A Digital Archive Is Making History in African-American Studies

By Ballard, Terry | Information Today, March 2019 | Go to article overview

A Digital Archive Is Making History in African-American Studies


Ballard, Terry, Information Today


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 (thehistory makers.org), 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 Americanled 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 provided access to the full archive for this article. 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.

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, 2018,1 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. …

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