Aug. 21 2014 12:00 AM

Oral histories chronicle lesser-known stories of social change

Rosalie Riegle will give a lecture Saturday at the Michigan Women\'s Historical Center and Hall of Fame in Lansing. The lecture will include material from her oral history collections.

THURSDAY, Aug. 21 — The individuals who intimately lay out their lives for us in the scores of oral histories in Rosalie Riegle’s two recent book collections have something in common: each has heard the cold steel of a jailhouse door slamming in their face.

“Crossing the Line: Nonviolent Women Speak Out for Peace” and “Doing Time for Peace: Resistance, Family, and Community” are Riegle’s most recent contributions to the burgeoning discipline of oral history. She said she began her dedication to oral history collection as a student working on her PhD in the 1960s. It was something she was good at and stayed with it. Riegle, 77, taught for more than 33 years at Saginaw Valley State University until her retirement in 2003. She figures she has conducted more than 500 oral histories in her career.

In her newest collections, Riegle has centered her interviews on social activists of all stripes, but with a catch; each has spent time on the inside of a lock-up for what they believe in.

Riegle will be at the Michigan Women’s Center and Hall of Fame 2 p.m., Saturday to discuss her books and the importance of oral histories in preserving memories.

Several of the subjects in Riegle’s books are also in the Hall of Fame including Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs and Sister Ardeth Platte who was born in Lansing. Platte, along with Sisters Carol Gilbert and Jackie Hudson, all Dominican nuns from Michigan, and Sister Megan Rice of Tennessee are among the activists who provide oral evidence in Riegle’s books that “orange is the new black (habit)”.

Gilber, Hudson and Platte were all convicted of sabotage for a 2002 incident at a Colorado nuclear missile silo when they poured baby bottles of their own blood on a bunker. Platte who served time at the Danbury Federal Prison in Connecticut was the inspiration for Sister Jane Ingalls in the TV series “Orange is the New Black.”

Rice who was imprisoned for a similar offense at a Tennessee nuclear storage facility said at her sentencing “My only regret is I didn’t do this 70 years ago.”

Non-violent, direct action advocated by 1930s journalist and social activist Dorothy Day, is also a characteristic of those Riegle interviewed.

Riegle said the oral histories in the books were edited for space considerations, but she was careful to preserve the subject’s own words. The actual recordings and complete transcripts are deposited at Marquette University.

Although Riegle may be an extreme example, there is a growing interest in the gathering of oral histories according to Geneva Wiskemann, secretary of the Michigan Oral History Association which is co-sponsoring Riegle’s talk.

Wiskemann said oral histories are important since they capture the voices of people who otherwise may not have been heard.

“Oral histories fill in the gaps in history and are the soul of people,” she said.

For neophytes who are interested in recording their own oral histories of relatives or friends Wiskemann said a good place to begin is to listen to other’s oral histories. A person can learn techniques of interviewing and recording oral histories at Michigan State University Matrix project’s “Oral History in the Digital Age” which is an online guide to the art of oral histories. The site also includes “best practices” for collecting oral histories including what equipment to use.

Riegle jumped into collecting oral histories with both feet during the 1980s when she interviewed more than 200 individuals across the United States who were associated with Day and the Catholic Worker newspaper. Those oral histories were published in “Voices from the Catholic Worker.”

Riegle said she was so influenced by that experience she went on to establish two Catholic Worker houses in her hometown of Saginaw. She has since relocated to Evanston, Illinois.

Riegle said she doesn’t do a lot of interpretation or editing of her oral histories, but lets the voices stand for themselves.

She said her work on Day led her to explore others who used non-violence and passive resistance for furthering causes they believe in, including individuals whose names aren’t likely to be in the headlines.

“When I was arrested I didn’t know what I was doing and I decided I better learn (about being imprisoned),” she said.

Riegle said her experience in compiling more than 500 oral histories changed her life dramatically.

“I have no plans to do this at the moment, but I am not afraid to be arrested and I’m not afraid to go to prison,” she said.

“Women Peacemakers in Michigan and Around the World”
Lecture by Rosalie Riegle
2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 23
Michigan Women's Historical Center & Hall of Fame
213 W. Malcolm X St., Lansing
(517) 484-1880,