History

Black History Treasures

Youthful indiscretions, big breaks, and hard-earned wisdom of Black leaders.

Maya Angelou, Barack Obama, and John Lewis.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Robyn Beck/Getty Images, Rick Diamond/Getty Images, Yana Paskova/Getty Images, and Ken Charnock/Getty Images.

Listen to A Word … With Jason Johnson:

Many of us are planning a post-pandemic summer full of fun, travel, and catching up with our families. Particularly for Black Americans, the catastrophic losses of COVID-19 brought us a greater appreciation of how important it is to talk with elders to get a better understanding of our country, our families, and ourselves. But that wasn’t news to Julieanna Richardson. She’s the founder and president of The HistoryMakers, a project devoted to creating a video archive of notable Black Americans, with thousands of interviews already. Richardson has spoken to everyone from musical legend Quincy Jones, to late congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis. On Friday’s episode of A Word, I spoke with Richardson about the HistoryMakers project and whether the pandemic has given her a greater sense of urgency about her work. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Jason Johnson: Has the pandemic given your work a greater sense of urgency?

Julieanna Richardson: It definitely has, but I would also say that before COVID hit, I was increasingly concerned because I did not realize the fact that we don’t have a lot of documentation of the 20th century. I don’t think I knew that when I started the project. I wanted to document, in a massive way, our experience across a variety of disciplines. And so my concern was: Can we now do things over Zoom? So yes, we’re very concerned about that, and also we’ve had a significant number of people dying.

What are the kinds of things that Black America doesn’t tend to have archived compared with, say, the white majority?

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Well, wholesale, the Black community is not archiving hardly anything. We all know the scrapbooks that people have, and we’re in a time of social media, so people have Facebook. But social media cannot be confused with archives. I need to say that. But let me tell you, I would call it a crisis and I’ll just take our body of interviews, which I would consider a pretty significant representative sample. Less than a fraction of 1 percent had any what we call “plans for their papers.” When I mention papers, I’m talking about letters, correspondences, emails, AV material, recordings, photographs, and reports. I knew that that was the case because I started to ask people what they were planning to do. And I would say to people, “Oh well, why don’t you check out this? There’s the Schomburg [Center for Research Center in Black Culture],  Amistad, the Howard Moorland-Spingarn [Research Center]. You should put your things someplace,” and so that I did.

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Then when we were starting to get our digital archive, which is a searchable database, into colleges, and universities, and libraries. This was before George Floyd and COVID, so they’re dismissive. And then to really try to engage in partnership, I started to ask them what they had about the Black experience and they didn’t have anything, and that’s when I panicked. Like, we are not being documented. And the 20th century is a really significant century because we had already lost the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries for the most part. Sometimes I don’t sleep well.

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Through HistoryMakers, you’ve talked to Colin Powell, Whoopi Goldberg, Quincy Jones, but you also talked to a lot of just regular folks. So give us an idea how you find the people that you want to talk to?

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We were really trying to build a record of our achievements, and family histories, and more information about our culture. That doesn’t always come with the big names. We’re talking about memory. The other thing is that we were going across a variety of disciplines. So whether they were scientists—we were able to do Katherine Johnson way before her story was featured in Hidden Figures. And so we’ve been working now with advisory committees that are helping to better inform who we’re doing. That is important. We’re interested in the person, but we’re really interested in the stories that reside inside of them.

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So it’s interesting you say that because you’re not always focusing on the big, famous, greatest hits. During your conversation with Maya Angelou, she talked about meeting modern dance legend Alvin Ailey. Here’s a clip from Angelou:

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We met the way dancers meet in dance halls or in dance studios. So we put together a duo and we wore almost no clothes at all. I think I had a small, little G-string and two tassels on my breasts or something. And he wore a little G-string made out of cloth, like leopard print. And we both slathered our bodies down with Max Factor makeup, so we were greasy as lard.

Wow. When you hear stuff like that, I mean…do you write about it to yourself? Does this just make you the most fascinating dinner party guest ever? How do you feel when you hear these nuggets of history?

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Well, I think that I could make a fascinating dinner guest because we’ve learned so much. I want to say that what we do are really serious, oral histories. Our interviews last three to five hours a night. We go in with a research outline. What is so wonderful about that interview is that we think of this as the time before [Maya Angelou] becomes the writer, and we’ve been having discussions with our artists. Artists can merge between different categories. And so here she was, this is early Maya Angelou, when she is actually dancing, which gets lost in the whole telling of her story.

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How did you get the inspiration to do this? I hear that it was a project that happened in grade school. What got you into archiving?

The inspiration came because I grew up in a small town in Ohio called Newark, Ohio, just south of Columbus. We had a thousand Blacks out of 50,000 whites, but I didn’t know anything about Black people. The only thing we studied were about slavery and George Washington Carver and my 9-year-old brain could not compute how he could have done all those things with peanuts and white people were talking about it. When all we have been were slaves, it just didn’t compute.

One day the teacher asked us to talk about our family background and everybody’s hands, I mean, they shot up like arrows. They were twofers and threefers. Like, they were part-German, part-Italian, and I’m sitting there horrified. What am I? And I said, I don’t even know what I said, Negro or colored. I’m not sure because it’s not like… It’s before “Black and proud.”

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And then I said I was Native American because everybody who is Black says that. Then I added in French because I didn’t want to be left out. I thought she was looking at me like, “Where did that come from?” I felt like a fraud. And that feeling stayed with me until my sophomore year at Brandeis University, where I was a theater arts, American studies major, doing research on the Harlem Renaissance in New York at Schomburg Library. And I’m listening to a song from the 1921 production of Shuffle Along on Broadway called “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” thinking that song had to be written by a white songwriting team, but it was written by a Black songwriting team, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. You talk about a bingo moment. I was in my element and being helped by the famous librarian Jean Hutson. She’d given me a list of people.

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I went and interviewed Butterfly McQueen and Leigh Whipper, who was the oldest living Black actor at the time, and Dick Campbell, who was legendary in Black theater circles, and John Henrik Clarke, a famous historian, and tap dancer Honi Coles. I mean, I have found myself… and even at that point, I probably didn’t know that would be my life’s passion.

You also worked in television, you went to Harvard. Do you think all those things, did they give you the skill set to eventually make HistoryMakers? Or do you think that was part of your personal exploration?

Very much so. My father often would say before he passed that I ended up doing exactly what I wanted to do, so I’m storytelling. Theater is storytelling and American studies is about the United States. All roads have led me to where I am now, and everything I’ve put behind this initiative, it came to me really when I was without a job and confused about where I wanted to go next, and those stories came back to me. I was also in my mid-40s and not having had children, and you get to the point where you start thinking about what your legacy is going to be, what your leave behind is, and all those things led me to this.

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Speaking of Harvard, in 2001, about a year after you started the project, you interviewed this young lawyer in Chicago named Barack Obama.

During your conversation, he said, “I think by the time I was an adolescent and had moved back from Indonesia and was struggling with these issues of racial identity and the father not being in the house, I reacted by engaging in a lot of behavior that’s not untypical of Black males across the country.”

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What made you want to interview this Barack Obama guy? I mean, he was just a state senator, and this is February of 2001. What made you think, “I need to talk to this guy”?

Barack was interviewed as part of a project of someone who actually was known here as his godfather, but at that point that wasn’t even on the horizon. It was early funding that we had gotten, and I wanted to trace the history of African Americans in the Illinois General Assembly. That turned out to be really a defining moment in many ways, besides us having had probably what is the earliest in-depth interview of him. But after he also had written his book, and you know, and I would say I’ve listened to the interview and it’s remarkably consistent to the person we see today. I find that intriguing.

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