Pace University’s Oral History Project: COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter

In response to the tumultuous year we have had between the ongoing pandemic and the continuous fight for equal human rights, Dr. Maria Iacullo-Bird, Assistant Provost for Research and Clinical Associate Professor of History, has launched an oral history project dedicated to archiving the impact of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement on Pace’s community, New York City, and the nation as a whole. Through her course, HIS 196H, students integrate the study of American history with community-based learning and civic engagement to gather research on these major historical events.

What is oral history?

According to the Oral History Association: “Oral history is a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events. Oral history is both the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word, and one of the most modern, initiated with tape recorders in the 1940s and now using 21st-century digital technologies.”

Oral history is the relationship between memory and history, highlighting the lived experiences of ordinary people to gather primary source material. In the context of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter, this project is a crisis-based oral history that also responds to trauma caused by the current events.  

Why is this important?

COVID-19 has affected the United States in many, many ways and the Black Lives Matter movement continues to be at the forefront of social and civil justice in America. It is important to make sure that a real, truthful retelling of events is done in a way that is both accessible to the readers and relevant to our contemporary life. Additionally, it is crucial that these interviews be conducted as soon as possible to capture the strongest memories of the events.  As time goes on, memory can fade or change due to time and circumstances. It is important to document these milestone crisis events while they are fresh in people’s minds, so they are recorded and not lost to history. A huge aspect of this project as well is to uplift the voices of those who have been repressed by history, like the voices of people of color, women, and the working class. Now more than ever before, these people are standing up against institutional oppressors and so history should reflect their thoughts and opinions. It is also important to document how ruling bodies have failed the public, whether that be the government's poor handling of the pandemic or the continuous killing of people of color by the hands of police officers in America. The ten-year anniversary of the killing of Black Pace University student DJ Henry stands as a reminder that it is Pace University’s duty to tell the truths of those who have faced injustice.

What is the goal of this project?

The project’s goal is to archive these stories, documenting the COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter Movement in relation to members of the Pace community and the larger public in NYC and beyond into other parts of the country.  It is the hope that this project will also honor the memory of all those who have been lost due to the pandemic and police violence, particularly the death of DJ Henry who was a Pace student who died as a result of police brutality.

This fall, the course is setting the foundations for archiving – this includes conducting interviews, collecting other materials (like art and photography), and building a website to present the project. This project will span over the next few years in order to gather a vivid scope of this historical period. 

How can you get involved?

COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter have affected every person’s life in one way or another every day for the past six months. The project wants to record all experiences, the good and the bad, no matter how big or small. If you would like to be interviewed, submit art or photography, or add anything into the digital archive please reach out! You can contact Dr. Iacullo-Bird via email at [email protected] with any inquiries. The course will be offered again in Fall 2021 for those interested in working on the project.