Behind the Veil: Documenting African American Life in the Jim Crow South interviews, photographs, and project records, circa 1864-2011, bulk 1990-2004

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Duke University. Center for Documentary Studies, Behind the Veil Project , Chafe, William H., 1942-, Korstad, Robert Rogers, and Gavins, Raymond
The Behind the Veil: Documenting African-American Life in the Jim Crow South project was undertaken by Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies from 1990-2005. Its goal was to record and preserve African American experiences in the American South from the 1890s to the 1950s. Materials in the Behind the Veil project collection date from about 1864 to 2011, with the bulk dating from the 1990s; earlier dates represent original image content rather than the reproduction date. The collection comprises over 1200 oral history interviews with associated transcripts and administrative files, several thousand historic and contemporary photographs, and project records, which include paper and electronic administrative files and audiovisual recordings. Oral histories were conducted in 19 locations, chiefly in the South; topics represented in these recordings include childhood, religion, education, politics, celebrations and other events, family histories, work histories and military service, and details about segregation and the effects of racism in the South. Acquired as part of the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African American History and Culture at Duke University.
87 Linear Feet (122 boxes; 4 oversize folders)
Collection ID:


Scope and content:

Materials in the Behind the Veil project collection date from about 1864 to 2011, with the bulk dating from the 1990s; earlier dates represent original image content rather than the reproduction date. The core component of the collection comprises over 1200 oral histories conducted by Behind the Veil interviewers with African Americans in cities, towns, and rural locations in Georgia; Arkansas; Michigan; Alabama; North Carolina; Los Angeles, California; Mississippi; Tennessee; Kentucky; Louisiana; Virginia; South Carolina, and Florida. The majority of the interviews were conducted during summers between 1993 to 1995, with additional interviews added from 1995 to 2004. These interviews, originally recorded by Behind the Veil staff and volunteers on audiocassettes, have been digitized; in addition, all other project records and images are currently being digitized and will be made available as they are ingested into the Duke Digital Repository.

A second core component consists of over 2100 historical and contemporary photographic images in the form of black-and-white and color slides, photographic prints, and negatives. These form several large groups: donated historical materials imaged at interview locations by BTV staff; contemporary photographs taken by staff as they gave interviews and explored local communities; and photographs of BTV staff at work, BTV offices, and project events and training. Historic images in slide format include many photographs of African American individuals and families dating from the 1880s to the mid-20th century; they also include images of documents such as news clippings, military papers, political ephemera, school diplomas, and brief publications. The images are described in more detail in their listings in this collection guide.

The remainder of the collection consists of project administrative records. These files - in paper and electronic format - include National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant information; correspondence; staffing records; meeting notes and minutes; outreach; files on publication and exhibit projects; and information on classes, seminars, and training given for students and project staff.

The Behind the Veil collection not only focuses on the experiences of individuals, but also reflects the importance of black institutions as the backbone of black communities. The interviews, documents and photographs reflect the crucial role that black churches, fraternal societies, women's clubs, and political organizations played in African American community life. The testimony of educators and students from historically black colleges, agricultural schools and institutes enrich conventional beliefs about black agency in segregated schools.

Although the focus of the interviews was on the Jim Crow era, the life history format of most interviews led informants to comment on events after segregation. Information about civil rights struggles in the 1960s, African American participation in desegregation within local communities, and post-1965 activism and community work are also included in many Behind the Veil interviews. The interviews in this collection also raise crucial questions about the shape of memory and the creation of narratives that can inform not only research in oral history but also literature and anthropology. Research into black religion can be enriched by the voices of Behind the Veil. Studies that examine oppression and resistance could be informed by the rich documentary record of labor and social culture that the collection presents. The Behind the Veil collection illuminates innumerable topics, time periods, and research interests.

Biographical / historical:

Launched by Duke University's Lyndhurst Center for Documentary Studies in 1990, the Behind the Veil project sought to record and preserve the living memory of African American life during the age of legal segregation in the American South, from the 1890s to the 1950s. In order to correct historical misrepresentations of African American experiences in the Jim Crow South, the project seized the opportunity to capture, through oral interviews, family photographs and other materials, the memories of Black elders who survived this era of profound racial oppression. By collecting narratives that recount the everyday experiences of African Americans from various locations and backgrounds, the collection also provides rich documentary evidence of the diversity of Black life during the Jim Crow era.

During the summers of 1993, 1994 and 1995, multi-racial research teams traveled throughout the South to conduct oral history interviews with elders in African American communities. During the first summer, the project ran a series of pilot studies in five North Carolina communities. Subsequently, the project followed a thematic approach while conducting research in areas selected to represent the diversity of cultures and geographic regions within the South, as well as the predominant work cultures of the region. Researchers were chosen from applications from history graduate students at a diverse range of schools, from the Ivy League to historically black institutions such as Jackson State and Clark-Atlanta to state universities such as Michigan and Maryland. Collectively, they conducted over 1200 oral history interviews in more than twenty communities in ten Southern states. They also copied thousands of family photographs and other materials that reveal the diversity of African-American experiences under Jim Crow.

While based at Duke University, the Behind the Veil project was a collaborative venture from its inception. Scholars from historically Black colleges and universities such as LeMoyne-Owen College, North Carolina Central University, Johnson C. Smith University, Jackson State University and Clark-Atlanta University helped to shape the research project and developed related curriculum projects to introduce undergraduates to oral history methodology as a means to discover and document the histories of the communities in which they live. Research teams worked in collaboration with a wide variety of Black community and civic groups, which played critical roles in recruiting potential interviewees and providing logistical support. Summer researchers were hosted by distinguished institutions such as the Black Archives at Florida A&M University and the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama. Local institutions also helped researchers to understand the communities in which they worked and to frame their interview questions and research agendas accordingly. In turn, the Behind the Veil project has deposited copies of the interviews in local archives at or near the various cooperating institutions, assuring that these histories will be accessible to local community members as well as scholars throughout the world.

The Behind the Veil project received major funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ford Foundation and the Lyndhurst Foundation. Duke University historians William Chafe, Raymond Gavins and Robert Korstad co-directed the project. Aminah Pilgrim served as Research Associate for Behind the Veil, and Leslie Brown, Alexander X. Byrd, Greta Ai-Yu Niu, Paul Ortiz and Anne M. Valk were the project's Research Coordinators.

Acquisition information:
The David M. Rubenstein Rare Book Manuscript Library acquired the Behind the Veil Project collection as a transfer from the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies from 1993 to 2019.
Processing information:

Processed and described by Craig Breaden, Tracy Jackson, Paula Jeannet, Taoyuan Jin, Prakruti Kushmar, Taelore Marsh, and Emily Shao, July 2021-July 2022.

Accessions represented in this collection guide: 1993-0234; 1994-0018; 1994-0042; 1995-0105; 1997; 1998; 2000-0183; 2001-0002; 2001-0132; 2002-0144; 2002-0145; 2002-0146; 2004-0344; 2009-0012; 2012-0201; 2013-0108; 2019-0025.

The original project records were assembled, surveyed, and cataloged at the Duke University Center for Documentary Photography (now Documentary Studies) by Research Coordinators for the Behind the Veil Project Annie Valk, Leslie Brown, Alexander X. Byrd, and Paul Ortiz; Research Associate Aminah Pilgrim; and assistants Blair L. Murphy, Jonora Jones, Arthur Smith, and Homer D. Hill. The collection was transferred to Duke Libraries beginning in 1993.

The first Duke Libraries processing project to further arrange and describe the project records was undertaken by: Lisa Gayle Hazirjian, Alexander X. Byrd, Homer D. Hill, Paul Ortiz, and Aminah Pilgrim; it was based in the Duke Libraries and completed July 1, 1998. Additions received through the 1990s and 2000s were processed by Pemra Hazbay; Muhammad Hutasuhut; Alice Poffinberger; Joshua Kaiser; and Ruth E. Bryan, with transcript processing by Joshua Kaiser.


Collection is arranged in two large main series: Interviews, and Behind the Veil Project Records, each of which is further divided into subseries.

The Interviews Series is organized into subseries representing the 19 regional sites where the interviews took place; within those, the interview sessions are listed in alphabetical order by the primary interviewee's last name. The interview entries are in turn divided into format groupings: interview recordings, administrative files, transcript files, and slide images, when present.

The Project Records series is arranged in the following subseries: General Administrative Files; NEH Grant Files; Meetings, Seminars, Lectures; Interview-Related Records; Publicity, Exhibits, and Publications; and Photographs, Slides, and Image Files. These series contain both paper and born-digital records.

Rules or conventions:
Describing Archives: A Content Standard


Click on terms below to find related finding aids on this site. For other related materials in the Duke University Libraries, search for these terms in the Catalog.

African American agricultural laborers -- Southern States -- Personal narratives
African American families -- Personal narratives
African American men -- Personal narratives
African American politicians -- Personal narratives
African American soldiers -- Personal narratives
African American women -- Personal narratives
African Americans -- Economic conditions -- 20th century
African Americans -- Education
African Americans -- Legal status, laws, etc.
African Americans -- Photographs
African Americans -- Portraits
African Americans -- Religion
African Americans -- Segregation
African Americans -- Social conditions
African Americans -- Social life and customs
African Americans -- Southern States -- Migrations -- History
African Americans -- Southern States -- Photographs
African Americans -- Southern States -- Personal narratives
Racism -- Southern States -- Personal narratives
Racism -- United States -- History
Segregation -- Southern States -- Personal narratives
Oral histories
Digital audio formats
Digital images
Electronic documents
Negatives (photographs)
Photograph albums
Photographic prints
Slides (photographs)
Duke University. Center for Documentary Studies
Behind the Veil Project
Chafe, William H., 1942-
Korstad, Robert Rogers
Gavins, Raymond
Southern States -- Politics -- 20th century
Southern States -- Race relations -- History -- 20th century
Southern States -- Social conditions -- 1865-1945
Southern States -- Social conditions -- 20th century
United States -- Race relations
Albany (Ga.) -- History
Birmingham (Ala.) -- History
Charlotte (N.C.) -- History
Durham (N.C.) -- History
Enfield (N.C.) -- History
Arkansas -- History
Kentucky -- History
Memphis (Tenn.) -- History
New Bern (N.C.) -- History
New Iberia (La.) -- History
New Orleans (La.) -- History
Norfolk (Va.) -- History
Orangeburg (S.C.) -- History
Saint Helena Island (S.C.) -- History
Summerton (S.C.) -- History
Tallahassee (Fla.) -- History
Tuskegee (Ala.) -- History
Wilmington (N.C.) -- History


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Access note. Collection contains audiovisual formats that may need to be reformatted before use. Contact Research Services for access.

Access note. Some materials in this collection are electronic records that require special equipment. Contact Research Services with questions.

Access note. Collection contains fragile materials such as film negatives that may require extra assistance from staff. Contact Research Services for access.

Terms of access:

The copyright interests in this collection have not been transferred to Duke University. For more information, consult the copyright section of the Regulations and Procedures of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

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Preferred citation:

[name of interviewee], interviewed by [name of interviewer], [city], [state], [date], OR [Identification of item], Behind the Veil: Documenting African-American Life in the Jim Crow South. Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.