Nine-year-old Julieanna Richardson was the only Black student in her class. The only thing they taught about Black people was George Washington Carver and his peanuts and slavery.
What stuck in her mind was this: How could he have done all those things with peanuts when we had all been slaves?
One day the teacher asked the class to talk about their family backgrounds and all her classmates’ hands shot up, announcing they were part German, part Italian, part lots of things. With the room abounding with hyphenates, she cowered in the corner and finally said she was part French. She wasn’t, but with all the hands up, she didn’t want to be left behind.
Not having a legacy of her own, not belonging, stayed with her until she was a freshman at Brandeis University doing research on the Harlem Renaissance. It was fall and the leaves were golden brown with reddish overtones.
“Preservation is key because preservation shows value.”
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” she told a session of NCSL’s Legislative Summit. She came upon a 1921 musical, “Shuffle Along,” a seminal Broadway production written, directed and starring Black people. One song, “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” stood out.
“It was a eureka moment for me to learn that this song I associated with President Harry Truman was actually written by a Black songwriting team of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake,” she says.
“I couldn’t articulate it at the time but I didn’t want to have any child feel the way I felt in that classroom, especially when I have a history as rich and complex as theirs.”
Flash forward two decades when she was in her mid-40s, a Harvard Law graduate with no children and wondering what was going to be her leave-behind.
That quest became The HistoryMakers, a digital repository for the Black experience that documents, through interviews and other sources, the achievements of Black people in a wide variety of categories from politics (including a young state senator named Barack Obama) to the arts, sports, education, business, law, medicine, the military, religion, science and more.
The rich and diverse content “fills a gap,” she says. “Preservation is key because preservation shows value. With the support of those who believed in my vision, we built a bridge as we crossed it, one interview, one story at a time.”
Even in these trying times of racial and social unrest and great uncertainty about teaching of Black history, it is now more relevant than ever before.
Less than 1% of the nearly 3,000 people interviewed had a repository for their personal collections and most do not have biographies or documentaries preserving their legacies, including civil rights icon John Lewis. When her team looked for photographic history of Black people in universities, they found a “Black Sambo” collection at Washington University in St. Louis and a Virginia glee club in blackface.
“We are going to be the digital repository for the people we interviewed,” says Richardson, who was recently profiled on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”
She asked lawmakers to support her effort and noted the urgency.
“Time is running out,” she says. “We’ve lost the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. We can’t lose the 20.”
“The pot will not melt until we acknowledge the sum of the working parts. These stories are rich and complex. They should not be hidden from view. I’m asking you to fund these efforts, work with me, challenge us as I’m challenging you, state by state, to join in our mission.”
Mark Wolf is a senior editor at NCSL.
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