Pontchartrain Park Pioneers: Incorporating Oral Histories into Humanities Curricula

As part of our NEH for All initiative, NHA worked with Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO) to document the impact of a program they implemented in 2021. Titled Pontchartrain Park Pioneers: An Oral History of New Orleans’s Civil Rights Era Segregated Black “Suburb in the City,” this program integrated local oral histories collected by the project director, Dr. Clyde Robertson, into six existing courses. Southern University at New Orleans is a Historically Black College located in the northwest corner of Pontchartrain Park—the first neighborhood in the city that was developed, financed, designed, and constructed by African Americans for African American residents. The oral histories integrated into the humanities courses at SUNO are those of some of the initial residents of Pontchartrain Park and reflect the social and cultural changes that they went through as this area was developed.

Incorporating the voices and stories of people who had battled discrimination and created a space for themselves in humanities courses provided students a powerful way to learn history, make connections to their own lives, and reflect on the connections between local issues and broader national issues. This program filled a much-needed gap in students’ education and surveys demonstrate that they were extremely appreciative of the opportunity to learn about the local history through oral histories. Ninety-five (95) percent of the respondents said they knew very little or nothing about the historical significance of Pontchartrain Park prior to the course. One student said “I was unaware of Pontchartrain Park and that it once was an all Black neighborhood. My perspective was changed, I just wanted to obtain a psychology degree but with this course I inform and educat[e] so much of my family who were too unaware of the significance of the park.”

Quantitative and qualitative responses demonstrate that the program had a personal impact on students and helped them think about their own lives within the context of history. Eighty-two (82) percent of respondents reported feeling a sense of pride in being a part of the history of Pontchartrain Park through attending SUNO. One student reflected “I understand more of where I come from now. Being a Black woman, I now have more knowledge of my history from Africa as well as New Orleans.” Another wrote, “it gave me more confidence in my heritage and who I am, and where I came from.” The program also helped students feel more connected to the local area. As one respondent wrote, “The individuals that shared their story gave you examples of how much different society is from what we know it today when you went to public places and where people of color went and where they did not go. It really makes you think about what you could have done if you were alive back then to change the way that things were and what you could do to help the current state of Pontchartrain Park.” Another wrote, “it made me proud to know that this community was shaped by a lot of well-known Black professionals that did not allow the laws and policies of Jim Crow era that [were] in place to hold people of color back.”

Finally, eighty-seven (87) percent of respondents acknowledged the importance of this program that highlighted Black history to their overall education. One student said “We need programs like this to teach us Black students where we come from and our history. I personally feel like programs like this will inspire students to strive for greater things and become better students because us students will know the history and know that people like us made real difference in these same communities we live in.” Another student said “It is important for the stories of African Americans to be told but also to be taught. For too long African American history has been watered down and stripped away from the next generation. For that reason alone, more authentic history projects should be integrated into the curriculum at universities across the country.”

Read more: neh for all