BETHLEHEM, Pa. (WLVT) - Exploring inside Bethlehem Area Public library is on hold for now, but its latest project is online.
PBS39 reported on the Black Bethlehem Project last February, and now, it’s finally ready, thanks to an $11,000 grant from the Lehigh Valley Engaged Humanities Consortium.
"It was just so difficult to find information about the African-American experience here in Bethlehem," said Rayah Levy, the library's head of adult services, "and I said to myself -- I actually made a vow to myself -- that this should not happen again."
Twenty African-Americans who’ve lived and worked in Bethlehem shared personal stories. Esther Lee, a lifelong Bethlehem resident and president of the city’s NAACP unit, said this project offers perspective for younger generations.
"They'll find that life really isn't as bad as they think it is, because those of us that have been here and lived -- even in Bethlehem -- through the years have gone through some very tumultuous times," Lee said. "It's very important, I think, that we share our stories now."
The project currently includes photos of the participants, as well as the oral and transcribed versions of their interviews.
Clyde Bosket, Sr., 90, grew up on a South Carolina plantation and moved to the Lehigh Valley, where he owned several barbershops and then spent 25 years working various jobs at Bethlehem Steel.
"Bethlehem Steel, to me, was, more or less, like being a sharecropper -- dust flying everywhere. Dust," he said in his recorded interview for the project. "So, I was at home, you know, actually, because I didn’t mind getting dirty."
Vivian Hungerford said she has vivid memories of her childhood and how segregation impacted her family. She said what she learned in school wasn't telling the whole story.
"I always said that United States history was a book of lies. My history teacher, I would ask him questions about the black soldiers in the Civil War," she said. "He could never give me an answer, and I wouldn't accept that."
Sharon Gavin-Levy moved to Bethlehem in the 70’s to teach at Northampton Community College. She said she wanted students to read and learn more about Black writers.
"Once I developed an African-American literature course, I was able to teach it, and so, I felt it was a part of my responsibility, a part of my duty to educate people," she said, "so that people would know there are many, many, many voices that are unheard."
The stories describe times of hardship and blatant discrimination during the Jim Crow era, prompting Bethlehem’s Black community to come together.
"They can learn about the colored voters’ club. They could learn about the Bethlehem Giants baseball team," Levy said. "They could learn about the J.F. Goodwin scholarship."
"Recently, I've gone through some papers and really jogged my memory and I said, 'My Lord, did we do all these things?'" Lee said.
"We need to look at what young people are being taught, so that they understand that this country is a country of many people and many voices," Gavin-Levy said. "We have all contributed. We have all built it, and we have all safeguarded it."
Now that the project is public, the next goal is making sure people see it. Lee said the stories offer necessary education for students.
"As an NAACP, we’ve been asking our school district particularly to institute Black history, Negro history into history through the years, and we've not gotten that," she said. "I'm still hopeful that the history books will record history as it's been presented."
The timing of the project coincides with the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement. As people actively seek to educate themselves, the project offers several perspectives to learn from.
"If we got caught fighting because we were called the N-word, my mom would tear our little rusty dusty up," Hungerford said. "They said, 'You know your name. We gave your name when you were born, and because people call you out of your name, you leave it up to their ignorance,' and I do that right till today."
"Hopefully, this will be the first of many projects that take place to promote awareness and to just elevate voices that have been silenced," Gavin-Levy said.
The library plans to add even more to the project, including video interviews and historic documents. You can find the Black Bethlehem Project HERE.