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David Blackwell, Likely the First African-American to Earn Tenure at Berkeley

Photo of David Blackwell

David Blackwell was born in 1919 in Centralia, Illinois. He went on to become a great mathematical thinker and made fundamental contributions to the areas of probability theory, mathematical statistics, set theory and logic, and of course, game theory, to name a few. When Professor Blackwell came to UC Berkeley in 1954 after a decade at Howard University in Washington D.C., he became, we think, the first African American ladder rank faculty person system-wide.

There is so much important history throughout this series, but I am drawn to this early passage featuring Blackwell’s commentary on childhood when he was growing up as compared to more recent generations.

Wilmot: How would you describe yourself as a child?

Blackwell: I liked to play games. Checkers, chess, marbles, and more active games like baseball or softball. Track and field—we used to organized track meets. I think I may have mentioned this before, but the children organized things that the adults had nothing to do with. We had a Southtown baseball team that played the Northtown baseball team. And adults had nothing to do with that at all. We organized it ourselves and played ourselves. Organized track meets ourselves. When I look at how much parental supervision there is nowadays, I feel sorry for the poor kids. They don’t know what independence is like. I didn’t want to grow up. I really enjoyed being a child.

Provoked by a simple but terrific question from interviewer and project manager Nadine Wilmot, I find in Blackwell's response a profound perspective lamenting the loss of children organizing their own neighborhood games and events. How do children of today develop the crucial skills of leadership, cooperation, and self-organization if their entire existences are scheduled and monitored?

This is much more richness in Professor Blackwell's extraordinary life journey. You can read the full transcript of ROHO’s interview with David Blackwell here.

--David Dunham (

From the Archives—Spring 2014

“Mormons, Missions, and Sleeve Knives: David Pierpont Gardner and Preparation for a Career in the University of California System”

Photo of David Pierpont Gardner

Oral histories have a way of justifying themselves. They reveal the variety, contingency, and texture of human experience as much as they show patterns and path dependence. This is true even of histories of university presidents. Although it is a foregone conclusion that the material discussed in these histories will touch on the world-changing events that happen in and around universities, what university administrators do in their “other lives” outside of the academy is often equally fascinating and of interest to historians and the public.

Prior to his career in academia, UC President Emeritus David Pierpont Gardner had an early exposure to nerve-wracking challenges and international intrigue at the height of the Cold War. As a young Mormon graduate of Brigham Young University, Gardner felt it was his duty to go on a mission overseas for his church. Unfortunately, such service was potentially in conflict with his duties as US citizen who might be drafted at any moment to serve in the US military.

In order to avoid the possible interruption of future plans, Gardner decided to enlist.  When he met with the enlistment officer, he was surprised to learn that Mormons were in particularly high demand for certain kinds of work. Gardner had expressed an interest in counterintelligence – which is the prevention of foreign intelligence-gathering on American activities – but was told their quota for this specialization was full. As Gardner was leaving the office, the recruitment officer asked where he had gone to college.

He said, "Are you a Mormon?"
I said, "Yes."
He said, "You're in."
I said, "Well, you just told me a minute ago that it was filled."
He said, "Well, it's not filled for you."
I said, "Are you a Mormon?"
He said, "No, no. But we've found Mormons to be less subject to blackmail. They don't drink, they don't
womanize, and they're a very good security risk, and we would like to have you in." So I got in. [36]

Once he finished his basic training, Gardner was shipped to Japan, where he was told he would no longer be trained in counterintelligence. Instead, he would be trained in the “positive intelligence unit,” which entailed gathering information on foreign entities on foreign soil. He was going to become a spy, in the hostile environment of South Korea, in 1955. Gardner said that he matured quickly from his two years running agents into enemy territory, and was undertaking what he felt was necessary service to his country.

Gardner: I was less frightened out in the field than when I was rendezvousing with agents in Inch’on at two in the morning. Inch 'on, on the Korean west coast, was the smuggling center of the Yellow Sea, had been for years. We would rendezvous with our contacts and agents in safe houses in Inch 'on. These were always in miserable sections of the city and always in the dark of night. I would go up to meet with them, and there were no street lights. I remember the cut glass that people had over their shops and homes there. They would blow and make noise because of the wind off the Yellow Sea, and rats scurrying around. I was scared to death.

Ann Lage, Interviewer: And there's nowhere to hide yourself.
Gardner: Oh, no.
Lage: You must have stood out terrifically.
Gardner: Oh, sure but not so much at 2:00 am. That's why it was at night. We were well armed. I had a .45 on my hip and a .38 under my arm, a sleeve knife on my right arm and a black-jack in my coat
pocket. And I knew how to use them.
Lage: Did this prepare you for the regents' meetings?
Gardner: [laughs] Yes, well, the student protests seemed rather tame in comparison.

Gardner’s career in intelligence would last until he unexpectedly had to return to the US in 1957.

Gardner: One of our agents, my agent, in this instance was either a double agent or sold out or was captured in North Korea, I don't know which.
Lage: A person that you worked with.
Gardner: Yes. My cover name was broadcast over Radio P'yongyang and Radio Peking. When that happened, my commanding officer came and he said, "You've got two hours. Pack up your stuff. As far as we're concerned, you don't exist. So you pack up your stuff and you're out of here in two hours." They flew me to Tokyo, I got on a plane in Tokyo, and I flew to the Bay Area, and the next day
I was out of the army.
Lage: Quickly!
Gardner: Just in time to enroll in summer session at Berkeley. And this was 1957.

Gardner and Lage jokingly intimated that this experience permitted him to weather both bureaucratic meetings and student protestors at UC Santa Barbara during the 1960s with a certain equanimity. But this brief excerpt also illustrates the role of chance in life: the casual question about where one attended college, the daily intensity of a dangerous environment that spared Gardner but not many of his friends, and a moment of betrayal that propelled him to a new life with a new purpose. Interviewer Ann Lage was careful to show interest in the story without putting the narrator’s guard up, as Gardner was concerned about revealing information that might still be classified. But she deftly posed questions to allow him to tell his story on his own time, and in a way that illustrates something valuable about his character and experiences that shaped his career as an administrator and a leader.

You can read the full transcript of ROHO’s interview with David Pierpont Gardner here.

--Paul Burnett (

From the Archives—Winter 2013

The Interview That Started It All: Alice B. Toklas in 1952

Photo of Alice B. Toklas, left, with her companion Gertrude Stein and their dog Basket II, near Belley, France, ca. 1941. Photo courtesy of The Bancroft Library.
Alice B. Toklas, left, with her companion Gertrude Stein and their dog Basket II, near Belley, France, ca. 1941. Photo courtesy of The Bancroft Library.

Two years before the Regional Oral History Office (ROHO) was established, James D. Hart, then director of The Bancroft Library, commissioned an interview with Alice B. Toklas. Ms. Toklas, already in her mid-70s, was still residing in an apartment she once shared with Gertrude Stein in Paris. The interview, which took place at the end of
Autumn 1952, was relatively long—more than six hours—and covered a wide variety of topics, including Toklas's and Stein's childhoods in California, the Paris arts scene, and the difficulties of living under Nazi rule in wartime France. The most compelling element of this interview, though, is Toklas herself, who emerges from Stein's long shadow and proves herself to be a remarkably thoughtful, intelligent, opinionated, and feisty woman in her own right. Some attribute this interview as establishing a "proof of concept" which soon led to the founding of ROHO. Although available to researchers in the Bancroft archives for decades, this interview transcript was made available broadly to the public only this year in junction with The Bancroft Library Gallery exhibit, “A Place at the Table: A Gathering of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Text, Image & Voice.”

Listen to a clip from the interview or read the entire transcript.

From the Archives—Fall 2013

Leaking National Secrets Then and Now:
Ben Bagdikian on the Pentagon Papers

Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden, who recently leaked millions of bits of data exposing cover ups by the military and the wholesale gathering of personal information of US citizens, have touched off a fierce debate on the public's right to know and the state’s right to secrecy on issues of national security.

A similar debate dominated American discourse more than 40 years ago, in 1971 when Daniel Ellsberg leaked 7,400 pages of government documents revealing a secret history of US involvement in Vietnam. In a pre-digital age, these were documents he had laboriously and surreptitiously xeroxed while he worked as an analyst for the Rand Corporation. Ellsberg had sent the papers to the New York Times, but a federal court enjoined the newspaper not to print them.

Ellsberg then turned to Ben Bagdikian, national editor of the Washington Post with whom he had worked at Rand in the late sixties. In Bagdikians’s 2010 interview for ROHO, he recounts a cloak and dagger tale of Ellsberg getting a copy of the papers to Bagdikian, who then spent the next forty eight hours in the home of Post publisher Katherine Graham preparing the documents for publication. The interview provides an eye-witness account of Graham’s and managing editor Ben Bradlee’s discussions with legal council and board members about the political and moral implications of publishing the Pentagon Papers, and then narrates the subsequent legal consequences. The interview situates the story in the context of the polarized political climate over the War in Vietnam and the Nixon administration’s attack on the press. See, especially, interview 5 on the Pentagon Papers.

Bagdikian is a former dean of UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, with an extensive background as an investigative reporter who wrote about the civil rights movement, exposed horrendous conditions in prisons and became a leading critic of how media became controlled by monopolies.

Ben H. Bagdikian, “Journalist, Media Critic, Professor and Dean Emeritus, UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.” Conducted by Lisa Rubens in 2010. Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California Berkeley, 2011.

From the Archives—Summer 2013

Health and Disease in Saudi Arabia:
The Aramco experience, 1940s-1990s

In June 1947 American medical entomologist Richard Daggy stepped off a plane in Dhahran onto a tarmac strip melting in the over-100-degree heat. The airport was a quonset hut separated from the runway by a sand dune. It had taken him several days of air travel to get there and he knew almost nothing of the famously private desert kingdom. He was sent there to help eradicate malaria, but there was only sand as far as he could see. “I was puzzled as to why a good, self-respecting malaria mosquito could make it in Saudi Arabia,” he recalled.

He joined a small group of doctors who were building a western-style health care system from scratch. Aramco’s original medical mandate had been to provide health care for their foreign workers, but it quickly grew to include local hires and their families, then everyone in the area. Basic health care for young, healthy adult workers quickly morphed into large-scale health initiatives to benefit the entire region and population. Diseases nearly eradicated in the US were still common in rural eastern Saudi Arabia. Infant mortality, malnutrition, malaria, tetanus, small pox, and trachoma took terrible tolls on the population.

Soon Daggy would be joined by his equally adventurous family and several other Aramco nurses, doctors, researchers, and epidemiologists who would become his colleagues. ROHO’s Carole Hicke interviewed more than a dozen Aramco medical professionals in 1996. Their experience spanned decades, from the early years after World War II when most of the local population were either nomadic bedu or oasis villagers, to the early 1980s when oil wealth had created modern cities, highways, and universities. Their stories capture unique perspectives of an isolated, old culture in transition and the doctors who moved half-way around the world equipped with little more than a sense of adventure to treat them.

This collection of interviews can be read online.

Our office conducted an earlier set of oral histories, “American Perspectives of Aramco, the Saudi-Arabian Oil-Producing Company, 1930s to 1980s” which can also be read online.

-- Julie Allen






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