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Tom Dent’s Southern Journey Oral Histories Launch Online

Three decades after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, writer Tom Dent undertook a journey across the southern United States. His goal was to find out if the sacrifices and hard-fought battles of the movement had resulted in any real, lasting change in the region. He visited cities and small towns from North Carolina to Mississippi, interviewing citizens and activists, both Black and White, collecting their impressions of the tumultuous era and their feelings about the current state of equality. By the end of his project, he had recorded more than a hundred audio interviews. For the first time ever, these stories are freely available online in their entirety.

Tom Dent, circa April 1981. Photo by Ellis Lucia

Thanks to a grant from the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, the Amistad Research Center has spent the past two years digitizing and describing the audio narratives of 119 people interviewed by Dent from 1991 to 1994. These interviews provided the basis for his 1997 book Southern Journey: A Return to the Civil Rights Movement. Dent visits the sites of notable, but often historically overlooked events of the movement. He stops in Orangeburg, South Carolina, where student protesters at South Carolina State University were gunned down by Highway Patrol officers in 1968, two years before the Kent State shootings. He visits St. Augustine, Florida, where the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference faced off against the Ku Klux Klan and its supporters in a series of violent incidents and court battles in the lead up to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He tours South Carolina’s Sea Islands, home to the Gullah people, where Esau Jenkins fought for the education of rural Black residents throughout decades of racism and suppression. There are many such stories, all highlighting the individuals who battled against incredible societal pressure to make life better for their communities, often receiving little recognition for their acts.

Southern Journey notebook, Selma interviews, August 5, 1991

The interviews are informal and conversational. Dent’s relaxed personality and skill connecting with his interview subjects comes through. Many of the subjects are old friends, and conversations occasionally veer off topic to Dent’s involvement in the Black Arts Movement and his experiences in his home town of New Orleans. He often references his turn as director of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and his travels to West Africa. He is unafraid of confronting his interview subjects with a differing viewpoint, giving his own reading of an event or relaying the contents of a previous conversation. He often asks his subjects to take him on guided tours of their hometowns and records their discussions as they drive. He laughs with his subjects as he snaps photographs of them and their surroundings. He repeatedly states his true goal within the project – to tell the stories that have often been left untold, and to record the stories of African Americans in their own words, free from outside interpretation. He encourages many of them to continue the process, suggesting topics they might research and books they might write themselves.

Tom Dent with Free Southern Theatre poster, undated

The Southern Journey Oral History Collection is one of several digital projects at Amistad funded by the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation with the goal of linking new digital technologies to student learning. The recordings join Dent’s interviews with activist and politician Andrew Young in the Tulane Digital Library. Begin the “Southern Journey” here.

Images from the Thomas C. Dent papers. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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