"We all came from Sora..."
Our Approach to People's Stories
by David Allen
There is an area in Birmingham which until recently was largely open parkland; but now it is a building site for the terminus of the new High Speed Rail line, which will run from Birmingham to London.
In the 19th century, this area was home to Birmingham’s Italian community. Many of the people who lived there had emigrated from one area in Italy, around Sora.
A small number of families claimed to have been pioneers, encouraging others to migrate to Birmingham in search of work, in a pattern of chain migration.
Few traces remain today of the presence of this community. In some ways, the story is axiomatic of the history of Birmingham as a city: it is always erasing its history, as it continually reinvents itself, knocking down the old to make way for the new.
This is also an erosion of the city as a site of "collective memory."
In the 1950s and 1960s, and even into the 70s and 80s, Birmingham witnessed the development of new estates, as poor housing stock was demolished. The houses in the Italian quarter were mostly so-called ‘back-to-backs’ – badly constructed houses, built so that the houses literally backed on to each other, with only a thin dividing wall between them.
According to a recent report on the history of the Italian community, ‘the slum clearance of the back-to-backs was a significant factor in the dispersal of the Italian community’ after World War II.
One of the partners on our Erasmus Plus project, Midland Actors Theatre, has been working with groups of young people across the city, to uncover the history of communities like this, which have ‘disappeared. The participants have undertaken oral history interviews with descendants of people from different communities.
These interviews demonstrate that, even though a particular community may have dispersed, the descendants still preserve an awareness of their own family’s roots, and this continues to form part of their own identity.
One interviewee, for example, was Mick Volante; he recalled visits he has made to the village in Italy which his family came from; and entertained his interviewers with a performance on the accordion – an instrument he has learned to play, it seems, as a sign of his Italian inheritance.
Our aim is not simply to recover ‘lost’ heritage, but to go behind newspaper headlines about ‘migrant hordes’, and make young people aware that migration is not a new phenomenon.
Birmingham itself is a city of migrants – going back to its origins. (It was first settled in the 7th century by an Anglo-Saxon tribe from Germany.)
In our work with young people, we are keen to emphasise that everyone has a history of migration somewhere in their family background, including members of the ‘white’ population - for example through some form of internal migration. We hope that this emphasis on ‘shared histories’ of migration will undermine what John Powell has called ‘the sinister techniques of “Othering”’ – the casting of migrant groups as ‘Other.’
We call this approach to history (and history teaching) ‘Narrative Inquiry.’
Our aims are also:
1. To change the focus of history teaching in schools, from the major events and figures in history, to ordinary people’s experiences of historical change – something which is usually missing from the history books; and linked with this,
2. To place an emphasis on ordinary people’s stories and memories, and the need to preserve them as a major primary source in researching and understanding processes of historical change
3. To encourage young people to be more aware of their own family’s history, and to find out about, and preferably preserve in some form, their own stories and memories.
We want to make young people away of the environment around them, as a space which local people share, and which is in a continual process of change.
In any one place, there is an overlaying of history, of memories, and the traces of the lives of different people and communities, who have made it a ‘home.’
We believe that collecting stories can contribute to raising awareness of the environment as the space of ‘collective memory’; and reveal some of the hidden ‘legacies,’ the continuities that persist through time, in the face of social and historical change.
From 2017-19, we worked with partners across Europe on an Erasmus+ project called ‘Breaking Down Barriers’ (2017-19), looking at European-wide patterns of migration, and the stories of different ‘lost communities’ – with partners in Poland, Italy, Portugal, Turkey and the UK. We have explored different techniques in narrative inquiry - such as digital storytelling, oral history, comic books, heritage trails, etc. On this website you will also find examples of some of the projects which partners have undertaken.
You can see Professor Carl Chinn talking about Italian migration to Birmingham, in this video.