The Seamen's Church Institute’s American Merchant Marine Oral History Project: An Archival Intervention

Monday, January 5, 2015: 11:00 AM
New York Ballroom West (Sheraton New York)
Johnathan Thayer, City University of New York, Graduate Center and Seamen's Church Institute of New York and New Jersey
Founded before the Navy and the Coast Guard, the American Merchant Marine has played a long and important role in the history of the United States. Between 200,000 and 300,000 merchant mariners sailed during World War II as civilians, suffering a higher proportional casualty rate than any branch of the armed services. Despite the fundamental role they have played in shaping today’s globalized economy, seafarers continue to exist at the margins of social consciousness, and are frequently left out of both popular historical narratives and academic research. The Seamen’s Church Institute’s American Merchant Marine Veterans Oral History Project (AMMV OHP) seeks to restore the voice of merchant mariners to the historical record by conducting oral history interviews with retired mariners from around the country. Audio clips from interviews are displayed alongside photographs and other digitized archival material so as to create a digital platform for an oral history of the American merchant marine.

Many interviewees from New York City are now in their 80s and 90s and struggling to make ends meet, having been excluded from G.I. Bill benefits and denied a fast-track to the post-War middle class. Given such urgent circumstances, the AMMV OHP is an exercise in revisionist social history that seeks to record and preserve first-hand accounts of working lives at sea before their stories disappear without an archival trace.

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