About two dozen students gathered around John Crosby in a semi-circle formation, huddled in closely to hear him over the wind, which was broken up by the walls of the George Washington High School Gym.
“I was born and raised here in Port St. Joe,” he told the group. “Being here all my life, I got a chance to see the development of Port St. Joe. And I know I’m supposed to talk about the paper mill and the chemical plants, which we had.”
“It wasn’t an easy job,” he continued, telling the group about his experience working at the paper mill. “It was bad. But as time went on, they put in a lawsuit against the paper mill for discrimination, and it got a little better. And as time went on, it got a lot better, but we had some rough times here in Port St. Joe.”
The students, who attend the University of West Florida, had driven into town that morning to conduct a full day of interviews with residents of North Port St. Joe. The interviews are part of a project seeking to document the experiences of the people who grew up in Port St. Joe’s historically segregated neighborhood to compile an oral history of the town’s past, its experiences with desegregation and that history’s impacts on its development.
Students from the university have been working closely with the North Port St. Joe neighborhood since last year, said Akousa Duah, who was once one of those students herself.
Now, Duah is the executive director of the Pioneer Bay Community Development Corporation, a local organization aimed at facilitating and advocating for the redevelopment of North Port St. Joe and close partners of the academic project.
“The objective of these interviews is to compile an oral history of the experiences of interviewees growing up and living in North Port St. Joe and its relationship to environmental justice,” she said.
As Crosby finished speaking, the students broke for lunch. Then, they split up into smaller groups and divided themselves among several locations in town to conduct interviews with community members in a more one-on-one setting.
There, students took a deeper dive into more specific topics, taking the time to hear residents’ personal experiences.
“There were several riots, you might call them, at the school,” Clarence Monette, who taught at Port St. Joe High School when it was first integrated, told a pair of the students in the back room of the Farmacy on Avenue A.
He recalled a time when a concrete block had been thrown through the Port St. Joe High School common area shortly after Gulf County schools were desegregated around 1970. “Most of the teachers would say that those were some of the worst times we had at that school,” he said.
While North Port St. Joe residents spoke, students filmed on iPads or cell phones mounted to stabilizers.
In the coming weeks, they will compile the footage and edit together their shots to produce videos chronicling the experiences interviewees shared.
Eventually, Duah said, both a transcript and audio record of the interviews will be archived in the oral history archive of UWF in Pensacola, as well as the Corinne Costin Gibson Memorial Public Library in Port St. Joe, where they will be made available to the public, with the permission of the interview subjects.