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Oral History

Oral History Collection at the Social Security Administration

The SSA History Office has added to its online oral history catalogue in recent years. The interviews focus on the administrative and institutional history of the Social Security program. At the core are the older oral histories conducted in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the newer ones conducted since 1995. In addition, the office is gathering interviews from the Oral History Center at Columbia University, completed in the 1960s. Transcripts for most of these are not yet available online, but included is one for Arthur J. Altmeyer, a key member of the President’s Committee on Economic Security that drafted the original legislative proposal in 1934, and Commissioner for Social Security from 1937 to 1953. The website also lists interviews that the office is gathering from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and from collections at the Presidential libraries and other institutions.

John J. Corson as Director of BOASI, circa 1938 (SSA History Archives)

John J. Corson as Director of BOASI, circa 1938 (SSA History Archives)

An excerpt follows from an interview with John J. Corson on March 3, 1967. Corson was Assistant Executive Director of the Social Security Board in 1936–38, and he served as the Director of the Bureau of Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (BOASI) in 1938-41 and 1943–44.

“Now during that time there also came the 1939 Advisory Council. And the 1939 Advisory Council came at a time when one of the big issues was, “Should we commence the payment of the benefits earlier?” because there was a certain impatience growing up in the country. They had heard about social security and social security was a good thing, but the only benefits that were being paid in 1938 were very minimal benefits to people who died and had made contributions and essentially there was a return of their contributions. We weren’t really providing security in any fashion at all. And that benefits which were the monthly benefits that might be expected to give security to people who retired weren’t scheduled to commence until January 1, 1942. As a consequence, in the Social Security Advisory Council of 1939 the big issue was “Should we pay benefits earlier?”—the public demand for some production. Social security was a nice dream but it wasn’t doing anything. Here we’d been talking about it now for 3 years but, moreover, we’d been collecting contributions for 3 years and there was great debate as to “Can’t you get going, can’t we actually start paying benefits?” That was related to the administrative effectiveness of the Bureau, as the Bureau has now gotten to a point that it can start paying benefits, that it’s got its machinery in such shape. And my task between March of ’38 and the fall of ’39 when this Council was (meeting) was to get this Bureau in such shape that we could say with assurance, “Yes, we can handle it. We can handle it January 1, 1940,” which was really quite early.”



Oral Histories Key to New VHA History

James P. Rife

Dr. Kenneth W. Kizer, 1995

Dr. Kenneth W. Kizer, 1995

(excerpted from The Federalist, Fall 2014. For full issue and to subscribe: )

. . .the agency’s knowledge of its history had become fragmented, incomplete, and often ignored due to routine staff turnovers, changing administrations, and shifting priorities. Even worse, we found that VHA had preserved very little headquarters documentation of historical value, disposing of much of it during a 1990s renovation project at the VA’s Central Office. Likewise, much of the agency’s older electronic records, including emails, presentations, policy papers, and photographic illustrations, had been discarded or wiped clean from recycled hard drives, without any thought to historic preservation. The National Archives did not hold any relevant materials either. Its VA collection in Record Group 15 ended in the 1930s with the records of the old Civil War soldiers’ homes. And while the federal records centers do maintain virtual mountains of VHA records, these were all unprocessed, mostly undescribed, subject to Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations, and therefore unavailable. . . .

We were ultimately able to fill many gaps using sources held in the VA’s in-house library, the Library of Congress, and the National Library of Medicine. However the key to the project’s success turned out to be our oral history program, in which interviewees provided insight into the changes that took place and shared their own stories within the context of the larger narrative. Over a two-year period, I conducted nearly 30 oral histories with all of the agency’s former Under Secretaries for Health and many of the original Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISN) directors, who carried out VHA’s transformation in the 1990s and 2000s. A key early interview was conducted with VHA’s second Under Secretary, Dr. Kenneth W. Kizer, who was the architect of that transformation. During a late afternoon session in March 2010, he described the administrative and political maneuvering that went on behind the scenes to achieve his congressionally mandated goals. It was fascinating history.

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Women in the Federal Government Oral History Project

The Columbia Center for Oral History has a collection of oral interviews with women civil servants of the 21st century, taken 1981–88.

A partial transcription follows from the oral history with Isabelle M. Kelley, an employee of the Department of Agriculture, 1940–1973. She helped develop the Food Stamp Program and became its first national director in the 1960s, and served as an assistant deputy and administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service.

Isabelle M. Kelley

Isabelle M. Kelley

So very soon, the agency, including the deputy administrator and me, as the division director, were working very closely with the assistant secretary. . . . But clearly the pressures [on the White House] were too great, and I remember late in May of ’69, four or five o’clock in the afternoon, Howard Davis and I were called to the assistant secretary’s office, and there were three young men from the White House staff there, and subsequently Secretary Harden, whom I have met before, joined the meeting briefly, and they had decided, the White House had decided, that the time was right to send a message to the Congress on the hunger issue, which would be primarily limited to food stamps at that time, and that these young men were there to find that—were going to write the message overnight, and was going to be delivered the next day, and that they were there to discuss the details of the revisions. . . . and the next day the May 1969 hunger issue message was delivered to the Congress announcing that there would be a legislation nominated liberalizing the program, and that there would be an accompanying request for a substantial increase—several hundred million dollars, as I recall—to fund this program.

Additional interviews in this project, are at the Columbia Center for Oral History at

In addition, The American Folklife Center provides information on 39 oral histories from the Women in the Federal Government Oral History Project, 1981–83 ( The collection contains oral histories of “black women who broke racial barriers including Charlotte Moton Hubbard, who became deputy assistant secretary of state for public affairs in 1964, Eleanor L. Makel, who became one of the highest ranking black women in government during the Kennedy administration,” and others.

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USDA Celebrates Civil Rights Act AnniversaryFreedom Riders 3

The Department of Agriculture’s video feature “Week in Review” is an appealing way to learn of activities and programs at the agency. The review for August 22, 2014, features a look at the agency’s recent forum marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Former Freedom riders joined to discuss that historic effort, including Rev. Reginald Green and Joan Mulholland, both interviewed in the video. See this review edition and past ones at The USDA’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights has also worked with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History by displaying their traveling Freedom Riders exhibit at USDA’s Whitten Building located in Washington, DC, through September 17, 2014. The very comprehensive exhibit explores the Freedom Rides through detailed narratives, photographs and newspaper clippings. An online version of the exhibit, created as a companion to PBS’s AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, is available at

The online exhibit provides a detailed overview of the Freedom Rides from their start on May 4, 1961, through the imprisonment of hundreds of Riders at Parchman Prison, to the ICC’s Sept. 22 ruling against segregation on interstate transportation. The story is told through dramatic narratives and images, news headlines, and select oral testimonies that include those of Freedom Rider coordinator Diane Nash; John Lewis; Frank Thomas on the violence in Anniston, Alabama; John Seigenthaler on Birmingham, Alabama; John Lewis and James Zwerg on the violence in Montgomery; James Lawson on the ride from to Montgomery Jackson; Hank Thomas and Jane Mulholland on their stay at Parchman Prison; and Bernard Lafayette.


NIH Resources on AIDS Research

“Over 600 patients have now been reported as having this disease, and the disease is called an epidemic because it’s occurring at a slightly increased frequency in recent weeks.”

— Dr. Kenneth Sell, 1982 radio interview

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci

The Office of NIH History at the National Institutes of Health has a website devoted to the early years of research on AIDS titled “In Their Own Words: NIH Researchers Recall the Early Years of AIDS” ( The site provides an introduction to the discovery of the retrovirus; early efforts to mobilize resources and research; information on research through the years; a timeline of milestones, 1981–1988; documents and images; a bibliography; and links to other agencies, offices, and organizations involved in research and treatment. The introductions are clear and concise on the technical nature of the disease, research, and breakthroughs in treatment and medicines, and they relay the urgency and fears of those early years. We learn that

“The first two AIDS patients admitted to the NIH research hospital arrived six months apart–in June 1981 and in January 1982–but many more filled beds soon thereafter. In the early years, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases recalls, it “was like living in an intensive care unit all day long.” The patients were very sick, and despite the best efforts of NIH’s dedicated doctors and nurses, most patients eventually died. There was much to learn about the new disease and much to learn about the community hard-hit by the first wave of the epidemic, gay men.”

But its most valuable resource is the collection of oral histories with many of the doctors, nurses, and medical researchers involved at that time. They include, to name only a few, Ms. Barbara Fabian Baird, R.N.; Samuel Broder, M.D.; Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., and NIAID director since 1984; Robert Gallo, M.D., co-discoverer of the human immunodeficiency virus; Henry Masur, M.D., one of the first physicians to see a patient with AIDS; Jack Whitescarver, Ph.D., who organized meetings across the country to inform people about AIDS; James Curran, M.D., head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) initial AIDS Task Force; and Peter Piot, M.D., Ph.D., founding director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, known as UNAIDS, and later president of the International AIDS Society.


Rosie the Riveter & More

Historians and other researchers need to know the value of the National Park Service’s extensive collection of oral histories. The NPS collection is second only in volume to that of the U.S. military services. Lu Ann Jones, staff historian with the National Park Service’s Park History Program, writes that NPS’s oral histories document the people and events that parks honor, and enable park management to make “decisions as they contribute to historic resource studies, cultural landscape reports, and administrative histories.” But these testimonies touch so many important events, movements, and monuments in our nation’s history that historians of all types will find them of great value. Like most oral histories, they provide a dimension of detail and human experience and emotion that traditional sources often lack.

The NPS histories are especially remarkable in their topical diversity, resulting from the wide range of cultural and natural resources in its care, from national parks to former military sites, detention camps, and immigration centers. The histories record memories of consequential events going back to the 1930s from over 141 NPS sites, including Central High School in Little Rock, Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, Manzanar National Historic Site, and the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park. They provide information on rapidly changing cultural and social traditions, such as the subsistence activities of native Alaskans. And they capture the memories of immigrants who passed through Ellis Island.

Read Lu Ann Jones’s article and explore these histories online through the links below.


1.  National Park Service Oral History Program

•  “Directory of Oral History in the National Park Service”
•  Oral histories

2.  Article by Lu Ann Jones
»» The Federalist, Fall 2010, “Capturing the Spirit of History: Oral History in the National Park Service.”




Probing Oral History Contributions

January 2013

An introduction by Andrea Hajek to the 2013 issue of Memory Studies provides valuable insights into our evolving understanding of the usefulness and practice of oral history. She notes the leadership of Italian, French, British, and German historians in this discipline, here in their studies of 1968 movements (the focus of this journal issue) as the first “world revolution.” Oral histories allow the personal perspective to come forward as a counterweight to the traditional predominance of the political narrative. In that openness to personal testimony we are learning that the 1968 era was not exclusively an ideological conflict but “an existential and generational” one as well. But, she notes, we must account for the subjectivity, and potential unreliability, of oral history while we understand its value in connecting personal identity and memory and “collective memory.” In that respect, previously “silenced” history can make its contribution, often revealing the varied ways in which individuals might support a political movement, work to quietly change it from within, or even withdraw into private social networks. A more complex view of the past then emerges. One author in the issue probes the “inter-subjectivity” of the interview itself, “how her own age, sex and subjectivity influenced the interview process as well as the level of composure or discomposure” of her interviewees. Another looks at two women who experienced the 1968 generational divide differently—thus the interplay of personal perspectives and social developments. Hajek reminds us that not only can oral history expand our understanding of the shared past and its affect on individuals but that “life-writing techniques,” despite their difficulties and limitations, help us understand the perceived past—“the impact of personal and political experiences on subjectivities.”

—Benjamin Guterman

Andrea Hajek, “Challenging dominant discourses of the past: 1968 and the value of oral history,” Memory Studies 2013. Online version at

Memory Studies



Institutional History Division of the Smithsonian Institution Archives


“Oral history interviews by federal historical offices have revealed day-to-day life in the committee rooms of Capitol Hill, traced the space race, and documented battlefield experiences in Vietnam,” writes Pamela M. Henson, Director of the Institutional History Division of the Smithsonian Institution Archives in Washington, DC. She cautions, however, that federal historians must have a firm grounding in the relevant legal and ethical issues involved.

In an article in The Federalist in summer 2008, she explains some of these critical considerations that include copyright, human subjects research, power relationships, defamation, and FOIA. She notes that a federal employee or contractor does not own the copyright to an interview, but the employing agency may. Furthermore, she writes that “when not covered by national security or privacy considerations, the work of federal agencies is in the public domain.” There are privacy concerns also that may restrict the use of the interview, but they can be subject to request through subpoena or the Freedom of Information Act.

She also delves into the concerns of defamation and the issue of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) that have been in place to evaluate oral history projects in recent decades. Ethical questions are of high concern, as the interviewer should disclose the methods used and the interviewee’s legal rights, and if the interview will be posted on the Internet and how. The OHA’s Evaluation Guidelines are of great value on these questions.

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Note:  See our Bibiography for useful references and web sites on oral history work.


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