Sample Oral History Interview Questions
The following questions will serve as a starting point if you are planning to interview someone about the civil rights era in Kentucky. (See our tips for successful interviewing for advice on preparing for and conducting the interview itself.)
Of course, every oral history interview should be tailored to the individual being interviewed. Before the interview, ask your subject for a biographical vita, an article, or some other descriptive information. Explain that having this information in advance will help you frame your questions. Then modify and add to the following generic suggested questions as needed.
- Could you please give me some basic background information about yourselfyour full name, date and place of birth, parents and siblings, ancestors, spouse and children, education, religion, community involvement, professions, political party, etc.?
- Growing up during segregation, can you recall an early incident when you recognized a difference of treatment on account of color?
- Have you traveled outside Kentucky? If so, how did travel affect your thinking about race or about segregation?
- Were there people in your life who encouraged you to think about the treatment of African Americans in society? If so, can you name several?
- Were there articles, books, films, speeches, newspapers, or theater performances that influenced your thinking about race relations?
- Describe your memories of segregation in Kentucky. What was it like? Were you ever personally discriminated against because of your race? How did you respond to this treatment? How did it make you feel? Did you ever confront the discrimination? If not, why not?
- Do you remember family members, friends, or individuals in your community being discriminated against under legal segregation? In education, public accommodations, employment, etc.? How did this make you feel?
- Was any of this treatment ever violent? If so, how did the black community respond? The white community? Were the responses to the discrimination different depending on race? Were there differences between how young people and older people responded?
- Did men and women respond similarly or differently to legal segregation? Did women and men in your community feel differently about racial segregation? If so, in what way?
- Who were your civil rights heroes locally? Nationally? Why?
- Are there records of civil rights activity in your community? Photos? Where are they located?
- Were you involved in any civil rights organization (e.g., NAACP, CORE, Urban League)? What was the membership like? Were there more women than men, more men than women, or about equal numbers? Were there both black and white members? Who held the elected positions? Who did the organizing work (collecting dues, arranging meetings, hospitality, telephone campaigns, etc.)? Can you recall any of the more active members? Describe them.
- How were women treated in meetings of civil rights groups? Did they hold leadership roles? Did they sit on committees? Were their ideas for action different from or similar to those of the men in the group? Did they perform office work, telephoning, and hosting more than the men in the group? Did the women ever talk together about organizational focus or actions?
- Describe any involvement of your church or synagogue in civil rights. Was there support for speaking out against legal segregation in your church or synagogue? How was that demonstrated?
- [for women] Were you a member of a sorority, the League of Women Voters, the YWCA, or any other womens organization that worked to eliminate legal segregation? What tactics and strategies were used?
- [for men] Were you a member of a fraternity, the Masons, the YMCA, or any other all-male organization that worked to eliminate legal segregation? What tactics and strategies were used?
- If you attended a segregated school, how did it compare with schools attended by students of the opposite race? Were there any interactions between the white and the black schools?
- If you were one of the first students to attend an integrated school, will you please describe that experience? How did you feel about being a first? What student organizations did you belong to? Did you play athletics on an integrated team? Describe some of these experiences.
- If you attended college, please describe your experience there. Was it predominantly an all-white or all-black college? Did you belong to any student organizations concerned about civil rights? Describe any black faculty members [or white, if the subject attended a black college] you recall. Was the student body interested in civil rights advocacy? If you belonged to the Black Student Union, did you ever network or attend meetings with students from other colleges black student groups?
- [for women] Do you recall any white woman [or black woman] with whom you were friends as a child? At school? At work? In your civil rights advocacy? What was that relationship like?
- [for men] Do you recall any white [or black, if the subject is white] man or woman with whom you were friends during segregation? At work? At school? In your civil rights advocacy? What was that relationship like?
- How did national sports figures like Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Muhammad Ali, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar affect your thinking about integration? How did you feel about them and their accomplishments?
- Do you recall when you first heard about the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? Describe that recollection. Did his death influence you in any way in your advocacy for civil rights?
- How did you see the role of President John Kennedy with regard to civil rights? President Lyndon Johnson?
- Do you recall the effort to secure access to public accommodations under Governor Combs and Governor Breathitt? What do you remember? At the time, what did you think about this campaign? Did you attend the 1964 rally in Frankfort? Did any of your friends, family members, or colleagues? If you were there, describe the rally as you remember it.
- How did the escalation in Vietnam affect your thinking about race relations? Did you personally serve in Vietnam? Did any of your family members, friends, or colleagues? How did the war affect them and their attitudes about race?
- How did the Black Power movement affect your thinking about race? Were you involved in any groups or any activities in which Black Power ideology may have changed previously held attitudes?
- Did the thinking about African roots and heritage affect your thinking about race and racial relations before 1975? If so, how? Describe any events you might have attended to celebrate African heritage during this period. Did you travel to an African nation before 1975?
- Did you ever attend any out-of-state events focused on achieving racial equality (e.g., the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Freedom Summer, the Selma-to-Montgomery march)?
- Where do you think African Americans in Kentucky have made the most progress since 1930? Where do you think the least progress has been made? Did African Americans gain from the civil rights struggle? How? Did they lose anything? What issues still need civil rights advocacy?
Living the Story > Oral History How-To > Sample Questions