On Objects & Voices: The Intersection of Oral History and Archaeology in the Case of Shule Ya Kujitambua

By Ella Murray

I was not sure what I wanted to do with my degree after three years at Oberlin College. As an Archaeological studies major, I felt stuck. I was unsure of how to combine the theoretical archaeological tools I had gained with the more introspective history courses I had taken during my time at Oberlin. The spring of my junior year I took Tania Boster’s Oberlin Oral History course. As her student, I was assigned an interview with Ian Yarber, Oberlin’s Recreation Director. I prepared for days, writing and rewriting interview questions and trying to calm my ever growing nerves. When I walked to Ian’s office down Main Street with Alex Black Bessen (the ever-kind sound editor for my interview) I shook. We walked into his office, exchanged pleasantries, and prepared for the interview. All went smoothly until we approached Ian’s memories about a school he called Shule. I felt blindsided; even after preparing for this interview for days, I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. Intrigued and excited, our oral history soon veered off track. Ian answered my questions about the Shule, explaining that it was a school in Oberlin for Black students in the 1970s. In many ways this was the most fruitful part of our interview, I left elated—and a little worried that Tania would be disappointed with how far off track we had gone. I thought that would be the end of our interview, that it would be filed away in an archive not to be looked at until someone new came along. For weeks I was curious about the Shule. I did very basic research in the Oberlin College Archives and the Oberlin Heritage Center, and then I left it alone. 

Later that semester I realized that I had to decide what my senior capstone would be for Archaeological studies. I had absolutely no idea what to do. Conducting research on individual artifacts was too dry, looking into ancient societies was too removed, making classic archaeology relatable was too much to take on. Clearly I was not a great archaeological studies student. I had chosen to study archaeology because I thought it was an interesting way to look at the world. If what makes us human is that we require tools to survive, what better way to study people than through their stuff. (I would later learn that this is a key argument of a favorite archaeologist of mine, Ian Hodder).  Then Tania reminded me of my interview with Ian. She encouraged me to follow what I was excited about. I met with my adviser Amy Margaris and she reminded me of what brought me to archaeology in the first place—a desire to look at societies from a new perspective. She reminded me that archaeology can be used as a social tool to understand people, that it can be more than excavation. A group of amazing professors and community members, a couple of grants, and many, many hours in front of a microfiche machine later, I am building my senior capstone about the Shule. Understanding the Shule through an archaeological perspective has allowed me to immerse myself in the interdisciplinary nature of archaeology. 

For my capstone I research Shule Ya Kujitambua, translated from Swahili as School of Self Realization. The school was founded in Oberlin, Ohio during the 1970’s and was the same school that Ian Yarber attended and mentioned in his oral history interview. The Shule was part of a network of African Free Schools and a push for African centered education in the United States by the Council for Independent Black Institutions (CIBI). Founded in 1972, CIBI is a foundation that utilizes the African-centered learning approach to educate black children. CIBI is a formal title for a value that has always been a part of African Centered institutions. Pauline Lipman explicates the purpose of the CIBI in her book Race, Class, and Power in School Restructuring: “CIBI was formed to enable educators of African descent to share information, materials, and curriculum and to have material unity that would support the development of independent schools as alternatives to public education” 

Dr. Kofi Lomotey founded the Oberlin Shule within the network of the CIBI. In the early 1970’s, the school operated out of the Afrikan Heritage House (AHH). College students who enrolled in teaching practicums at the beginning of the Black Studies program would work on a rotating schedule to teach the four children enrolled in Shule Ya Kujitambua. The curriculum followed the Nguzo Saba, a set of seven core values compiled by Dr. Mwalimu Karenga. Translated to English, these values are cooperation, self sufficiency, self reliance, contributing to the community, and a positive attitude towards Black history and culture.

 The Shule subscribed to an Afrocentric model of education. This holistic remodeling of the hegemonic curriculum completely changed how students learned. For example, the Shule relied on the family model to encourage education. They focused on this model because in public schools, “the Black nuclear and extended family as well as the Black community, are no longer galvanized around a common set of values, goals, and guiding principles as they once were.” By re-centering the family, African centered schools are able to draw the family and the community back in. Teachers both treat their students as their children and encourage their students to treat their teachers as parents. This allows students and teachers to be deeply embedded within the institution, understanding it as a family. Pauline Lipman explains that “Smaller, family-like groupings” benefit students of color because they decrease anonymity and increase aims for shared goals as well as increase teacher-student empathy.” This is just one example of the many ways that Shule Ya Kujitambua differed from the Oberlin Public Schools in Oberlin during this time. In many ways a product of the Black Power Movement and an extension of the minority programs that were being instituted in Oberlin, Shule Ya Kujitambua changed the lives of those it touched.

 Since last May, I conducted oral histories with former students and parents of Shule Ya Kujitambua, and these interviews would not have been possible without the help of community members. Community members are the experts of this history, and their interviews become objects of the archive. They have been gracious as to speak with me, both on and off the record, send me clippings and stories, and words of encouragement. The excitement about reestablishing this story is tangible. This project puts oral histories and primary source documents in conversation, operating under theories of community-based learning and material culture to uncover just one part of a national story of race relations and education deficits. I focus specifically on the Oberlin Shule rather than others founded in the United States because of the way it troubles Oberlin’s reputation as a racial utopia. The project uncovers the ways public schools have failed Black students in the past and how Black community members have and continue to resist. The timeliness of this project is two-fold; the two elementary schools that were the main focus of racial integration efforts in the 1960’s are scheduled to close next year, and Black students on campus are currently working to reopen the Shule. A historical record of the racial discussions surrounding the reorganization of the schools and the response to the Shule’s opening are not consolidated anywhere in the college or town archives; this project strives to be the first source of its kind to be used by those working to improve the schools of Oberlin today. Made possible by a generous grant from the Oral History in the Liberal Arts Association, I will translate my findings into a website which will offer an easily accessible primary source archive and narrative of the time period. 

Working on this project has allowed me to feel more connected to Oberlin, more amazed each day by the intricacies of our history, more excited about the power of academia and community. Archaeology is no longer just catalogue numbers and trowels, it is a manner of thinking. By thinking like an archaeologist, I have asked new questions, rephrased my curiosities, followed a trail and accepted each helping hand along the way. Archaeology has empowered me to trust oral history, to draw on the shared power of the archive and the narrative. What makes us human is that we depend on things, and we need stories to give meaning to our things.

Many thanks to Tania Boster, Amy Margaris, Kofi Lomotey, Maggie Robinson, Phyllis Yarber, Ian Yarber, Candice Raynor, Deverrick Mccallister, Brooke Bryan, Ken Grossi, Megan Mitchell, Julia Rohde, the Coalition for Oberlin History, and so many more for your support on this project. If you’re interested in learning more or looking to get involved, email me at emurray@oberlin.edu!


  1. Brenner, R.B. “Shule Schools youngsters in African Heritage.” Oberlin Review. November 19, 1982
  2. Fleming, John E., Civil Rights movement, Impact Of, On African-American Education. In Jones-Wilson, Faustine C. Encyclopedia of African-American Education. 1. publ. ed. Westport, Conn. [u.a.]: Greenwood Press, 1996.
  3. Hodder, Ian. “The Entanglements of Humans and Things: A Long-Term View.” New Literary History 45, no. 1 (Jan 1, 2014): 19-36, https://www.jstor.org/stable/24542579.
  4. Jones-Wilson, Faustine C. Encyclopedia of African-American Education. 1. publ. ed. Westport, Conn. [u.a.]: Greenwood Press, 1996.
  5. Kornblith, Gary John and Carol Lasser. Elusive Utopia. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2018.
  6. Lomotey, Kofi. “Independent Black Institutions: African-Centered Education Models.” The Journal of Negro Education 61, no. 4 (Oct 1, 1992): 455-462. doi:10.2307/2295363. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2295363.
  7.  Lomotey, Kofi. Going to School: The African-American Experience. Albany, N.Y: State Univ. of New York Press, 1990. 108. 
  8. Lipman, Pauline. Race, Class, and Power in School Restructuring. Albany, NY: State Univ. of New York Press, 1998.
  9. Shujaa, Mwalimu J. “Afrocentric Transformation and Parental Choice in African American Independent Schools”, The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 61, no. 2, pp. 148-159. 1992. 
  10. Subira Kifano, “Afrocentric Education in Supplementary Schools: Paradigm and Practice at the Mary McLeod Bethune Institute“, The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 65, no. 2, pp. 209-218. 1996

Williams, Juan. Brown Vs. Board of Education: Its Impact on Public Education 1954-2004. New York, Brooklyn, N.Y: Word For Word Pub. Co, 2005.

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