In honor of Montclair’s 150th anniversary in 2018, the Montclair History Center began work on an oral history project, hoping to collect and share the memories of longtime Montclair residents, especially those whose histories have often gone unrecognized.

Oral histories provide a “specialized history” that cannot be captured through newspaper articles or township records, Angelica Diggs, the History Center’s executive director, said. 

“Everyone has a very personalized and individual experience in Montclair, depending on what part of Montclair you're living in, what cultural or ethnic background you come from,” Diggs said.  “Every person recalled different memories from businesses to locations, and how that had impacted the area and their families.”

Now the center has begun to release the interviews and transcriptions on its website, hoping to share Montclair’s history through a news lens. 

The project focused on community members whose histories have not often been captured, including Black, Italian and Irish residents, Diggs said. 

“If we don't record and talk to these community members who grew up here and shaped Montclair into what it is, we're going to lose that history,” she said.

While the center collected oral histories in the past, the staff had never embarked on an oral history project on this scale. With funding from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, the center planned to interview 20 to 30 people for the project, Diggs said, but ended up talking to more than 60. 

The center leaned on community partners, asking local community groups and churches to help identify Montclair’s long-term residents. Interviews were conducted at the center’s office, in the interview subjects’ homes, at the Montclair Public Library and elsewhere, she said. She served as assistant director at the time of the project. 

The center also collaborated with Christopher Matthews, a Montclair resident and professor of anthropology at Montclair State University, and 15 of his students to conduct interviews. Matthews, also a historical archaeologist, serves as acting chair of the anthropology department.

“It was a really rewarding, community-engaged project for us at Montclair State and for my students,” he said. “Getting to do real work rather than just read about what other people are doing is always a good thing.”

Matthews said he trained his students in community history research and how to conduct interviews. Then each student conducted at least one interview with someone who used to live in Montclair’s Pine Street neighborhood, a historically working-class, Italian-American neighborhood that became increasingly Black as time went on, he said. 

“The biggest barrier is having someone feel that what they know is of interest to anyone at all,” he said. “Most people think what they do from day to day, the kind of routines, the people they knew, they don't think any of that's remarkable.”

So Matthews tells his students to be respectful, to listen, to ask follow-up questions and to help the interview subjects “understand that what they have to share is really special.”

“It's the common people, the common things that make a community what it is,” he said. “The stories that lie within the memories of the people who lived at that time might be the only way we'll ever understand what most people thought of things, what most people did.”

By the time the project wrapped up, more than 60 interviews had been completed.

“We wanted anyone who wanted to be interviewed to be part of the project,” Diggs said.

The Montclair History Center is in the process of transcribing all the interviews and making them available online, she said. As of Tuesday, seven interviews have been posted. But the transcription process is tedious and requires a deep knowledge of Montclair history, she added. 

“You need someone who is a skilled editor and understands certain nuances of how people are talking about certain businesses, locations and memories,” Diggs said.

Two of the center’s board members are taking on the job, she said.  

But while the process can be time-consuming, she hopes the project can continue to grow. 

“There are so many other community members and groups from other cultural backgrounds that we still need to talk to,” Diggs said. “I definitely would like to see this project continue and expand over time.”

Full transcriptions and audio files for the interviews are available on the Montclair
History Center’s website at montclairhistory.org/oral-history-150.

Recountings of earlier days: Montclair oral histories