History’s Conscience — No. 2 in a Series

When Historical Research Requires Confidentiality

Historians conduct interviews and write about them. Authors write that history, give names, dates, places, and events, and quote their sources and provide citations. Historians collect oral histories, either as part of a larger project, about a particular topic, or as a biographical record of an individual. It’s what we do.

We do not typically think much about confidentiality when we plan our projects. We may think about consent forms, perhaps even ponder issues of advised consent. We plan where and when and how to interview a subject. If permitted, we record them either on video or only by audio. We take notes, we ask them their names, dates of birth, family and friends, and most importantly, their memories.

There’s no getting around it — we are taking. We are taking with some goal in mind and are convinced it is for the greater good. And while we may recognize and appreciate the contributions of the respondents who give their consent with the hope of contributing to the historical record, the bottom line is that we as interviewers are taking.  And with that taking there comes some inherent human responsibility, with respect most importantly at the top of the list.

There are particular projects we may know are difficult or controversial, perhaps even dangerous. We may consider the impact the resulting story might have on those who later experience the story. But do we consider the impact of the interview on the person we interview? What are the dangers to them, what risks do they take by being interviewed? Where and when should they be interviewed? And for the potential interviewees who reject our requests for interviews, do we consider that there just might be a better way?

There are ethics for historians, taught to budding researchers at educational institutions or in other academic venues like conferences and associations. But typically ethics is termed as how historians should behave ethically, like in this 2010 “Ethics for Historians: The Perspective of One Undergraduate Class” written for the American Historical Association. It includes great descriptions of issues of plagiarism, taking faithful notes, not ignoring “contradictory evidence,” issues of biases, transparency, and archiving research. But they do not address the ethical issues impacting the interviewees.

There are institutional review boards, often through universities active in research projects.  They are administrative bodies, sometimes referred to as ethics committees or boards, established to protect the rights and welfare of subjects of research, to ensure that methods are ethical and comply with laws. They provide training into the history of ethical research practices as well as guidance on specific research projects. But these IRBs are generally focused on scientific medical and behavior research.

As explained by the late Lee Ann Fujii, Ph.D., who taught at George Washington University and the University of Toronto, typically historical topics are not required or encouraged to be administered by IRBs. She had hired three research assistants on a history research project, each employed in the three research sites of her project — Rwanda, Bosnia, and Maryland in the United States; and she required online training in ethical research.

Taking the online training can be an eye-opener if the topics were not part of previous venues of education. The applicable portions of the training involved the social sciences, training which ought to be required of all university students no matter what type of research they employ. In Fujii’s project, the protections were obvious because of the parts of the project involving Rwanda and Bosnia. Victims and perpetrators of crime including murder were interviewed. Not only were the protections important to the individuals and Fujii as the interviewer, anonymity was essential to the operation and success of the research project.

The importance of these requirements was not immediately apparent for the portion of the project involving the history of 1930s lynchings in the lower Maryland Eastern Shore. The Rwanda and Bosnia portions of the project involved much more recent history. The lynching history project involved much older history. Interviews were conducted with a few witnesses to lynching, but most of the respondents were quite young at the time of the lynchings.  Many respondents were born after the events and relied on stories from their families and neighbors. But soon confidentiality became obvious as a necessity. A few would not agree to participate without it. Others did not care about confidentiality, but the protections benefited them, sometimes in unforeseen ways.

So how does confidentiality factor in oral history projects?  Confidentiality should factor in projects from the beginning, most particularly in the planning phase for any oral history project, large or small. In fact, one of the first questions considered during the planning stage should be whether anonymity is needed.  Would the project benefit from anonymity, and if so, how? Should all respondents be given anonymity? When is it not necessary? And if anonymity becomes part of the oral history project, what steps are required to fulfill what is essentially a profound ethical obligation?

Some historical topics may not seem applicable to an evaluation of whether to employ anonymity. Interviewing persons who had been employed as carpenters or boat captains, for example, might not seem to need confidentiality. But examining the question could make a substantial difference to how the project unfolds. There may actually be good reasons to employ anonymity. Or, if planning for a project does not include promised confidentiality, contingency plans should be in place should the question of confidentiality arise during the execution of the project. What if a respondent suddenly decides not to talk, or states they don’t want their name used, what procedures should be taken? And are interviewers prepared to protect anonymity as much as can be done under IRB guidelines?

What topics might benefit from planned confidentiality?  Topics of abuse, discrimination, and violence require obvious protections. Planning and discussion help in identifying the possible scenarios, particularly to ascertaining how beneficial confidentiality would be to the interview project. Issues of place and community are important. People being interviewed about their form of employment or political service might not agree to being interviewed, or if they do, they might not be as forthright with their descriptions if they still lived in those locations. Issues of family and community affiliations factor into the completeness of the results of the interview.

Not long ago a friend expressed interest in conducting an oral history project by interviewing domestic workers who had been so employed during a period of segregation; a topic that would benefit greatly from confidentiality considerations. During the project involving lynching history, some respondents who were forthright in discussing their memories of the events were reluctant to give much description of their own background, thinking it irrelevant or uninteresting or perhaps implicating. Yet, these details were important to the project. In some cases, the confidentiality protections actually made it easier for them to discuss their personal backgrounds. And different strategies of methodology might improve the quality of the results.

Fujii explored issues of interviewing in her 2017 book Interviewing in Social Science Research, A Relational Approach from the Routledge Series on Interpretive Methods.   It involved the above-mentioned project about interviewing in Rwanda, Bosnia, and the United States. While it does not in depth discuss these issues of confidentiality, the book provides a practical approach to interviewing particularly strategies, interviewing practices, and ways of evaluating results.

All this said to urge serious consideration of issues of confidentiality and anonymity of documenting history. The how-to steps and requirements can be described elsewhere in more detail. But those planning an oral history project could benefit from better results if these issues are given their due during the planning process. It boils down to respect and consideration of the people interviewed.  Their interviews are gifts, important contributions no matter who they are and their place in history. These gifts are often offered freely, but there are ethical considerations to accepting these gifts.

Interviewees consent because they understand they are providing something important that will be used to benefit recorded history. It is up to historians to honor these contributions through good-faith ethical practices.


Linda Duyer








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History’s Conscience — No. 1 in a Series

No. 1 — Two Historians:  Lee Ann Fujii and John Muller

Recently, I have been forced to re-examine issues of ethics in historical research. And I have come to understand that among the many amazingly talented historians out there, a few have served in a special role — as history’s conscience.

It’s not that the rest do not examine ethics of their craft and conduct their research in ethical ways, they do.  But there are a few whose primary role is that of history’s conscience.

Years ago, I presented to a small group a talk on the Ethics of Oral History Research.  I don’t think this is ever or hardly discussed when it comes to oral history documentation. Usually the discussions in classes and workshops involve the details of how to do oral histories.  Some of it will touch on the ethics of proper consent, etc., but there is usually no fuller discussion about what ethics entails, how it should be considered before and during a project involving interviewing people to record their histories.

I had learned how institutional review boards direct ethical research of subjects, but typically not about historical topics — usually medical or behavioral research projects. I learned this only because of a temporary job I had as a research assistant to the late Lee Ann Fujii, Ph.D., who had hired me for her historical research project. She required that I take the online IRB training on ethical research.  She explained this was not typically a requirement for history projects, but she required it.  This is when I knew Lee Ann was a special person, and had that unique voice of history’s conscience.

There are all kinds of researchers of history out there.  The range is impressive — from the average person researching and documenting their family history to educators in institutions of high learning with degrees in history, usually advanced degrees. Then there are the rest — a long string of unsung historians with varying degrees of involvement. Some are educational historians who are retired. Others have little or no formal educational background in history, but have learned it through self-education, usually by doing it and relying on the lessons of writers, educators, and archivists. Some define themselves as street historians or community historians. Most do not even think of themselves as in a niche.

By “history’s conscience,” I mean those who are unique individuals who use their voice to be that conscience.  Other historians may do so in their own way, in their own sphere of influence. Every historian has some frame of reference on ethics, whether they think consciously about it or not.  I would like to think that I have some positive frame of reference on ethics, but I seldom put a voice to it.  I think the same of the late John Creighton of Dorchester County, Maryland. He sometimes became the voice of historical conscience during his history discussion group sessions or privately among friends. But he like me focused on the tedium of (yet interesting) historical research, with the reward being able to teach others of this history.

But two people come to mind, two people I view as history’s conscience.  Click on the word conscience and check the Thesaurus, and the terms that pop up are ethics, integrity, morality, scruples, principles, and sense of right and wrong. These individuals give voice to these terms, and sometimes at the consternation of others.

And that’s how I view the late Lee Ann Fujii.  For me, the first sign of her as history’s conscience was when she required that I take that online training on ethical research. She embodied it in all that we did throughout our project, sometimes infuriating me as a community historian who wanted to share with everyone all that we learned, but I could not, because of the rules. Those rules were there for a reason.

It was not that she wasn’t for sharing history, she was, but she believed that sometimes you have to add protections if you want to prove and share the important and hard lessons of history.  Fujii died earlier this year, and now I am gaining a greater appreciation for her philosophies on history. Had we not considered the ethics she so insisted on for her particular project, I could not now report on some of the most amazing aspects of history uncovered by that work. I have to protect identities, but she understood better than I did, that sometimes those protections yield a greater good.

Fujii taught in the Political Science departments at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and then at the University of Toronto in Canada.

Lee Ann Fujii also added voice to three important aspects of history in her shortened lifetime. She advocated loudly and at personal professional risk for women in pursuit of academic acceptance in the fields of political science and others. She also gave voice to further ethical issues of conducting historical research in a book published a few months before her passing.

The third aspect involved her unpublished manuscript that was ready for the publishers at the time of her death. In that work she examined the roots of how and why people commit murder as part of groups, trying to get to the crux of what qualities make humans commit crimes in packs of mobs, organized community or military groups. The project involved histories of genocide in Rwanda, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and 1930s lynching on the Maryland Eastern Shore. She interviewed people who were known killers, gathering their stories, again at her risk. Disturbing topics. Before she died, she spoke at lectures on this, as history’s conscience.

She challenged my thinking and interpretive skills as her assistant, just as she did with her students. One could get whiplash, said an admirer, your head twirling on its neck simply watching her race around the classroom. She demanded that you think ethically and logically, and her manner was infectious.

The second person I feel is the embodiment of similar views on history while being a researcher of far different material, is John Muller, someone who I have come to entitle as history’s conscience. I came to know Muller only soon after the loss of Lee Ann Fujii.  It was almost in some ways as if she had been reincarnated.  Though they were nothing alike, this certainly felt oddly familiar. Of Fujii and Muller, the former possessed a Ph.D., the latter did not.

Muller has researched and written on Frederick Douglass and Mark Twain. He has lectured widely and recently discussed Frederick Douglass history for Delmarva Public Radio and other recorded interviews. He is continuing his research and documentation of Frederick Douglass history, including Douglass’ visits throughout the mid-Atlantic region.  And Muller freely shares newly-uncovered historical information at risk of it being misused or not accurately credited. And he encourages budding historians. Muller is a journalist and also works for the DC Public Library.

It took me some time to come to this conclusion about Muller, and I am well aware a certain number of historians out there who might read this and scream to high heaven in protest. His area of conscience is about the professionalism of accuracy and completeness of history. That at times puts him at odds with authors with advanced history degrees who are called on because of those advanced degrees to be the public voice of history.  Sometimes, he has shown that the media will take the descriptions of those authors as true and in proper context without further examining the evidence or seeking other input.  Journalists covering current events are taught to use multiple sources; this rule is much more lax when some media feature historical topics. So what does it matter?  Well, it does matter, because sometimes that history impacts the present and prevents the proliferation of historical accuracy.

In his lectures, he strives to show connections, not just isolated descriptions of historic events. The why and the how are as important as the what. How did this happen, and who was involved, what routes were taken, and what were the motivations. It isn’t enough to uncover lost history; but rather there is an obligation to ensure that the newly found history becomes part of the long lasting public discourse.

When John Muller calls out some inaccuracy or lack of cited sources, vocally and in print, it can rub the affected the wrong way.  But as has been said to me, “John can say what we cannot say,” meaning he can be the voice of historical accuracy or scholarship issues for those who are not in a position to do so but wish they were.  So when angered persons criticize his voice, they are not saying about Muller’s statements, “well, he’s not wrong.” They know he is correct. Like the journalist he is, Muller reports on the wrongs of the historical message. Whether it involves stated assumptions about historical figures without proof of sources, failure to reference well-researched documentation, or erroneous historical statements which can malign the reputations of historical figures famous or otherwise, Muller gives the history a voice.

Sometimes that voice, that conscience, is difficult to hear.  Both Fujii and Muller have known this.  At great risk, they did it anyway.  Who among other historians can say the same?  Their work is not unlike that of the town crier of yesteryear. Sometimes there is risk to the town criers, but we should be grateful for the messengers.


Linda Duyer


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Compelling photo: 1933 Princess Anne, MD

I recommend you use earphones while viewing this video. It isn’t long, about 10 minutes and will likely seem boring to you. I also apologize for my narration.  I speak slowly, much slower than normal, but only because I oddly spoke slower because of staring at the photo which is the subject of this video.  I created it for a Oct. 13th Maryland Lynching conference to be held at the Reginald Lewis Museum. I cannot make it to the event but decided to create this, whether or not they show it.  I would understand if they don’t, as the quality of the photo in question is poor.  It doesn’t look like much, but it just may be the only known photo taken on the night George Armwood was lynched in Princess Anne.  There are photos of his brutalized body, taken the next day. But there are no good quality photos of the mob during the night of the murder.

Click on the image or follow this link:https://www.dropbox.com/s/z0h1oa6bs9zdv0g/1933%20Princess%20Anne%20lynch%20mob%20photo.mp4?dl=0

…..Linda Duyer

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The 1924 news of the KKK

It has been some time since I’ve written to this blog, but here goes.

This past weekend events in Charlottesville, Virginia has reared the ugly face of fear and the KKK (and other similar extremist groups).  Granted a permit to peaceably assemble on Saturday, the group entered town Friday night, marching through with torches in a menacing show that countered their peaceful intentions.  No wonder everything went deadly wrong.

Some journalists are looking back at the history.  Giving that sort of attention is both good and bad, but sadly it has to be done.  Today people may think the extremists are just nuts and don’t mean harm.  They mean harm.  At the very least they must know the rhetoric makes them fierce. For the rest of us, we’re just wondering if we’re in some bad movie in which none of this exists in our new century.

Back in 1924, at the height of the KKK’s resurgence, a local newspaper, the Maryland and Herald of Princess Anne, devoted a whole page every week to the KKK.  It’s shocking to see if you look at it up close.  It is all generally national “news” involving the KKK, though some were regional.  And there were ads selling everything from the infamous robes, to sheet music, to pocket knives, to hood ornaments.   Strange but sadly true.










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“Georgetown” indeed! (Salisbury, that is)

Georgetown in deed




The title — bad play on words but today I could not help but be excited, because for the first time I found the name “Georgetown” in a deed.  Alright, you are yawning, and I do not blame you, but for me it was a glorious sight.

Years ago I researched and wrote my book ‘Round the Pond, Georgetown of Salisbury, Maryland, a history of the old African American neighborhood of Salisbury once referred to as Georgetown.  No where had I ever seen the word Georgetown written, other than a mention or two in one of the books by the late Richard Cooper. It is one of those things that simply bugged me, which shows you the nature of my life.  It bugged me, I suppose, because the name was handed down by word of mouth and now only mentioned in a couple of history books, including mine.

And I have to thank the latest technology which allows you to search deeds far more easily, with a click of a mouse and tedious (but easy) browsing of the land records on line.  At the time I researched my ‘Round the Pond book, this was not available to me, making the prospects of trudging out somewhere to do that research seem like a mind-numbing exercise, so I did not do it.  I let others do it.

But now, in preparation for this next book, I can do the browsing in the comfort of my home (or with my laptop out at Viva coffee shop) and search as I see fit.  There are stumbling blocks, like when marching backwards in time following the paper trail only to get stuck when the deed writer failed to include liber and page numbers for the older deed.  That is when I curse and make the decision whether it is worth it to venture out and do the work.

Such is the case with this particular search, that of the old “colored” elementary school that was once on Commerce Street (formerly called Cemetery Street) at what is now an empty lot west of the railroad tracks.

Please forgive this burst of enthusiasm.  But seeing the word “Georgetown” written in this 1896 deed for the property gladdened my heart in perhaps a perverse way — for it validated not only the name but the place, the neighborhood that was nearly as old as the town of Salisbury itself.

— Linda Duyer

P.S., the image below is from the 1899 Sanborn map for Salisbury. Interestingly, it shows the A.M.E. church just south of Cemetery Street, along Water Street.  That was the first St. Paul A.M.E. Zion church built in this part of town; a newer and bigger church was built on Church Street just north of this image.

1899 Sanborn Commerce st school

Posted in Maryland, People, Schools

Delmar Medical Society?

A quick question, as I am hoping someone might have some answers.

Does anyone know about the Delmar Medical Society of the Eastern Shore?

Recently I was re-reading a past newspaper article in the Daily Times of Salisbury about the late Dr. E. A. Purnell of Salisbury.  I had met him only twice, and the image of that brilliant shock of white hair has never left my memory. I had met him first at his doctor office on West Main Street and later at a family reunion where he held court — with that brilliant white hair.

In the Brice Stump article, Dr. Purnell stated, “I was a member of the all-black Delmar Medical Society. It was comprised of black doctors from Cape Charles to Dover.” At the time of the article, there were only two surviving members; he had recalled there used to be 25 members.

Dr. Purnell opened his office on West Main Street in 1944. He had received his medical degree from Meharry Medical College in Tennessee with additional medical courses from Howard University, Harvard University, and the Universite D’Sorbonne in Paris. Stump wrote, “A Salisbury native, Purnell had the distinction of being one of three black doctors who practiced in Salisbury in ‘the early years,’ a time when a black physician on the Eastern Shore was almost heard of.” The two other doctors of that time were Drs. Brown and Sembly.

So if anyone should know anything more about this Delmar Medical Society, I would appreciate hearing from you.

— Linda Duyer

P.S.  A few fun facts courtesy http://www.blackdoctorscolumbusohio.com/black_medical_history.htm

Before 1865, medial schools were closed to African Americans in the south and to a lesser degree in the north. “Because of the color line in medicine, the first few Negro physicians received their medical degrees abroad. A few older medical schools in the east admitted some Negroes; namely, Harvard, Yale, and Pennsylvania. In the Midwest, Indiana, Northwestern, and Michigan accepted some Negro medical students.” The first African American to graduate from a northern medical school was David J. Peck in 1847 from Rush Medical School in Chicago.

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895), the first African American woman to earn a doctor of science degree was born in Delaware although she was raised by an aunt in Pennsylvania.   You can view an interesting documentary about her on YouTube at                 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_YRIrbMtfiI






Posted in Delaware, Maryland, People, Virginia

San Domingo’s Rosenwald School Dedication

20140823_184138Jason Brown started the first grade in 1931 in the San Domingo Rosenwald school in Wicomico County.  And today he sat in the same No. 1 classroom of that school, today dedicated as the San Domingo Community and Cultural Center.  He proudly told me he was the oldest living resident of San Domingo, though I was not sure if it was pride or a frequently expressed astonishment of the fact. Eighty three years ago almost to the day Mr. Brown sat in this spot in what was then a nearly brand new school.  He likely then did not know it was a Rosenwald or understood that significance.  He only knew that he was seated in a brightly lit, impressive-looking schoolhouse, an extraordinary improvement over the rundown drafty one-room schoolhouse that had for years been located out back on the property.

This particular Rosenwald school (so-called for philanthropist and Sears President Julius Rosenwald who collaborated with Booker T. Washington to construct 5,000 such schools for African American education throughout the south from Maryland to Texas) was unique for it’s size, given its rural location.  But the rare two-story four-classroom Rosenwald elementary school served students from all over that part of the county.  One former student attending today’s dedication teased another, who had to walk quite a distance to school, boasting how she got to arrive in a school bus.

I was relatively unaffected until today I walked into this restored historic structure for the first time.  This was something special, and you could feel its specialness.  Photos do not do it justice.  The foundation created to restore the building was fortunate because years ago siding had been placed over the exterior which actually protected the architectural integrity and stability of the structure.  And they were also blessed, for much of the original interior was intact.  The freshly painted wooden plank walls and ceiling were the original, as were the warm brown wooden floors. Two of the original windows could be restored, but the remaining windows were replaced to meticulous standards to replicate the originals.  The result is a stunningly vibrantly-lit interior, a hallmark feature of Rosenwald schools.  To the attending former students, the only thing missing was the pot-belly stove in the corner.  So now they’re looking into including one, to fuel those memories and to teach young visitors what it was like to go to this school.

The John Quinton Foundation, Inc. today realized their dream of restoring history in order to teach its history to future generations.  Newell Quinton and his wife Tanja organized a memorable dedication, with incredible guests, many of whom were community members and former students and a couple of past teachers.  The memories permeated the air.

In addition to a local dignitary or two, there were other extraordinary guests, including  Stephanie Deutsch who researched and authored a 2011 book, “You Need a Schoolhouse, Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and Building for the Segregated South.” Her connection with this history is intriguing, as she married a great grandson of Julius Rosenwald, but she was initially unaware of this history of Rosenwald.  Also on hand was filmmaker Aviva Kempner, along with her film crew, documenting the event as part of her work creating the film documentary, “The Rosenwald Schools.”

But the star of this dedication was the community.  The close-knit historic community of San Domingo was carrying on a tradition of support for history and education.  I asked Mr. Brown if he was a descendent of the founder of San Domingo, James Brown.  Jason Brown shrugged his shoulders, saying maybe, distantly.  Chances are he’s a descendant.  It seemed only fitting Mr. Brown was in attendance today, enjoying the dedication of a building which had been an important part of his life and of the history of San Domingo.

— Linda Duyer

First photo below;  Jason Brown, seated on the right. Second photo: Newell Quinton

















Posted in Maryland, People, Schools