portraits from the Great Migration” is a rich multimedia display that provides a unique, human-centered perspective of a city that has often been depicted as an example of post-industrial urban decay and racial contention. Anchored in the Krueger-Scott Collection, the exhibit presents a more nuanced story of the city, illustrates how the black migrant experience was formative, and presents history with a remarkably human face.
The Krueger-Scott Collection is comprised of over 200 audiocassette recordings and interviews with more than 100 residents of Newark conducted in the 1990s. It is the single largest collection of oral history interviews conducted with black Americans who migrated from the South to New Jersey between the years 1910–1970.
The library exhibit includes portraits of the narrators, audio recordings from the interviews, digital video presentations, fine prints, historic images, and glass artwork inspired by the oral stories.
Personalities featured in the oral history collection include black Americans like Katheryn Bethea, a migrant to Newark who had to continually reinvent herself to keep up with the changing times. During World War II Ms. Bethea mastered needlecraft and subsequently obtained a supervisor position in a hospital uniforms factory – a time when there were no black women in such positions.
Isaac Thomas Jr., a native of Birmingham, AL recalled during his interview 1940s labor dynamics in the South due to segregation: “I worked at delivering ice. We delivered ice to the white folks in the morning while it was cool. We delivered ice to the black folks in the evening while it was hot. White folks got their ice in the morning, and I earned $4.00 a week for that.”
“As we celebrate Newark’s 350th anniversary, this exhibit provides an opportunity to honor this aspect of the city’s history and include these voices in the conversation,” said Dr. Samantha J. Boardman, curator of the exhibit.
Also featured are glass artworks by Rutgers University students and faculty, which form part of a larger artistic endeavor called The Glass Book Project. Each piece on display at the library is an abstract, conceptual portrayal of specific details drawn from seven of the oral history interviews that form the Krueger-Scott Collection.
Andreá Cassar – a painter, sculptor, and graphic designer from Italy who was a contributor to The Glass Book Project series titled “Provisions” – called the exhibit “informative and an opportunity for us to realize that not all history is recorded in written form.”
“Using the Krueger-Scott collection to create art was a very natural fit. Oral histories offer a unique perspective on people and their experiences, and art can do the same,” Cassar said.
Ms. Bethea’s story was illustrated by Cassar through glasswork that draws inspiration from a story she told about her family’s use of onions in apotropaic magic practices. “I used to have an aunt that would put onions and sprinkle them with sugar on the back of the stove, and that was supposed to keep my uncle from running around with other women,” recounted Bethea.
Nick Kline, the founder of The Glass Book Project and art professor at Rutgers, created a sculpture resembling a melting block of ice to exemplify Mr. Thomas’s story. Kline’s sculpture is complete with a vintage ice pick from Birmingham.
“We Found Our Way: Newark Portraits from the Great Migration” should be of interest to historians, anthropologists, folklorists, sociologists, artists, and everyday residents of New Jersey that want to experience a unique, unconventional way of learning local history.