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A Digital Archive Is Making History in African-American Studies
by
Posted On January 15, 2019
African-American people of accomplishment are often underrepresented in history sources. Recent movies such as Red Tails and Hidden Figures put an exclamation point on that gap. Julieanna L. Richardson was keenly aware of this, and she set out decades ago to do something about it. Although she had a successful legal career after graduating from Harvard Law School and a career in cable television management, she wanted to do something that would highlight the accomplishments of African-American achievers. In 1999, she founded The HistoryMakers, a digital archive of videos with the oral histories of notables such as Colin Powell and Barack Obama, as well as lesser-known heroes, including several of the Tuskegee Airmen. It is a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit research and educational institution committed to preserving and making widely accessible the untold personal stories of both well-known and unsung African-Americans.

The HistoryMakers describes its mission as follows:

  • EDUCATE the world on the accomplishments of African Americans
  • SHOW the breadth and depth of this important American history as told in the first person
  • HIGHLIGHT the accomplishments of individual African Americans
  • SHOWCASE those who have played a role in African American-led movements and/or organizations
  • PRESERVE these video oral histories for years and generations to come

These aims are evident on the website. Each biographical entry comes with a detailed abstract of the interviewee’s life and achievements. They are arranged in broad categories such as science, the military, entertainment, education, and politics. By paying for full access, you can see any of the interview videos and associated transcripts.

Trying It Out

The HistoryMakers generously gave NewsBreaks access to the full archive. You can search by name, gender, or occupation, and you can combine these by using filters. Although each interview is hours long, the archive breaks them up into bite-sized segments called Stories. If it seems intrusive to start a video every few minutes, there is an option in the settings to make the video run without a pause.

After a minute, I found the interviews easy to navigate. The transcript appears on the right, and the section being heard is highlighted in the text. The details are quite up-to-date—Nancy Wilson’s section noted her death date, which was the previous month. The technical quality of the image and sound made a favorable impression.

Nancy Wilson

Each interview shows the date of its recording as well as the location. Even though The HistoryMakers is headquartered in Chicago, I noted that a number of the videos were created in other places. My anecdotal impression was that a lot of them were recorded in the Washington, D.C., area.

An Interview With the Founder and Executive Director

On Dec. 12, 2018, I conducted a phone interview with Richardson. I asked her about her thoughts on the many very famous people she had worked with, including Katherine Johnson, Hank Aaron, Julian Bond, and Dionne Warwick. James Earl Jones impressed her by coming back for a second taping when they had not covered everything in the first session. However, I felt that her heart was really with the lesser-known achievers who were often born in the Deep South, overcame incredible obstacles, and achieved eminence in fields such as chemistry or education.

Richardson was extremely pleased that the archive got an interview with the oldest living black cowboy. She told me that many of the first interviewees have since passed away, and an overwhelming number of them did not have a collection of papers to leave with an institution. In those cases, their record on The HistoryMakers is the best memorial of their work that can be found.

In November 2000, the organization got a boost when it taped “An Evening With Harry Belafonte” in front of a live audience at the Art Institute of Chicago. The hour-long interview was shown on PBS and featured Belafonte telling his life story to fellow entertainer Danny Glover.

When the project began, The HistoryMakers was given an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant to create 400 videos. As of this writing, the webpage lists 2,691 entries. Richardson said that in the beginning, she could envision a goal of 5,000 oral histories. At the rate that The HistoryMakers has been adding powerful partners, this may well be realistic.

I asked Richardson what steps have been made to ensure that this work will be available for all time. She said that the Library of Congress has partnered with the archive to make sure these videos will be accessible well into the future. She mentioned that Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden is a supporter of The HistoryMakers, but her main contact there is Mike Mashon, head of the Moving Image Section.

Barack ObamaMembership Options

Full access to the archive can be purchased for $30 a month or $300 annually. The membership page is at thehistorymakers.org/store/paid-membership. In addition, site licenses are available for academic and public libraries. The archive is accessible at highly prestigious universities and major public libraries such as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York, the Chicago Public Library, and the Milwaukee Public Library. Richardson has set a goal of 200 site licenses.

Other Projects

The HistoryMakers is secure in its place as a solid resource for African-American scholarship. Working from there, it is branching out into other areas to further fulfill its mission. It has a speaker’s bureau and a set of videotapes for sale, including “An Evening With Harry Belafonte.” It has partnered with Yale, Emory, and Harvard universities to offer a visiting minority archival fellowship. It also works with the National Endowment for the Humanities to run an annual intensive immersion program in which middle school and high school teachers are given training by African-American scholars, showing them how to best use the resources of The HistoryMakers. In addition, it continues to present a series of public programs in Chicago, including a 2016 appearance by former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder.

Images courtesy of The HistoryMakers


Terry Ballard is the author of three books and more than 80 articles about library automation. In addition to several writing awards, Ballard was given the Albert Nelson Marquis Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019, and will appear in the 2020 edition of Who’s Who in America. Further information can be found at terryballard.org, and he can be reached at terryballard@gmail.com.

Email Terry Ballard

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