Making history come to life is sometimes like solving a mystery. To help unravel and understand the inquiry process, professional historian Phil Hoose provides the following insights into the craft of researching and writing history.
Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice
Claudette Colvin, in 1955, was a 15-year-old African American girl growing up in Alabama. She refused to surrender her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama a full nine months before Rosa Parks later became famous by doing the same thing.
I found out about Claudette while I was doing research for a book I wrote entitled We Were There Too: Young People in US History (Farrar 2001), which shows the incredible contribution that young people have made to US History.
I kept hearing this one story about this teenage girl who had done what Rosa Parks did, but earlier. I was fascinated by this story.
I think any person who sets out to write history worries about whether they’re getting it right and how to validate this. What I tried to do was, first of all, never to rely on a single source. I would read or interview from several sources, and thus get as much context as I could. Secondly, I sent the book out to a group of readers that included historians.
There were several kinds of sources that I used in making We Were There, Too! What I preferred were primary sources: journals, diaries that people wrote while they were young, and interviews. Essentially, I found that there weren’t that many journals and diaries written by young people, particularly back in the seventeenth century. And those who kept journals tended to be rich, well-educated kids, and more boys than girls. Often I would find that the diaries or the journals were not very interesting.
So, there was a secondary source that I ended up using a lot, and that was retrospective accounts of adults; that is, people who later wrote about their childhood once they grew up. Frederick Douglass, for example, wrote some wonderful things about his childhood.
Sometimes, and somewhat reluctantly, I used a tertiary source, which was accounts written by second or third parties — people who saw or knew somebody else when they were young. For example, we know about Sacagawea through the writings of Lewis and Clark.
Passion for Interviews
I find interviewees by delving into the material of whatever it is that I want to write about. I keep interviewing, and every interview is like a rose unfolding. There are more and more people identified to talk to, and after I while, I get to talking with them, too.
I record the interviews on tape, always with the permission of the interviewee. I have a tape recorder that hooks up to my phone. I wait a day or two and then I listen to it again. Sometimes I type out what people have said, but often I don’t. Then I pick the “greatest hits” from the interview and remind myself with notes about the highlights in the interview. Then I weave that material into the stories that I write.
Questions for encouraging students to do historical inquiry:
What historical events would you like to investigate?
Why do you think having multiple sources would be helpful?
What primary sources could you use? Secondary? Tertiary?
What can be gained from primary sources, unlike other sources?
If you were to do an oral history project, who would you interview and why?
This post was originally published as an article in Carin Bringelson and Nick Glass’ monthly column for School Library Monthly.