ETHNIC ORAL HISTORY PROJECT, 1977-1978
* Hover over image for captions.
The Ethnic Oral History Project began in late 1976, when Society staff applied to the National Endowment for the Humanities for a grant to hire interviewers and transcribers to tape life histories of local members of the African American and Mexican American communities. Although the Society did not receive that grant, the staff successfully applied for federal funds from the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), which offered job training to low income individuals.
The project kicked off in July 1977 with a budget of $33,147. The funds were used primarily for staff, two interviewers and two transcribers. Over the next few months, the Society Archivist, Ronald Noricks, PhD., Vivian Jones, and Ben Garza started reaching out to the Fresno community for participants. During this time, an additional $200.00 was received for the project from the Gemco Scholarship and Charitable Foundation. By November 1977, Lucia G. Cabral was added to the team to replace departing interviewers and Mary C. Hernandez was hired for transcription. In May 1978, Patricia A. Dimry conducted a few final interviews which concluded in June of that year.
The oral histories were guided by a series of questions posed by the interviewer. Topics were wide ranging and included each interviewee’s background and what schools he or she attended, political interests and affiliations, when and why he or she moved to Fresno County, life in the region’s African American and Mexican American communities in years prior to World War I, identification of and discussions about community leaders, discrimination, reaction to World War I, the KKK, the Depression, the Red Scare in the 1920s, Prohibition, reaction to Pearl Harbor and World War II, the Bracero Program and Civil Rights activities.
These personal narratives are an amazing resource for the community, educators, and students alike. The fourteen oral histories are available to stream below and each are accompanied by a summary and transcript. These oral histories were summarized and digitized by archives volunteer Meghyn Torabi.
* Please note that language and vernacular in oral histories are, by their nature, meant to reflect common usage of the day. Through this unedited method, historical accuracy is preserved rather than interpreted.
FEATURED STORY FROM THIS COLLECTION
William Arthur Bigby Jr. is remembered as one of Fresno’s most remarkable civic leaders. Born in Colusa, California on November 1, 1892, Bigby and his family came to Fresno when he was seven years old. In 1888, his mother's family helped found the first African American church in Fresno. The members of the Second Baptist Church elected Reverend Edward Lindsey, Bigby’s maternal grandfather, to be their first pastor. Bigby attended Fresno schools and became the first African American graduate of Fresno High School in 1912. He was drafted into World War I where he spent fourteen months in Europe and attained the rank of First Sergeant in the Army. In this rare 1917 photograph, Bigby, on the left, is shown with local friends just prior to being shipped off to Europe.
Bigby had a history of standing up for himself and his community and fought injustice even while serving in the Army. When he returned from the war, Bigby found the local American Legion posts were not very accepting of African American veterans, so he founded American Legion Post 511 and served as its president. He continued to battle racism in the Central Valley wherever he was able, particularly through community engagement.
World War I soldiers pose for portrait, William A. Bigby, Jr. on left, 1917.
Mr. Bigby became president of the Negro Citizen’s Advancement League of West Fresno in 1927, and was a 33rd degree Mason as a member of the Prince Hall Order of the Free and Accepted Masons. He volunteered with many agencies and charities in Fresno, including the Boys Club of Fresno, the United Givers, the March of Dimes and the Red Cross. Bigby was one of the first directors of the Valley Children’s Hospital and served for sixteen years on the Edison High School Advisory Board. Bigby also held a seat on the citizens advisory committee that was forerunner to the Fresno City and County Housing Authority. In 1972, a 180-unit, low income housing project was named in his honor. Bigby Villa was located on Lorena Avenue between Bardell Avenue and Clara Street. At the time of his death in 1981, at age eighty-eight, Bigby had received many honors for his community service.
William Bigby’s story was one of the first recorded for the Ethnic Oral History Project in December 1976 and his enthusiastic participation and support helped make the endeavor a success. He connected Society staff to his sister, Ruby G. Pierro, his niece, Lucy G. Crossley, and his sister-in-law Mary T. Bigby. Several stunning photographs of Fresno’s early African American community were provided by Mr. Bigby when his oral history was recorded, including a rare photograph of the African American Cubs Baseball Team and an early image of his maternal grandmother, Mrs. Bridget Lindsey. These images form the foundation of the Fresno County Historical Society’s local African American collections.
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