MOHA Roundtable Presentation
Roundtable Discussion: The Michigan PBB Oral History Project: Four Perspectives on the Benefits (and Challenges) of Collaborating to Make History from Memories
Roundtable Abstract: In 1973 one of the largest episodes of food contamination in U.S. history began to unfold in Michigan. The Michigan Chemical Company (owned by Velsicol Chemical Corporation) in St. Louis, Michigan, accidentally shipped a fire retardant (polybrominated biphenyl or PBB) in place of a livestock-feed additive to state feed mills. Thereafter, PBB entered into the human food chain via contaminated farm products and exposed millions of Michiganders. The Michigan PBB Oral History Project* documents the history of the PBB mix-up through interviews with community members—farmers, chemical workers, Pine River residents, consumers, public officials, researchers, and activists. This roundtable presentation will explore the multifaceted and collaborative components of the Michigan PBB Oral History Project from the perspectives of an oral historian, archivist, graduate student assistant, and graduate researcher to highlight the opportunities and challenges of collaborating to document, preserve, and interpret community memories.
- “‘These stories, they stick with you’: The Michigan PBB Oral History Project”
- “Preserving PBB Community Stories: A Graduate Student Assistant’s Perspective of the Michigan PBB Oral History Project”
- “Contaminated Consumption: The Forgotten History of PBB in Michigan, 1973-2019”
- “PBB in the Archives: Challenges and Advantages in Building a Manuscript Collection to Support the Michigan PBB Oral History Project”
Brittany Fremion will introduce and share information about how community members and academic partners from multiple institutions collaborated to develop the Michigan PBB Oral History Project. The focus of her presentation is a discussion of CMU student engagement with and contributions to the project. From April 2018 to May 2019, six undergraduate and five graduate students from History, Cultural Resource Management, and Education Programs dedicated nearly 2,000 hours to conducting, transcribing, and auditing interviews, attending community events, and preserving donated personal papers as part of a federally-funded grant team. In doing so, these students learned about oral history theory, methods, and ethics. They also learned a great deal about the ways in which PBB contamination changed individual lives, communities, and environmental health research, and they thought deeply about why this history matters. As one student observed, “these stories, they stick with you.” Another student reflected, “history, to me, is no longer just about places and ideas…but something much more personal.” These students shared in the pain and sorrow expressed by many community members, as well as celebrated moments of joy and triumph. They have heard the voices of those who for a long time felt unheard. Most importantly, they have been good stewards of the past, which seems ever present, as the past is never in the past, especially when chemicals are involved.
Brittany Fremion is an Associate Professor of History at Central Michigan University where she teaches courses in environmental history and public history. She is the director of the Michigan PBB Oral History Project, a member of the Michigan PBB Registry Leadership Team, and secretary for the Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force (St. Louis, Michigan). She is also a MOHA Board Member and chair of the Workshop Committee.
By assisting on oral history projects students gain and opportunity for professional growth in ways that could not adequately be replicated in a classroom setting. Candy DeForest explains how her experience as a Project Graduate Assistant working on the Michigan PBB Oral History Project has contributed to her professional development as a public historian. Taking on a position with this oral history project has allowed her the opportunity to diversify and deepen her professional skills and experiences in oral and public history outside of the classroom. Candy will discuss her roles in the project, including transcribing, editing, digitizing, public speaking, and assisting with events. She also will highlight the challenges she has faced in working with personal oral histories and documents, detailing what she learned from those experiences. Student assistant opportunities like these provide students with valuable insight and practical work experience, while contributing to the oral history field.
Candy Deforest has a Master of Arts in History from Central Michigan University. She is a former Graduate Assistant for the Michigan PBB Oral History Project, for which she transcribed and audited interviews, digitized companion manuscript collections, trained undergraduate research assistants, and assisted with public presentations and community events. She is also a founding volunteer for the Rockford Area Museum, working in collections management, social networking, and assisting with fundraising.
Nikki Brabaw, a graduate student, will present her work on a creative endeavor project inspired by her work with the Michigan PBB Oral History Project, which documents and interprets the consumer experience. Millions of Michigan consumers were negatively, and permanently, impacted by the largest food contamination event in the history of the United States in the fall of 1973. Workers at Michigan Chemical Company accidentally loaded a fire retardant, instead of a nutritive feed supplement for livestock, into a delivery truck destined for a Farm Bureau feed mill. After this mix-up occurred, it took nearly a year for the problem to be identified and brought to the attention of the public, but by then the chemical had already heavily contaminated the human food supply. It is estimated that nearly nine million people were exposed to PBB in the 1970s through direct exposure to the chemical, through food consumption, through breastfeeding, or in the womb. It is devastating that so many people unknowingly consumed food contaminated with this toxic chemical. The oral histories collected from this cohort provide a powerful glimpse into this historic event and their interpretation provides important insight into how to best handle a situation like this in the future.
Nicole Brabaw has a Master of Arts in Cultural Resource Management from Central Michigan University. She is a former Graduate Assistant for the Michigan PBB Oral History Project and serves on the Board of Directors for the Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force (St. Louis, Michigan). Her master’s thesis explored Michigan resident consumers’ experiences and memories of the PBB mix-up, specifically those of nursing mothers.
Marian Matyn will provide an archival perspective on the challenges and advantages of collaborating to collect, process, identify, and make accessible PBB-related manuscript collections supporting this oral history project. Until this collaborative effort, almost none of the collections of Michigan farm families and community members affected by the PBB tragedy in the early 1970s were in archives, resulting in their story being largely forgotten and unavailable to researchers. Archival concerns include: personal privacy issues versus the desire of families to make their stories available for public research, and trust issues and fears their records will be destroyed in the future due to the prior, unanticipated destruction of records tracking the health of farm families. Physical and mental health issues of families, including minors, and bankruptcy cases are documented in the collections. Marian will discuss her research to resolve her professional, ethical concerns about accessibility and retention issues and her efforts to identify PBB-related news footage in the Channel 9 & 10 film collection. Project collaboration has many advantages for the archives, including new donors of collections, archival researchers, collaborators, archives stakeholders, and researchers, new collections, and increased community awareness of archives.
Marian Matyn is Archivist in the Clarke Historical Library, Associate Professor in the Libraries, and liaison to the History Department where she teaches HST 583 Archives Administration as an adjunct professor.
Facilitated by Camron Michael Amin, University of Michigan-Dearborn.