Project gives voice to African-American history

Aug. 14, 2014 @ 05:23 PM

When The HistoryMakers project was getting off the ground, founder Julieanna Richardson came to Durham to garner support from someone who definitely made history: John Hope Franklin.
She spent a few hours at his home and they talked about his orchids. He wrote a letter of support for The HistoryMakers, and his own interview recorded later became part of the 2,600 video oral history interviews archiving African-Americans who are an integral part of U.S. history.
Now The HistoryMakers archives have found a permanent home in the Library of Congress. The files, which have been digitized, are being housed at the Packard Campus depository in Culpeper, Virginia.
“You don’t do a project like this and not do it right, and the Library of Congress is a sign we’re doing it right,” Richardson said in a phone interview this week. The HistoryMakers, based in Chicago, was founded in 1999 and interviews began in 2000. Richardson said her visit with Franklin was in the first few years of the project. It will eventually include 5,000 video oral histories, and they are still conducting interviews.
“In the early years, we didn’t even have a list. We started with a group of scholars, asking them who we should interview,” she said. Indeed, there are many scholars in The HistoryMakers, including several from Durham.
There are several categories of HistoryMakers, encompassing the broad contributions of the people profiled. In addition to Franklin, Durham HistoryMakers whose interviews are part of the collection include King V. Cheek for education, Calvin Howell for science, Erich Jarvis for science, Marian Johnson-Thompson for science, James Joseph for politics, Paula McClain for education, Kenneth Olden for science, Richard Payne for medicine, Arlie Petters for education and science, Kenneth G. Rogers for education and art, James Speed for business, James O. Webb for business and politics and C. Eileen Watts Welch for education.
The 16 categories range from civics to fashion/beauty. Richardson said they wanted to be broad in capturing their stories. At first, interviews focused on older people, but now include a range of ages.
In Chapel Hill, HistoryMakers in the collection are T.J. Anderson for music, Herman Marrel Foushee for business and media, and Chuck Stone for education and media. From Hillsborough, Sekazi Mtingwa was included for science, and Bertram Fraser-Reid was included for science and education.
As interviews continue to be conducted, the collection will be migrated to the Library of Congress every three to four years. The total number of HistoryMakers will be 5,000, and at about 2,600 so far, the project is halfway there. Some of those interviewed have passed away, like Franklin and Stone, the University of North Carolina professor and journalist who died earlier this year in Chapel Hill. Franklin, the nationally known historian, civil rights leader and scholar who spent his career at Duke University, died in 2009.
Richardson said with the range of interviews, they believe that the result will be a quiltwork from which a new and more accurate version of African-American history will emerge.
“The strength of the collection, when unveiled for all the world to see, is the intersection of the stories,” Richardson said. “There’s a lot more history out there.”
The website,, shows short biographies of HistoryMakers, and those who become HistoryMakers Members have access to the video archive. People can also nominate someone to be interviewed as a HistoryMaker.  Richardson said video is used so viewers can actually see the HistoryMaker.
“You can see a twinkling of someone’s eye, or tears,” she said. Oral history interviews are well-researched, Richardson said. “You’re working in partnership with them, helping them tell their story. Books are edited, and ours aren’t.”
Richardson said The HistoryMakers is tied to her own story of searching for herself as a black person. While much history has been lost, she is optimistic about the amount still there, she said.
“Our nation had trouble going back because of the issue of slavery. White people didn’t want to feel guilty, and black people didn’t want to feel ashamed. But history isn’t about guilty or ashamed,” she said. Rather than using the same 20 names to discuss black history, The HistoryMakers has the ability to change that, she said, with the size of the collection.
The digital archive will be part of the curriculum at Howard University this fall, funded by Carnegie Mellon University, and Richardson said The HistoryMakers are open to any university who wants to do it, too.
“It’s time now,” she said.

Follow on Twitter: @dawnbvaughan