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[Detail] Woman living with her family of four in an old street car.

Critical Thinking

The personal stories in this collection provide a powerful account of American history. Students will find the stories engaging and thought provoking. The many personalities, events, and topics covered by this collection provide rich opportunities for students to develop historical thinking skills.

Chronological Thinking

There is no obvious chronological organizer for the collection as a whole, but as students search individual narratives, they can construct sequences for historical events as described in these firsthand accounts. Students might examine the development of railroads over time, the changes in labor conditions, or the roles of immigrants in America.

Search on immigrant, labor, railroad. For example,

Search on railroad for text such as:

You ask me, among other subjects, if I can tell you anything of the early Chinese laborers here in Oregon, and their life as it touched our own people. I can remember, when a boy in Polk County, in the [18]'70s there was nearly always a gang of Chinese coolies working somewhere about, either on our farm, grubbing the scrub oak, or grading with shovels on the railroad construction. Chinese coolies most of them from China's southern provinces were brought to the Pacific Coast by the thousands in those early construction days, when our steamshovels of today were yet unheard of.

From the life history: "Oregon: [Early Reminiscences--Chinese]," [February 13, 1939]

Historical Comprehension

As students investigate the life stories, each interview will guide them on a journey in which they can learn about the narrator's motivations, intentions, hopes, fears, strengths, and weaknesses. These personal stories provide an exciting way for students to study topics in American history.

Search on family, law, medicine, names of occupations, politics, religion, social customs. For example,

Search on politics for text such as:

"Votes used to be bought -- that is before the secret ballot was adopted. Some sold 'em pretty cheap. I remember one old fellow who sold out to one party for a dollar -- then sold out to the other for the same price. The lad that bought his vote first caught him at the polls and took the ballot away from him. Used to be fights at the polls -- very frequently.

But one thing, by God, you might mention -- they didn't have to go after anyone and give 'em a ride to the polls the way they do now. People appreciated the franchise and they didn't have to be urged to vote ."

From the life history: "Connecticut: [Politics, WPA, etc.], [January 10, 1939]


Historical Analysis and Interpretation

Each narrative in this collection allows students to experience history from an intensely personal perspective. Students can compare accounts of similar issues or events and study different points of view on conditions in history. Using the interviews, students can begin to understand the interpretive nature of historical investigation and the elusive task of recreating the past.

Search on topics such as cities, farming, settlement, war, work. For example,

Search on education for text such as:

I stopped school when I was in the seventh grade...."Of courses I didn't think much about quitting school then, but I can see now what it might have meant to me to continue and my main interest in life now is to see that my children get a college education. I am not ashamed to work in a mill, but at the same time I would like for my children to be prepared for something better. I don't see any reason why anybody with reasonable health cannot give their children educational advantages this day and time. My girl is twelve, she is almost through the grammar grades and will have a good high school right here at our door where she will be able to learn more in one year than I learned by the time I got married [at 16].

From the life history: "[Margie Rushing]," [January 22, 1941]

And search on education for text such as:

Soon after the War between the States and after the war clouds had cleared away there were a number of northern whites who gave up home comforts and lucrative positions to come South to devote their lives to the education of the Negro.. . [The South] had prohibited the education of Negroes, who, until after Emancipation, were merely looked upon as machines. Well, when Atlanta University was first begun my grandfather was one who assisted in getting food and other necessities for the teachers. As a child, my mother used to tell me and my sisters, how grandfather had worked hard to support his family and gave generously to the teachers at Atlanta University who were paving a way for the education of the Negro. She said he would purchase his groceries on Saturday for his immediate family and then carry all he could to Atlanta University for the teacher. He sent his children there. He had four children, two sons and two daughters. Three of his children graduated from Atlanta University, one of whom happened to be my mother.

From the life history: "Georgia: [Unable to Stage a Comeback]," [October 27, 1939]

Historical Research Capabilities

Students can use the collection to gather primary source evidence about many aspects of American history. For example, students might want to research the role of medicine and health care in the United States.

Search on medicine, medical, illness, sick, doctor, health. For example,

Search on doctor for text such as:

Asked what is the greatest hardship for a woman and her family, in times such as she passed through, Mary said, "First of all, it was hard to be so far away from a doctor, especially for expectant mothers. If you did not have family folks to go to somewhere in civilization, you had to just trust God and the next neighbor. During those awful days of reconstruction, we often had no one to help us but some neighbor or perhaps a colored mammy. If the case was a hard one, as it often was, the woman would perhaps die and the child, too, before someone could go all the way to town and bring the doctor back. Of course if we could, we went somewhere within reach of help, but some women had no place to go."

From the life history: "Florida: [The story of Immokalee]," [December 16, 1938]

Historical Issue Analysis and Decision Making

Students can study the collection to experience the historian's dilemma of assessing credibility of a primary source. Students might answer questions such as:

  • Who produced the interview?
  • Why was the interview produced?
  • When was the interview produced?
  • What time periods does the interview cover?
  • Do you think the interview subject's story is believable? Why or why not?
  • Do you think the interviewer influenced the subject? Why or why not?

Search on story for text such as:

She tried to make everything nice her first Friday in America, she had plenty of everything.... She felt very proud of the kitchen. She came from a small city where they didn't have these things. So after everything was all done she looked for a place where to put everything for tomorrow, because you know they don't cook on Saturday. So she was looking around the kitchen where to put her things and she discovered a little door there. So she opens the door and she sees there is a kind of a pretty big closet there with one shelf. The only thing is that it is dirty there. ...So she takes a pail of warm water and she scrubs out this closet and she makes it clean like gold. And then she takes the fish and the chicken and the soup and she puts it in there.

When her husband came home she begins to rave about the wonderful Schabbus (Sabbath) she made him her first week in America. So she sets the table and she puts the Cholloh on and then she goes to take out the fish and the other things from the closet . So all excited she gives an open-up-the-door to take out the stuff. There is no closet ! Nothing! Only a hole there. There is no Sabbath. So she got scared and she tells her husband that she put away all the things in the closet and now it is all gone, even the closet, and she can't make it out. So he noticed already that it was in the dumbwaiter she went to get out the food. So he tells her she can kiss the Schabbus (Sabbath) good-bye because her closet had been pulled down by the janitor.

From the life history: "New York: [Greenhorn Stories]," [October 26, 1938]