The Medford Italian Oral History Project

Visit the Photo Gallery from the kick-off event at Medford City Hall!

by Robby McKittrick, Medford Transcript
April 29, 2019

Sharon Kennedy has always had a passion for storytelling.

“I enjoy making people laugh and making people think,” Kennedy said. “I like performing. But on the other end, I like being completely quiet and listening to people tell me their stories.”

As a professional storyteller, Kennedy travels around the country “telling folk tales and fairy tales” to children and adults at schools, festivals and libraries. In addition, she also writes oral histories of people’s lives and loves learning about the individual she interviews.

″[I enjoy] listening to people tell me their beautiful, heartbreaking, spellbinding stories of their families,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy is continuing her passion for storytelling and oral history in her latest project, an oral history on Italian-Americans in Medford. She held a kick-off event for the project this past Tuesday at City Hall, and she is excited to begin the interview process.

This is Kennedy’s third oral history project in Medford. In 1998, she interviewed African-Americans in West Medford and wrote a book called “Voices of West Medford.” Then, she collected “Coming To America” oral histories and folk tales from Haitian-Americans in Medford, Malden, Melrose and Everett.

For her latest project, she received a grant from the Medford Art Council to interview different Italian-Americans and write pieces about their stories for the Medford Transcript. Last week, Medford Mayor Stephanie Burke, Diversity Director Neil Osborne and around eight to 10 Italian-Americans all showed up to support and learn more about the project.

“I love the idea of Sharon highlighting the real life stories of Italian-Americans in Medford,” Burke said. “It is so important to chronicle their experiences for all to see.”

“The Mayor has been very supportive of this project,” Kennedy added. “I’ve been laying the ground work for several years.”

After some coffee and Italian pastries, Kennedy gave a brief overview of what oral history means, the goal of the project, what she is going to do and why she thinks her work is important.

“We are trying to get family stories,” Kennedy said. “We are trying to get stories of the people who lived here at a certain time in this particular place. We want to talk about leaving Italy. We want to talk a little about life in the North End and the West End and then creating a community in Medford.”

Such a project is important as time goes on, Kennedy said.

“We want to do this because we might lose this history and we might lose these stories,” she continued. “People of Medford should know the history of Italians in the city. As far as I know, these have never been collected.”

Kennedy said she will interview Italian-Americans with “roots” in South Medford, and she will learn about people whose stories go back even before 1930. She has found one person from that time period, but she said most of the people will be from 1930 to 1980.

“I would like the whole city to know about the Italian-Americans in South Medford because there are plenty of people who might be living in West Medford where I live and could have been living here for the last 20 or 30 years ... who don’t really know much about the Italian Americans in Medford even though they have been such a force,” she said. “They don’t know about the history. I would like the whole City of Medford to know about the significant contribution to the community that the Italian Americans have made ever since they came from the North End, the West End, or Italy.”

Kennedy said she really wants to preserve the culture and stories for the Italian community.

“I’d like for the Italian community itself to be able to have these stories about preserving their culture, preserving their traditions passed down to their children and their grandchildren,” she said.

Shaping the project

At the event, Burke and Osborne both spoke and showed their support for Kennedy’s project, and Kennedy interacted and chatted with the Italian-Americans to get their input about what direction she should take with the project and who she should interview.

“They talked about what I will be able to find, what I wouldn’t be able to find, who they thought I should go to and whether they themselves would be interested in being interviewed,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy found the different Italian-Americans who showed up to the kick-off event by talking to different people in Medford, and she will interview some of those individuals for the project and some others who they recommend to her, such as their family members.

“Some of the people will be giving me other people that are older or just have even [more] Medford history, so it will be a combination,” Kennedy said. “One person leads to another person which leads to another person.”

Kennedy will write four to five pieces over the upcoming months about her conversations with the Italian-Americans.

“What was it like in South Medford in 1930, 1940, 1950,” Kennedy asked. “What was it like then? Do we have stories of making wine in the cellar? Do we have stories of opening your first business? Do we have stories about prejudice from the people who were already here towards the Italians coming in? Do we have stories about problems learning English? Hard times? No Money? And then on the positive side, weddings?

“It’s going to be a slow, long timeline,” she added. “It could be an article about one person, or it could be an article about three different people.”

If anyone wants to be interviewed, Kennedy said people should reach out to her, and her website is sharonkennedy.com.

“We are looking for people to interview, especially if their families came to Medford before the 1930s,” she said.

Kennedy is also still looking for money to pay for a celebration at the end. During the celebration, she wants to tell someone’s story, have someone else share his or her own story, and perform an actual oral interview in person.

“I am still looking for funding if anybody has it,” she said. “We need about $600 to have a presentation and a celebration at the end, which would be a gathering together of the eight people that I interview and another dozen people I meet along the way.”