Black LGBTQ histories, Black women's resistance movements, African American spiritual traditions and practices


North Carolina Central University - Public History (M.A.)


Black Lives in Archives: Inviting the Community to Explore
The Spark and the Flame: The Circle of Preserving Black History
A Place to Grow: Lucille Clifton's Life in Baltimore
Children of the Hush Harbor: Historic Black Churches and the Fight to Save Them


A person wearing a face mask

When I think about oral history, the thing that stands out to me the most is the ability it affords us to time travel. When I listen to oral histories, I am no longer bound by the restraints of time and I find myself suspended in time with narrators, walking with them back through their experiences to make sense of how their story fits into the collective history we share. Through my study of oral history, I have found myself experiencing what Jafari Allens describes as Black gay temporality in his book, There’s A Disco Ball Between Us: A Theory of Black Gay Life. Through his analysis of Black queer art, organizing and histories and the concept of the placelessness of Blackness, he designs a metaphor for Black relationality to time and history in which time collapses and the dead become present, family is not bound solely by blood, and communities become connected through rituals and customs even if they have never met. To me, oral history provides a medium to do this by offering the opportunity for interviewers and those listening to oral histories, a space in which time collapses, bringing them into history in a different way.

My name is Orilonise Yarborough and I am the current Robert F. Smith Fellow for Applied Public History at NMAAHC. I received my Master’s degree in Public History from North Carolina Central University. I am a Black queer creative, curator and connector of ideas. Prior to my graduate school journey, I began working on the project that would lay the groundwork for my thesis-a virtual Black Pride festival called Black in Space. From March to May, a group of Black creatives worked to put this festival together in the midst of the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. We threw parties, book talks, movie screenings, work out classes, art nights, history lectures. Working on this project made me want to engage a deeper investigation of this event, its roots and its unique expression in other communities.

While I’m at the Museum, I am working to expand the project I began while I was at North Carolina Central University-the curation of an oral history collection focused on the history of D.C. Black Pride. I began this project doing field work in both Washington, D.C. and Charlotte, NC, hoping to locate the links between each Pride’s beginnings, while analyzing its unique expression across locations through politics, community formation, art and organizing. I have many dreams for this project, but the biggest one is that these recordings allow someone else to hear the blueprints that were laid before them and inspire them to locate their unique work going forward in the world, as it has done for me. I hope that as people listen to them and engage with the project, they feel the space between what has happened and where they currently are collapsing, where they can see themselves as extensions of a living history rather than simply dates on a page.

A person typing on a computer

Field Notes: A Reflection on a Year of Questions

A wise woman once said that there are years that ask questions and years that answer. My first year working in the Robert F. Smith Fellowship for Applied Public History has been a year of questioning, discovery, and exploration. I had questions before I entered the field, questions about the work and how stories were told. I fell in love with public history and how it can be used to ask questions, excavate, explore, and find stories that are seeking to be told. The Robert F. Smith Fellowship for Applied Public History has allowed me to do what I have wanted for quite some time: the hands-on work of preserving communal and individual histories, putting theory into practice and achieving new understandings. As an emerging practitioner, this year has been a challenge and a gift-a challenge to myself to push my personal practice of public history to new understandings and a gift of connection, interrogation, investigation, and creativity.  The first year of my fellowship has been filled with wonderful moments - as I wind down my first year, I’m reflecting on some key moments and the gifts that they gave me. 

I started my year with research, digging back into crates and collections I utilized during my thesis to inform where I wanted to go with my independent project. I utilized funding I received through the fellowship to visit two repositories in New York City: The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the LGBT Center National LGBT Archives. Schomburg holds the In The Life Archive, a collection of Black LGBTQ related materials, covering everything from Black Pride to independent publications by Black LGBTQ people. I spent two days digging into the D.C. files about Black Pride, finding new connections between D.C. and the rest of the places Black Pride migrated to. At The Center, I was focused on finding Black LGBTQ independent publications/other independent publications that discussed Black Pride as it was forming and growing. 

A newspaper article

Cheryl Head article: Excerpt of Washington Blade article by Black Pride members, located in the Schomburg Research Center's In The Life Archive

While at the Schomburg and the LGBT Center, I was able to not only find material, but to touch it, feel it and engage with it. As a student, access to archives became so important to me because it fundamentally shifted the way I related to the materials. Archives that specifically focus on queer and trans stories, especially Black LGBTQ people, are few and far between; so often, our stories are reduced to glitter. A glittering distraction that eventually becomes a nuisance, hard to get rid of, an intrusion that pops up at the most inconvenient moment. And much like glitter, Black queer and trans people have always been here, shining and sparkling. Being in a repository with a full collection related to Black LGBTQ people and Black Pride reminded me of the politics of collecting materials. As our history continues to be made, the documentation and intentional curation of Black LGBTQ collections and projects is a political project in a world that would render us invisible.

A newspaper article calendar

Events Calendar: a sample of events during Black Pride weekend in D.C., ranging from parties to worship services from an LGBTQ newspaper. Found in the Schomburg Research Center In The Life Archive

In June, I was able to spend two weeks in New York City with public history practitioners from across the U.S. and Canada at the Columbia University Oral History Institute. For two weeks, we spent time in conversation and community, struggling through similar problems. How do we shift and change the traditional teaching and approach to oral history to honor our communities as more than narrators for research? How do we care for ourselves and our people as we go wading into stories that may mirror our own, good, bad, and ugly? How do we right size our projects, knowing that much of what we seek to do could last a lifetime? And how can you design the interview process to be more human, more connective, and less focused on knowing or proving a certain point? What do we receive when we take the scenic route? In my own project, I focused more on the destination, how my interview fit into the scope of the project, and losing my ability to be focused in the present. 

Two people looking at a museum exhibition

During my time at Columbia, we visited the Museum of the Chinese in America, a community created and maintained museum documenting the experiences of Chinese community. Here, we are looking at a special exhibit called "Responses: Asian American Voices Resisting the Tides of Racism". The exhibit including portraits of community members, a community created timeline of organizing and oral histories with community members about their experience in the COVID-19 pandemic

Two days spent with Nyssa Chow, a Caribbean oral historian and artist, reminded me to focus on presence and to allow myself to be surprised through relinquishing some control. Relying less on my pre-written questions, making interviews less formal and other changes to my personal practice has helped interviews become containers where more magic can be made by allowing more space. As practitioners, we have an idea we want to explore, a thread to pull out, a through-line to investigate. Sometimes that through line comes up in conversations about painting, memories of a legendary party, or reminders of quarrels, but we wouldn’t know that if we didn’t allow ourselves and our people to meander from the path. There is fruit in unknowing and following the curiosities to wherever they go. My favorite part of this time was getting to be in spaces to receive and give support around the execution of our projects. Steel sharpens steel, and in those two weeks, I came away with new strategies to approach this work, my place in it, and how oral history in particular changes the study of history and makes it come alive. We were able to truly build with and support one another, trading resources, tips, and support. 

A banner sign

I designed this Community Curation banner using archival images from NMAAHC's collections, as well as the collections of our partners in Nashville like the Nashville Central Library and the American Baptist College Archives

Working in the Smith Center for the Digitization and Curation of African American History has given me the ability to observe and support the public history projects that are moving at NMAAHC. The Community Curation Program is a program of the Smith Center that focuses on supporting individuals, communities and institutions with digitization of their materials and stories. Our most recent CCP was in Nashville, Tennessee at Fisk University and the Center spent all year working to set up remote digitization services at the Aurelia E. and John Hope Franklin Library. In addition to the digitization services, there were other events that brought in elements from NMAAHC’s programs, such as Hometown Treasures and Smithsonian Gardens. As a non-accessioning project, CCP is not focused on acquiring materials, but offering resources and support to preserve precious histories from degradation and disintegration.

A photo of a library

John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library, Fisk University - Community Curation 2023

I loved my time in Nashville for so many reasons-the conversations I was able to have, the things I got to learn, and the ways I got to connect with practitioners of all types. While at CCP Nashville, I was able to see all aspects of the program from start to finish, experiencing many different parts of the magic. I learned how to build the digitization stands used for photographs, I used archival photos to design our banners and I got to develop interview questions for Conversations on the Road. One particularly sweet moment from CCP was returning to the Franklin Library on Fisk’s campus every day. Seeing how our Center’s director Dr. Doretha Williams, was able to use the Program to pour back into her alma mater and the joy she felt being on campus was inspiring. When I set foot on campus, I would be reminded of John Hope Franklin teaching at my alma mater, North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina and how his words and example have been with me as I have ventured deeper into this field. Each day as I approached the library, the words that have guided me into this work would settle into my spirit: ”we’ve got to tell the unvarnished truth”. Public history projects like CCP allow us to tell the unvarnished truth by preserving histories that exist outside of archives, libraries, and repositories. While in Nashville, CCP allowed me to dig into questions of ancestral memory, respite for memory workers, and sites of power for practitioners doing memory work in Nashville. Getting immersed in the stories of people like Mike Floss of Black Nashville Assembly and Jordan Harris of Alkebu-Lan Images added new context and contours to Nashville’s Black history, demonstrating through their work how the past is never truly past as it informs their community work. 

A person in front of posters

Mike Floss of Black Nashville Assembly

A yellow building with cars parked in front

Alkebu-Lan Images, Nashville's only Black-owned bookstore

As we move into 2024, I am grateful for a year of questions. I am grateful for every question that has been answered and each one that begot greater questions. I am grateful to every person I interviewed who was willing to answer my questions. In 2024, with the information and experiences I was able to have, I am looking forward to a year that answers through continued collaboration and creativity. 

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