Oral Histories

By: Catherine Kudlick

From the beginning, the plan for oral history videos, embedded in the exhibit, excited us, and sometimes carried us through when other parts of “Patient No More” seemed stalled. When we met people like Dennis Billups who had held his story for years wondering if anyone would care about what a black blind man - “504’s chief morale officer” - had contributed, it sunk in that we had not only pushed open a door but also helped to heal a wound. Soon everything rushed in. We laughed, we cried, we wondered in the most visceral way what it meant to write history and how many other stories might never be told. We felt a sense of urgency, not just because we had a deadline, but also because we knew that some of the occupiers were in fragile health.

Getting San Francisco State students in Journalism and History involved added another layer, especially when they made connections with the occupiers, many of them the same age in 1977 as the students interviewing them in 2014. Justin Steinberg, a history student with a vision impairment and a musician, was thrilled to interview performer Jeff Moyer on Skype.

The first challenge was finding as many people as we could. Some were easy: organizers Judy Heumann and Kitty Cone had extensive interviews in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. We also had high profile people like Congressman George Miller and Elaine Brown, leader of the Black Panther Party at the time.

Others required real detective work, following leads, deciding which rumors were outrageous vs which were true. We cheered when we found Ron Washington, a gay black man who we’d seen in lots of 504 photos but who seemed to have vanished. Apparently our postings on every discussion list we could think of, to people to spread the word among friends, outreach to local churches and various Independent Living Centers paid off. Once we'd even heard confident pronouncements that someone had died only to receive a call from that person the very next day.

We have an incomplete roster, a snapshot really. Not everyone we *did* find wanted to talk. Some said they had nothing to say, others claimed they’d already said it all. And even now we meet people who say they were there but we reached them too late to include.

We hoped to get at the nitty-gritty of daily life occupying a government building for 26 days. After initial claims of remembering nothing and having little to add, most interviewees relished the chance to talk on camera. We discovered how Bonnie Regina used an orange juice can to bathe and organizer Judy Heumann’s cherished moments of quiet in an unused elevator. The more than fifty hours of interviews reveal everything from mind-numbing boredom to profound personal transformation.

But we also wanted the 504 participants to engage today’s students, both those who would be interviewing them, and those who would watch/listen. We asked everyone what they wanted future disability rights activists to know, what work they felt still needed to be done.

Once the interviews were complete, we had students transcribe them, then curator Fran Osborn, Associate Director Emily Beitiks, Grad Assistants Renee Starowicz and Katie Murphy, and Director (Me) read through to code them, looking for the juiciest quotes and how they intersected with the emerging themes for the “Patient No More” exhibit stations. Emily then wove the best of the best together into stories that SFSU Journalism graduate Mike Cheng edited into videos.

Forty interviews and almost forty years later, we have a sense of an occupation where few could agree on who actually took part or how long they stayed. There’s something freeing, even nostalgic about this fluidity at a time with informal record- keeping and a certain innocence, at least as far as disability activism was concerned. It was a rare moment when  politicians, activists, and even workers in the federal building (including guards!) seemed to have all the time in the world to work together to make the world a better place.

To watch the videos, check out the virtual exhibit at PatientNoMore.org