Stories of the Bronx in the 1970s often focus on the borough as a symbol of urban decay.
But a new book, Bronx Faces and Voices: Sixteen Stories of Courage and Community, focuses on the people who played a positive role in that era of the borough’s history.
The book, recently published by Texas Tech University Press, is a collection of oral histories told to Emita Hill in the early 1980s. Hill and her collaborator Janet Munch spoke at the Bartow-Pell Mansion on Thursday, February 26 as part of the museum’s local author spotlight series.
The original oral histories were collected as part of the Bronx Regional History Project, directed by Hill when she was a professor at Lehman College.
More than 400 oral histories, in addition to photographs and other documents, were collected and archived as part of the project. Hill herself conducted 30 interviews about Bronxite’s experiences before and during the 1970s.
Hill left Lehman College after 20 years for University of Indiana Kokomo in 1990, but said the conversations she had with Bronxites through the project stuck with her.
“I had never forgotten these stories,” said Hill.
The project sought out community leaders and activists, and Hill said that her interview subjects would often lead her to other individuals she would not have found on her own.
“They were guiding me to interesting people who were not making headlines,” said Hill.
Their stories illustrate a strong sense of community during a relatively unstable time.
“These were the people that didn’t leave,” said Hill. “These were good people protecting their communities, protecting each other through the worst of it.”
Nearly 30 years after the oral histories were initially documented and archived, Hill decided she wanted to share them with a larger audience.
She organized 16 of her most interesting interviews with activists, religious leaders and politicians—edited with a light hand—into the publication.
“I wasn’t writing a book, I was documenting memories,” said Hill of the process.
And while the stories she’s documented are deeply personal, they are also of historic value.
In order to create a book that would be useful to academics, Hill collaborated with Munch, an associate professor and special collections librarian at Lehman College.
Using Lehman College’s archives, Munch wrote the extensive, illuminating footnotes that add context to the subjects’ stories.
“I was able to draw on all the resources we have,” she said. “The oral histories that are in the book are just part of the collection.”.
“It takes you back in time,” said Munch.
Bronx Faces and Voices is available in print and as an e-book through Amazo