Philadelphia Immigration is a collaboration among students in West Chester University’s spring 2018 HIS 480: Digital History, HON 451: Immigration and Digital Storytelling, spring 2019 HIS 399/HON 451: Oral History of Philadelphia Immigration, and spring 2021 HON 451/HIS480/HIS601: Philadelphia Immigration Stories; WCU professors Janneken Smucker and Charles Hardy; Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries; the Free Library of Philadelphia; and numerous regional institutions, who have generously supported the project.
During an era in which immigration is at the forefront of political and public policy discussions, history is a valuable lens through which we can consider immigrants' first-hand perspectives.
“Interviewing someone for their immigration experience forces the interviewer to listen. It is a way to absorb a part of history from the viewpoint of one person. Listening to the single story of one immigrant helped me to make sense of Chinese history far more than I did before.” – Annika Soderberg, spring 2019.
These courses provided opportunities for students to work closely with archival oral history interviews conducted with individuals who immigrated to Philadelphia during the dramatic wave of immigration occurring at the turn of the twentieth century, and to conduct their own oral history interviews with more recent immigrants in Philadelphia and its suburbs. In doing so, these students and public audiences interacting with this project consider what it means to be an American, the motivations that compel emigrants to leave their home countries, and the ways in which American society has welcomed and rejected immigrants in our midst. Through detailed crafting of interview indexes, curation of exhibits, and production of experimental digital storytelling projects, students examined the experiences of immigrants from 100 years ago and today, in order to better contemplate the realities facing today’s immigrants.
This project draws on both student oral history interviews conducted in 2019 and archival interviews conducted in the early 1980s for I Remember When: Times Gone But Not Forgotten, a series of 13, 30-38 minute radio documentaries broadcast on WHYY-FM, Public Radio in Philadelphia, written and produced by Charles Hardy III. The series explored the history of Philadelphia during its industrial heyday through the memories of those who had lived through it. The programs documented work experiences, family and neighborhood life, the life experiences of immigrants and industrial workers, city politics, the Influenza pandemic of 1918, courtship and romance, and city culture.
The oral history project conducted to produce I Remember When included interviews with thirty-nine women and fifty-eight men. Of these, there were twenty-two first or second-generation Jews, nineteen Italians, seven Irish, six African Americans, four Poles, three Czechs, two Hungarians, one Chinese and one Mexican. The occupational breakdown included factory and construction workers, housewives, lawyers, politicians, business owners, newspaper reporters, labor organizers, doctors, and a professional boxer. More than half of the people interviewed did not make it into programs, so many of these voices are available here for the first time. All of the interviews are archived at the Nunn Center.
To document the life experiences of the new wave of immigrants currently living in Philadelphia, West Chester University students and faculty in spring 2019 conducted oral history interviews with fourteen women and six men in contemporary immigrant communities, creating the next layer of the Philadelphia Immigration digital project. Of these, six were Chinese, three Iraqis, two from Nigeria, and one from Colombia, India, Italy, Liberia, Mexico, Sierra Leone, the Soviet Union, and Vietnam; and one migrant from Puerto Rico. Ranging in age from to twenty-one to eighty-three, they include a bank executive, dental assistant, college students, doctor, home care worker, medical interpreter, mother, and social entrepreneur.
In the midst of the Covid Pandemic, students in spring 2021 worked virtually on new digital storytelling projects that compare and contrast immigrant life experiences separated by 100 years—in the early 1900s and early 2000s.
The history of African American lives in Philadelphia was the subject of a subsequent oral history and radio documentary project, Goin’ North: Tales of the Great Migration, broadcast on WHYY in 1984, and is the subject of the Goin’ North: Stories from the First Great Migration to Philadelphia digital project, created by West Chester University students between 2014 and 2016, which served as a model for this project.
Philadelphia Immigration has been generously supported by grants from West Chester University's College of Arts and Humanities, including the Research and Creative Activities Award and the Equity, Access, Inclusion, and Diversity Initiatives Grant, a Lindback Distinguished Teaching Award, and by the WCU History Department's Drayer Fund. Support for the development of the OHMS Suite of Omeka plugins and the Philly theme came from the American Historical Association's Roy Rosenzweig Award for Innovation in Digital History. The project also has received West Chester University's 2018 Technology Showcase Award.
To learn more about the 2018 launch of Philadelphia Immigration see Hidden City Philadelphia.