by Derek T. Dingle -blackenterprise.com
It’s not often that you’re asked to share your life story. I was honored and humbled to participate in a video oral history this week for our modern-day griot, The HistoryMakers. Visit their website (www.thehistorymaker.com) and you’ll find an amazing roster of African American achievers.
During my in-depth, three-hour interview, I reflected on my upbringing; career at BLACK ENTERPRISE; role in creating Milestone Media, a comic book company that spawned Static Shock and a universe of other multicultural characters; and the advancement of African Americans over the past three decades. It brought back events tucked away in my memory banks for years.
One of the most valuable aspects of this experience, however, was reinforcement that African Americans must continue to share our rich narrative with the world. For one, we must ensure our history is never marginalized. Moreover, it’s critical for African American youth to hear our stories so they can identify with real-life heroes who overcame adversity to make significant contributions in business, politics, medicine, technology and other fields. Such exposure will open their minds to embrace infinite possibilities.
For 20 years, this thrust has been a large part of the mission of Julieanna Richardson, HistoryMaker’s passionate, energetic founder and executive director. Based in Chicago, her non-profit research and educational institution is “committed to preserving on videotape and making widely accessible the untold personal stories of both well-known and unsung African Americans. Through the media and a series of user-friendly products, services and events, The HistoryMakers enlightens, entertains and educates the public, helping to refashion a more inclusive record of American history.”
Richardson received our 2014 Legacy Award at the Black Enterprise Women of Power Summit – along with civil rights activist Myrlie Evers, acclaimed actress Cicely Tyson, BE 100s CEO Valerie Daniels Carter and Barbara Graves Award recipient Marian Wright Edelman – as a result of building the nation’s largest archive of African American oral history – a 9,000-hour collection of first-person interviews. To achieve this feat, the HistoryMakers’ team has traveled to more than 80 US cities and countries to capture such testimonies. Its digital archive has been accessed by users in more than 51 countries. The organization also holds teacher training institutes and fellowship programs for professionals interested in maintaining African American archives.
Before offering my oral history, I asked Richardson about her latest milestone: Transferring HistoryMakers’ priceless oral histories to the Library of Congress. She beamed: “I’m excited. Now, we have the slave narratives and contemporary stories under one roof.”
Richardson, an audacious entrepreneur who at one point created her own home shopping network, admits the project had been one of her most grueling undertakings. Although HistoryMakers was praised for producing one of the most organized collections, she says working with the world’s largest library and independent tech firms to manage metadata and voluminous analog and digital files “took seven days a week over four years.” Thus far, the conversion of 2,000 hours of material has been completed, and the next stage is expected to take another four years.
Richardson, who holds a double major in theatre arts and American studies from Brandeis University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School, is also a tireless fundraiser. Thus far, HistoryMakers has raised $13 million of its $30 million goal to complete the archives project. In addition to individual donations, it has gained corporate sponsorship and grants over the years. For example, Richardson received a $2.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation for its ScienceMakers series. And the late Herbert P. Wilkins, Sr., founder of Syncom Ventures (No. 9 on the BE PRIVATE EQUITY FIRMS List with $410 million in capital under management) – one of the initial financiers for African American media giants such as BET and Radio One – gave HistoryMakers a $1 million gift to expand its oral histories of its MediaMakers group.
Most know HistoryMakers’ series of An Evening With… specials – interviews with such luminaries as Harry Belafonte, Colin Powell, Diahann Carroll, Quincy Jones and Berry Gordy – that have aired on PBS. These taping sessions have grown into exciting, red carpet events that have proven to be effective fundraisers.
I have had the privilege of attending two such affairs: One in 2006 honoring BLACK ENTERPRISE Publisher Earl G. Graves, Sr. who was interviewed by former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond – the first session highlighting a business powerhouse – and last year’s event featuring Xerox Chairman and CEO Ursula Burns with Gwen Ifill of PBS’ Washington Week serving as interviewer. Each event garnered more than $1 million in corporate donations.
On April 12, I plan to attend the next HistoryMakers event, An Evening With Vernon Jordan, in New York City. The program celebrating the life and achievements of the civil rights leader-cum-power broker is expected to generate as much as $1.5 million in corporate donations.
I gained a preview of sorts when I sat in on the taping of Vickee Jordan Adams, vice president of external communications for Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, offering a moving personal account of her dad. She recalled how her father faced a howling mob as a young attorney escorting Charlayne Hunter-Gault into the University of Georgia in 1961 when the future journalist and another black student desegregated the institution; as a college student in 1980 she received the harrowing news of the then-National Urban League president being shot in an assassination attempt; and seeing his personal and professional transformation in his ascension to becoming a top adviser for President Bill Clinton, among others. In “growing up Jordan,” she learned to persist in any endeavor despite whatever obstacle may come your way.
For Richardson, that’s the type of inspirational message that’s at the heart of telling our story.