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50 Years/50 Collections: Kim Lacy Rogers and the Voices of the New Orleans Civil Rights Movement

Although our collections richly chronicle the ethnic experience throughout America, visitors to Amistad often assume, because of our location in New Orleans, that our holdings only document the history of African Americans within the city. However, one of the strongest collections at Amistad regarding the Civil Rights Movement deals with our host city. The Kim Lacy Rogers collection came to Amistad in installments, beginning in 1979, and is one of the first multimedia collections Amistad received. The collection consists primarily of oral histories—interviews that Rogers conducted in the 1970s and 1980s with New Orleans activists. These narratives informed her book, Righteous Lives: Narratives of New Orleans' Civil Rights Movement, considered by many to be the definitive book on the civil rights struggle in New Orleans. Originally housed on 151 audio cassette tapes, the interviews were digitized to secure them on a more stable and accessible format. The voices included in the collection were from local luminaries such as Oretha Castle Haley, Raphael Cassimere, Daniel Byrd, Albert Dent, Lolis Elie, Rosa Keller, Moon Landrieu, John O'Neal, John P. Nelson, and Betty Wisdom. Rogers conducted interviews with a few local segregationist leaders, as well. Some of the typical themes covered were: discussions of childhood involvement in the New Orleans NAACP Youth Council; first-hand descriptions of public school desegregation from the perspectives of students and parent activists; picketing, sit-ins, and other protest demonstrations at stores such as Woolworth's; and the role of local colleges and universities in the movement. Alice Thompson's 1988 interview is one example of a rich narrative from a lesser-heard voice in New Orleans activism. She described her involvement with the NAACP's youth program, and how her parents trained her and her siblings to answer "yes" and "no" rather than "yes, ma'am" because her parents did not want their children to conform to segregation-era manners of addressing White adults. Thompson explained how her father lost his job due to his children’s activism and how he later became an activist in the 1970s. Her father’s activism transformed him into "one of the most militant people in the Lower Ninth Ward." She detailed her earliest activist experiences, which included protesting at Woolworth's on Canal Street, and her involvement with voter registration drives in smaller Louisiana towns like Clinton, Hammond, and Plaquemine. She highlighted the mentorship of figures such as Oretha Castle Haley, Rudy Lombard, and Jerome Smith, and noted her disappointment that "not too much has changed" in the few decades since the Civil Rights Movement: "You can legislate laws but you can't legislate feelings" she said. Kim Lacy Roger's work with New Orleans activists began in graduate school at the University of Minnesota, and she would go on to become a leading figure in the field of oral history. She served as president of the Oral History Association and won the Oral History Association Book Award for her work Life and Death in the Delta: African American Narratives of Violence, Resilience, and Social Change. Rogers spent her entire career on the faculty of Dickinson College, and died unexpectedly in 2014. The finding aid for the Kim Lacy Rogers collection is located here.

Image from the Connie Harse papers. Images from the Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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