Detroit Historical Society Wants to Know Your COVID-19 Memories

What has life during the pandemic been like for you?

detroit historical society

What will you remember most about life in the time of COVID-19? Whether it’s suffering from or losing someone to the disease itself or the heartbreak of distancing that keeps you separated from loved ones or any other host of experiences, the Detroit Historical Society wants to make sure those memories are preserved.

The society took over management of the Detroit Historical Museum and Dossin Great Lakes Museum during Detroit’s financial crisis. It also manages an inventory of about 250,000 artifacts in the city’s archival collection.

Just as it solicited Oral and Written History Project contributions from the public relating to the unrest of 1967 in Detroit, and for another effort centered around the city’s neighborhoods, the society is now asking that people record or share their COVID-19 recollections in writing, while they are fresh.

Here, Joel Stone, senior curator, and William “Billy” Wall-Winkel, assistant curator, share the details.

Hour Detroit: How did the Oral and Written History Project series come about?

Billy Wall-Winkel: We’ve decided that the center of what we do at the museum is going to be directly derived from Detroiters and metro Detroiters, so we’re going to have oral histories be the backbone of our exhibits moving forward, and we know it’s far easier to capture perspectives in the moment than to ask for them 50 years from now.

Why COVID for a theme? 

Joel Stone: We knew because COVID was going to be so big, the immediacy of getting people’s impressions today, as they’re hunkered down locked in their homes, can’t see their grandkids, or grandparents, they can’t go to the store — getting those visceral reactions while they’re happening is like interviewing soldiers on a battlefield.

What kind of responses have you gotten?

Wall-Winkel: Not very many, but people are still processing it. The pandemic isn’t over or going anywhere — that’s why we got the project up and running. People are welcome to submit multiple entries. If they want to turn it into a journal, they can turn it into a journal.

Stone: We would also encourage that. I know friends of mine keep a diary religiously, so at some point if they decide [to donate] what they’ve written down — as opposed to an oral history — we’re happy to have that, too. It’s possible to get on our website and submit it as an electronic document. There’s also a place on the website if you want to type out a paragraph or two. Or if you’re on your phone and [have] an MP4, you can send it through the website.

What kinds of things do the submissions you’ve received so far talk about?

Wall-Winkel: The common theme is, “We knew it was going on, but we didn’t think it was going to be bad. And it was bad.”

What happens to the entries?

Stone: Right up front we tell people these are going to be on the website. This is a public access thing, and we make that point to people as they leave their thoughts: Don’t go on a rant; don’t tell us something you don’t want public. … Once we approve them, every one of them gets transcribed. We try to get them up as quick as possible.

If you were to submit your own COVID story, what would it be about?

Wall-Winkel: The unrest that’s going on in the country right now. All I can think about is how annoyed I felt watching the lockdown protesters descend on the capital … without masks, without protective gear, and all I could think of was how much I wanted to get out of my apartment right now and knew I couldn’t and how it would be longer because of it. Then I think of people taking to the streets now. … People are comparing it online: “Well, all you liberals are out on the streets after yelling at us for being on the streets.” You were mad you couldn’t go to the hairdresser, … where we’re protesting murders by police.

Stone: On the serious side, the divisiveness, the responses on websites and social media that have been everything from pitiful to vile. But one of the things that keeps striking me, working from home, … it seems we’re working faster and harder than at work. Every time I turn around, it’s Friday again. It’s amazing how quickly it’s going.


What we’ll remember: An excerpt from Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit Responds: Stories From the Time of COVID-19

From Tragedy, Good Things Come

There have been good things to come out of this tragedy. I’ve witnessed a calm in my city that has been a distant cousin for some time. I’ve exchanged pleasantries and a laugh or two with strangers in my travels for disinfecting wipes. I’ve noticed Detroiters taking the 6-foot rule seriously and thus have not yet had to give a tongue-lashing. I’ve finally found a use for those useless Swiffer dust wipes. (Spray some cleanser on one and voila! Disinfectant wipes. Take that, hoarders!)

It’s been 29 days of isolation (including surviving a 10-day staycation), and laughter most definitely creates a major barrier for insanity.

The Mom Unit and I graciously share this time and space of unknowing: how long this might last or whether or not my precautions are not cautious enough (my gloves are stocked and masks are ordered). We spend way too much time on social media (I should really update her parental controls). Catch episodes of our favorite shows together. She badgers me for my attention during work hours and criticizes my choice of pasta — she has a point with that one, though.

Do not even bother with the chicken and cheese ravioli from Sam’s Club — you’ve been warned.

But I am grateful to not have to endure this global and local catastrophe alone. The Mom Unit and God have my back. I was taught early on that “during your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried of you.” (“Footprints in the Sand,” Anonymous)

—Arletha

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