Doing Community History in Philly

[MA student Erin Shipley reflects on her volunteer stint with History Truck.]

As a classmate of Philadelphia Public History Truck mastermind Erin Bernard, I agreed to help collect oral histories at the East Kensington block party last weekend. I’d never formally interviewed anyone before, so I arrived nervous and not sure what to expect. The day started off slowly, but soon neighbors began to arrive, curious about what was going on. The food and music drew them in, but once they realized what the event was about, many people stuck around to share their memories of East Kensington.

Young and old alike were excited to talk to us about life in their neighborhood and share their objects for the future exhibit. To help out, I interviewed residents at a bistro set in the back of the History Truck—how fun is that? One of the men, in his late sixties, has lived his entire life in East Kensington and was especially keen on sharing how the neighborhood has changed over the course of his life. He shared very personal memories with me, and I was awed at his honest, genuine thoughts.

The second man spent a few minutes wandering around with his pit bull, Samantha, greeting and chatting with neighbors. He approached the truck and asked if I would be interested in hearing some stories passed down by his father, who lived in East Kensington in the 1920s and 30s. I told him I would be elated to hear his stories, so he and Samantha hopped in the truck. He was a well-spoken and practiced storyteller, and shared each story with such enthusiasm. His eagerness in passing on his family stories really struck me.

I hesitantly left the block party early because of a prior commitment, but continued thinking about the event and the people I spoke with for the rest of the weekend. The work of the Philly Public History Truck is so important—collecting and sharing stories from lesser-known areas will be a meaningful contribution to that community and to all of Philadelphia. It’s important that every individual in Philadelphia knows that their memories are significant and should be shared with future generations. Kudos, Philly History Truck—can’t wait to work with you in the future!

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