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Oral History Project Peeks Behind Scenes

Wasniewski arrived on the scene in 2002 as a publications specialist, when the Office of History and Preservation was created by the Clerk. The oral history project was authorized two years later, after Johnson came on board, to “capture the color that the official record doesn’t reflect,” Johnson said.

The next few years were spent tracking down people such as Swanson, who had been involved in some way with the House and had something to share. These efforts resulted in more than 100 hours of recordings with 40 individuals, including the first African-American page in Congress and Donnald Anderson, the Clerk of the House from 1960 to 1995. Nine of these interviews, including the biographies of the interviewees, audio and video, images and transcripts, are on the program’s website.

In addition to finding the people to interview, Wasniewski and Johnson — the only two people working on the project until publications specialist Albin Kowalewski was brought in last year — spent hours transcribing the interviews and editing the audio and video.

The design of the website took another year. It was officially launched in December, and since then it has received 6,000 to 9,000 hits a month.

A main goal of the project is for teachers and students to use it as a resource in their lesson plans and research, as well as to make the website as accessible to the public as possible, Johnson said.

“I get so excited when I realize people are visiting our website, as we’re still sitting here down in the basement,” she said.

 

A Family Affair

Cokie Roberts, Congressional correspondent and daughter of Democratic Louisiana Reps. Hale and Lindy Boggs, is one of the people the program contacted. Johnson had a list of things she was interested in finding out from Roberts, from growing up on the Hill to learning about the institution of the press galleries.

“I’ve been looking at these things for 60-plus years,” Roberts said. “That was the kind of perspective [the project] wanted.”

Johnson interviewed Roberts in two parts, once in 2007 and again in 2008. Roberts described her experience as a child of politicians as “totally interesting and fun.”

“They pretty much understood that their family life and their political life were one and that there was no separating them,” Roberts said in her 2007 interview. “We pretty much did everything. We went on campaign trips, we made speeches, we went to the blessing of the fleet or the opening of the headquarters. ... I mean, it was very, very much an active involvement.”

Roberts also described sitting in the galleries as a child to listen to speeches given by her father, who was a Member in 1941-42 and again from 1947 until his death in 1972.

“When he would speak, of course nothing was broadcast, so you’d have to come to the chamber to hear somebody, and it would kind of circulate through the office buildings,” she said. “‘Boggs is up.’ So people would come to the galleries and listen because he was such a fine orator.”

Roberts visited the website after its launch, and as a journalist, she loved seeing not only her stories told but those of others as well.

“Oral history is just fabulous,” she said. “It’s storytelling at its best.”

 

An African-American Pioneer

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