Arts, Culture, and a New Oral History Project at WRHS 

By Regennia N. Williams, PhD 

The Western Reserve Historical Society  

Distinguished Scholar of African American History and Culture  

Life Member, The Oral History Association 

The recently accessioned archival collection for Dr. A. Grace Lee Mims (1930 –2019) is providing the inspiration for an exciting new oral history project at the Western Reserve Historical Society(WRHS). Dr. Mims, who was a librarian, soprano vocalist, radio personality, and educator, amassed a treasure trove of items that comprises more than 100 linear feet of manuscript materials, photographs, and audio recording from “The Black Arts,” a program that Mims hosted on WCLV Radio for more than 40 years.

Launched in the summer of 2021, the A. Grace Lee Mims Arts and Culture Oral History project engaged the talents of our project interns: DavidPatrick Ryan, Felicia Haney, Kathryn Oleksa, and Jerica Walls. Each of these college-educated young adults brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to their work. Project outcomes include digital audio and video recordings, interview transcripts, and a handbook based on research in existing secondary sources and firsthand knowledge gleaned from the research teams’2021 experiences in preparing for and implementing this pilot project.

As a historian who frequently chooses to locate her research activities at the intersection of the arts and the humanities, I had the pleasure of creating and directing the project, scheduling the interviews, and working with the interns to collect first-person narratives of artists, educators, and administrators at area institutions and organizations, including those with ties to the Cleveland Institute of Music and the Gospel Music Historical Society.

Our team worked closely with Michael Scharer-Zielinski, the WRHS Digital Access Assistant, to make sure that our remote recording and back-up activities were in keeping with the institution’s current guidelines for the creation and preservation of digital DavidPatrick Ryan, Kathryn Oleksa, Jerica Walls, Regennia N. Williams, Felicia Haney content. WRHS staff member Dahren Phillips-Bey is also working with the team to review and help edit transcripts.

Thus far, the project has benefitted greatly from the Oral History Association’s abundant web-based reference materials, including links to “Remote Interviewing Resources” and “OHA Principles and Best Practices,” as well as the webinar “Oral History at a Distance: Conducting Remote Interviews.”

These oral history interviews are part of the larger body of primary and secondary sources that will inform the research and writing for a book project on the recent history of African American arts and culture in Greater Cleveland. A panel of Cleveland-based oral historians will also share more information on this research and other projects during “Moving Stories in Challenging Times: Narratives from America’s North Coast,” a Roundtable session forOHA’s2021 Annual Meeting.

Over the years, Dr. Mims was interviewed for several oral history projects, including the HistoryMakers®,the nation’s largest African American video oral history collection. It was only in the wake of her passing, however, that I discovered evidence related to her own work as an oral historian. This evidence includes the transcripts of 1975 and 1976interviews of her mother, Alberta Grace Edwards Lee, and these transcripts are now part of the WRHS archival collection.

In both her professional career and through her work as a founding member of the African American Archives Auxiliary of the Western Reserve Historical Society, Dr. Mims did much to shape the narratives about arts and culture in Cleveland’s history. Research for the ongoing A. Grace Lee Mims Arts and Culture Oral History Project is revealing important details about the lasting impact of her work.*All color photographs courtesy of the research team members. Dr. A. Grace Lee Mims hosted “The Black Arts” on WCLV Radio for more than 40 years. (Photo: Herbert Ascherman)

*All color photographs courtesy of the research team members