It’s a place where moments in history are captured. At The Freedom Archives, the images and words of social activists are collected from vinyl, tape and film, and then restored, digitized and archived. It connects political events of the past with information seekers in the present.
“We’re fed up with all the exploitation,” says Cesar Chavez in a speech before hundreds of people about a historic protest, which caused some consumers to stop buying grapes and made some growers offer fair wages to migrant workers. “We’re fed up with being the worst-paid workers in America. We’re fed up with being exploited. We want a new life. We want a union. We wanted to do something for ourselves and our families, and they went on strike.”
This audio clip of Chavez — and many others like it — can be found in the modest offices of The Freedom Archives in San Francisco's Mission District.
“One of the things we find tremendously rewarding is when the material in the archive can be repurposed,” says archives director Claude Marks. “We don’t feel an ownership of it as much as a responsibility to protect and restore this kind of material.”
The archive came to life when a group of film, radio and video producers found they’d collected tons of material documenting social movements in the Bay Area and throughout the U.S., Marks says. They decided to preserve the information in one space and make it available to the public, some for free. Filmmakers, commercial producers, teachers and students all come digging for rare sound treasures.
Oscar Davalos is a senior at MetWest High School in Oakland. He's also an intern at The Freedom Archives. Because of his interest in the social movement of the '60s and '70s, he thought it was the perfect place for an internship.
“A lot of social movements that happened in the past connect to today and a lot of the struggles happening,” Davalos says.
His favorite discovery so far is a recording of Assata Shakur, a Black Panther Party member convicted of first-degree murder in 1977. After escaping from prison in 1979, she sought asylum in Cuba, where she gave a speech promoting Black Nationalism.
Davalos’ classmate, Jose Cartagena, is also an intern at The Freedom Archives. He is curious about his family’s life in El Salvador and uses the archives to piece together bits of information about their time there.
“My parents would tell me some crazy stories that happened to them when they were in the country when the Civil War started,” Cartagena says. “While going through the folder, I read some articles and periodicals and newspapers about stuff that happened there. The connection was really interesting.”
Students who come through here get a different sort of education and often begin to really enjoy history, Marks says.
“What they find very life changing oftentimes is that there is actually a history of communities of resistance that’s not just about memorizing lists of white presidents over the years,” he says.
Some young people today seem to be uninterested in political and social movements of the past. Cartagena and Davalos hope to pass along what they learn about these events to other students, so they see how the past and present are often intertwined.
They have been so inspired by The Freedom Archives, they say, that they started their own news blog, Young Oakland.