Black Oral History Project Heads 'Back-To-School'

Throughout the month of September, Tell Me More explores issues in education �" what’s outstanding, what needs improvement and what remains incomplete. Friday, hundreds of prominent African American leaders will head back to school as part of a special project by The HistoryMakers. The group considers itself the largest archive in the nation of African-American oral history. Host Michel Martin talks to Julieanna Richardson, founder and executive director of The HistoryMakers, about why it's putting black leaders to work in the fight to curb youth violence and inspire greatness among young, future leaders.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

As we said, we're focusing education all this month, so today we have a few more minutes on this topic.

Tomorrow, hundreds of prominent African-American leaders will head back to school as part of a special project by The HistoryMakers. The group is billed as the nation's largest archive in African-American oral history. And this year, to mark its 10th year, the group is celebrating with a project called "Back to School with the HistoryMakers." Two hundred leaders profiled in the last decade will talk directly to young people about their journeys to success and how they made it through some of life's toughest challenges.

Joining us now to talk more about the project is Julieanna Richardson. She is the founder and executive director of The HistoryMakers.

Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. JULIEANNA RICHARDSON (Founder and Executive Director, The HistoryMakers): Thank you so much, Michel for having me.

MARTIN: Well, first of all, where did the idea for The HistoryMakers come from?

Ms. RICHARDSON: Well, it was originated from me. But it also was the result of an education program that we had run in Chicago and Atlanta where we would actually have history makers go and present at schools. And weve been working over the last 10 years to assemble an archive that now represents 7,000 hours of African-American testimony on tape. And...

MARTIN: Why do you think that's important?

Ms. RICHARDSON: It's important now for, because they want to give back because there is so little knowledge of the history, because we want to inspire youth to greatness, because so little is known about these people and what theyve done. And we're just trying to broaden the dialogue.

The other thing that really motivated this program was the violence that's irrupting in schools around the country and the sort of the isolation and the -and sort of desperation that you see. And in many ways people are shaking their heads. They're bemoaning what is happening, but we wanted to do something that was direct action.

MARTIN: Why do you think the whole oral history project that youre getting people to speak directly, putting their own stories down on tape, having them be archived, why do you think that's important?

Ms. RICHARDSON: It's incredibly important. If you dont record it doesnt exist, Michel. And so little has been recorded, you know, about the African-American experience. You had the Slave Narratives that is a wonderful project that came out of the WPA, but there have been virtually no attempt to massively record the African-American experience of the 20th, and as we move forth, the 21st century. So that's what the whole tenant of this project is.

You know, we have the names that everyone knows, you know, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but there are thousands and thousands of people that have had a role, have helped shaped history, that have been leaders in our society that we virtually dont know. We...

MARTIN: Give us an example of some of the names who will be visiting with schools tomorrow. Now, some of these are also very well-known folks, like the Reverend Al Sharpton, for example, is certainly a name that many people know or depending on where you live, many people might know the Honorable Merv Dymally, who is a public official on the West Coast. But tell us some of the other names of people and what are some of the stories that they will be telling?

Ms. RICHARDSON: Okay. Well, you have Camay Murphy, who is Cab Calloway's daughter. She's actually going to be going back to the school that she attended in 1933 from kindergarten to third grade. You have - now he's a well-known name - but Fred Shuttlesworth is going back to the school that he integrated with the daughters that he brought to school that day. And they, you know, they had not been back, you know, really as a group since. We have, you know, Kent Amos, who actually left Xerox - was one of the Xerox Seven, you know, in the business community, really decided at one point he was going to shuck his corporate, you know, track and give back to the community, so we're going to be that the Dorothy Height Charter School with him.

MARTIN: And you mentioned - I want to go back to something that you mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, which is in part that you wanted to do this project tomorrow, in part, to celebrate the 10th year of the HistoryMakers, but also because you said as a response to the youth violence that has gotten so much attention. What do you mean by that and how do you think that this will help address that?

Ms. RICHARDSON: Michel, you know, we wrote to the schools to say would they be interested in this program and the responses we got back were, you know, 50 percent of the students here have AIDS or we need something that will uplift the students and make them feel that they have a future. So we thought - I mean how do you make change if people dont know how and dont have exposure? And I remember very well one time we were actually doing a program with Earl Graves...

MARTIN: And forgive me, Earl Graves is the...

Ms. RICHARDSON: The publisher and founder of Black Enterprise Magazine. And we had at that time, we had a gangbanger - we didnt know that - a former gangbanger acting as a driver. And he called me and left a message and said Miss Richardson, I can't tell you what the last few days have meant. He said, you know, me and my boys, weve never really heard real men talk and we heard them talk. And he said I've never seen or heard people like that in my life. And so this is what we dont realize is that if your world is, you know, just based on very limit exposure, you know, you dont know what exists outside of that world.

And the other thing is that these history makers represent a whole span of experiences. That's the tenant of this whole program. It's taking our stories, it's taking the people themselves and it's putting them in front of the people who can most take advantage of it.

MARTIN: Julieanna Richardson is founder and executive director of The HistoryMakers. It's a Chicago-based oral history project that profiles African-American leaders, the well-known and the should be better known. She joined us from NPR member station WBEZ in Chicago.

Julieanna Richardson, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. RICHARDSON: Thank you, Michel. I really appreciate everything.

MARTIN: And you can find a link to The HistoryMakers by visiting our website, just log on to npr.org, click on programs, then on TELL ME MORE.

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MARTIN: And that's the program for today. Im Michel Martin and youve been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Lets talk more tomorrow.

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