In “John Robinson Wilkins and the Resources of the Law,” David B. Wilkins explores the lives of the lawyers who came before him—his uncle, father, grandfather, and others. In “Following in Their Footsteps,” we used quantitative data to examine questions of intergenerational professional legacy, with a particular focus on race. And, in “Portrait of an Artist,” sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot outlines her research method of portraiture: capturing the lessons and nuances of our experiences and the essence of the people who animate life. In this article, we turn our focus to a project that brings together many of these lessons—and many portraitures—to create a lasting repository of stories and firsthand accounts: The HistoryMakers. The Practice recently sat down with Julieanna Richardson, the founder and president of The HistoryMakers, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, to discuss the power of narratives and oral histories—and how Richardson, a trained lawyer herself, brought it all to life.
What is The HistoryMakers?
The HistoryMakers was founded to address the lack of documentation and preservation of the African American life, history, and culture. Prior to the start of our interviews in 2000, there had only been one large-scale attempt to document the Black experience from a first-person perspective, and that was the 1930s Works Projects Administration slave narratives, which are currently also housed, like The HistoryMakers, at the Library of Congress. Nearly a century of African American achievements and struggles had gone undocumented at the time of our founding. The HistoryMakers was born of my desire to address this problem, by capturing—one person at a time—the untold personal stories of both well-known and unsung African Americans, and by creating a priceless video collection giving those involved their special place in history. The testimonies captured in The HistoryMakers collection—conducted in homes and offices across the United States and abroad—reveal the broad scope of narratives of African American men and women who have made significant contributions to American life, history, and culture during the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Many of these contributions have largely been untold and unrecorded and, as a result, are still largely “unknown.” They are “America’s missing stories.”
How did you become interested in personal narratives and histories?
It really goes back to when I’m nine years old. I was the only Black kid in my class in a small town called Newark, Ohio. I remember one day my teacher asked the class to talk about our family backgrounds. I looked around the class and everybody’s hands shot up like arrows. They were excited to tell their stories! “Part German, part French.” “Part Italian, part Polish.” “Jewish.” They had stories and they knew their family backgrounds … their heritage. Me, I didn’t have one that I knew. The only things I had ever learned about Black people in school was George Washington Carver and all the things he could do with peanuts and the second was … slavery. To my nine-year-old brain, those two facts did not compute. So, I’m sitting there thinking, “What was I going to say?” I said, “I’m part Negro (Black?), part Cherokee,” because most Black people think Native American! And then, because I wanted to be like them, I added in that I was part French. I knew I had lied. And, I felt like the teacher knew I had lied. But I wanted a history like everyone else.
Nearly a century of African American achievements and struggles had gone undocumented at the time of our founding.
Fast-forward 10 years and I would find that history at New York’s Schomburg Library. The year was 1973. I was a double major in theater arts and American studies at Brandeis University doing research on the Harlem Renaissance. I remember it like it was yesterday. The leaves were a golden brown, orange with reddish overtones. I was listening to the song “I’m Just Wild About Harry” from the 1921 Broadway production of Shuffle Along. It was a eureka moment to learn that the song I associated with President Harry Truman was written by the Black song-writing team of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. When I heard this, it was like fireworks went off in my body. I also had a background. Think about this. I had been carrying this feeling that I had in that classroom with me since I was nine! With tape recorder in hand, I interviewed Gone with the Wind actress Butterfly McQueen, tap dancer Honi Coles, historian John Henrik Clark, 99-year-old equity actor Leigh Whipper, whose grandfather had been a judge in South Carolina during Reconstruction. One interview informed the other. I would return my senior year for research on the Harlem Renaissance poet/writer Langston Hughes, tape recorder also in hand. I was in heaven.
Law school, a job as a corporate associate, and some entrepreneurial adventures would intervene. But The HistoryMakers was probably founded—although I did not know it—as I listened to “I’m Just Wild About Harry” that day at New York’s Schomburg Library.
Why did you become a lawyer?
My father wanted me to be a lawyer. He thought it was the most noble of professions. And, he sold me on it. I attended Interlochen Arts Academy, a performing arts high school, and all I wanted to do was have a career in the theater. But he said that you could do anything you wanted to do if you were a lawyer.
Did you know any lawyers growing up?
Not really. There was a Black lawyer in our town, but I didn’t really know him. I, like everyone, watched Perry Mason! I was looking for nontraditional legal careers. When I was at Harvard Law School, my mentor was HLS professor Philip Heymann. He would ask, “What do you want to do?” And I’d say, “I want to do something nontraditional. I’d like to run something.”
What happened after law school?
I was blessed enough to get into Harvard Law School and became a lawyer. After graduation, I started as an associate at Jenner & Block (for more, see “John Robinson Wilkins and the Resources of the Law,” in which David B. Wilkins outlines his father’s path to partnership at the firm) in Chicago. At that point, no, there were no Black partners at the firm. And hardly any women. They could not envision me. As a young Black female who didn’t want to be a litigator, they offered me a spot in their corporate department. I didn’t even know what that was! But, I figured I don’t want a life of fighting as a litigator.
The firm was upfront and said, in effect, “There are not many Black people in corporate America. We’ll have to screen the clients as some of our clients will not want to deal with you directly.” So, at that point I was like, “As long as you will not have me isolated in a corner, sure. I don’t have a problem with that.”
What was it like being a Black woman in this foreign environment?
In my first year, I brought in a client—a small newspaper and magazine distributor. They competed with Levy Brothers, Chicago’s main distributor! Of course, there was no other associate bringing in clients—mostly because it’s not something first-year associates did! He remained my client for the time I was at Jenner & Block.
Two years into my time at Jenner & Block, I learned that another white male associate was getting all the great assignments. I wasn’t getting much at all. I was livid. I went into the managing partner’s office and read him the riot act. I was really upset. I was like, “My role is to work. Your role is to train me. How is he getting this work and I’m not getting that work?” That was a defining moment for me, and I decided that my career should exist outside of the traditional law firm.
How did that passion for narratives translate into The HistoryMakers?
I remember attending a National Bar Association conference in Memphis. It was shortly after the hotly contested appointment of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court. Attending the conference were Judge Constance Baker Motley; Reverend Billy Kyles, who was on the balcony with Martin Luther King that day; and Judge Leon Higginbotham Jr.
I wanted to document the Black community through the lives of its leadership, broadly construed. While those interviewed did not have to be nationally known, there needed to be a certain level of achievement in their field and/or endeavor.
And, I was thinking, “Wow, people know Martin Luther King Jr., but they don’t know all these names.” And so, the name The HistoryMakers came to me. I returned to Chicago and excitedly told my friend, who was general counsel for our local PBS station, “I know exactly what I’m going to do. It’s called The HistoryMakers, and it’s an archive of Black people.” I thought she’d be excited as well, but she was doubtful of the concept and whether I could be successful. She and two other friends planned an intervention session where they listened to me and my ideas and they asked me to ask and answer two questions: Did an archive like I envisioned exist already? And if it didn’t exist, and one was created, would anyone be interested in it? And they said, “We theorize no to the latter question.” And, I took that seriously. There is no archive like The HistoryMakers, and twenty years into the project, we can say there is much interest in our work and what we have created.
The HistoryMakers has a very eclectic group of people—both the famous and the unsung. Was that a conscious decision?
It was always intended. I was very inspired by what Steven Spielberg had done with starting the Shoah Foundation after producing the movie Schindler’s List. He decided to interview thousands of Holocaust survivors. I also knew what I didn’t want the project to be. I didn’t want it to be folkloric. Some people have said to me, “I have my Black housekeeper who has a great story. Why don’t you interview her?” And there is nothing wrong with that—in fact, that is often how the Black experience was documented. That’s just not The HistoryMakers project, and I did not want someone’s marginalized viewpoint to dictate our content. Instead I wanted to document the Black community through the lives of its leadership, broadly construed. While those interviewed did not have to be nationally known, there needed to be a certain level of achievement in their field and/or endeavor.
And so, we have 15 different interview categories: arts, law, business, education, science, music, entertainment, sports, medical, civics, media, political, religion, military, and style. I assembled a group of scholars at the beginning of the project to think about who should be interviewed, but initially it wasn’t an organized approach! We often relied on newspaper articles, referrals, and reference librarians.
All told, as of November 2020, we have interviewed almost 3,400 African Americans in 413 cities and towns across the United States and international locations like Norway, the Caribbean, and Mexico. Over the years, we have interviewed everyone from Barack Obama, when he was an Illinois state senator, to Bishop Carolyn Tyler Guidry of the AME Church; from Lilia Abron, a chemical engineer, to Dr. Lillian M. Beard, a pediatrician, author, and civic leader.
Who was the first lawyer you interviewed?
It was a gentleman named Leo Branton Jr. Leo, who was born in 1922 in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, became a major lawyer in the world of entertainment (after serving for almost three years in a segregated unit during World War II). We talked about everything—from his mother to segregation to serving in the war to why he didn’t go to medical school. And, of course, we talked about being a lawyer, being a Black lawyer and trying to break into the entertainment industry, which was almost impossible for a Black lawyer, but he did it; and, in the end, he represented Nat King Cole, Dorothy Dandridge, the Platters, and Inger Stevens. He tells a story that when he first went to Nat King Cole, he said, “I will do work for you for a year at no charge. If you like me, hire me, and if you don’t, no hard feelings.” He was Nat King Cole’s lawyer until he died. His most celebrated case was his defense of civil rights activist Angela Davis in 1972, where she was acquitted of all charges. His favorite food was gumbo, seafood, and chitterlings—it all goes back to those childhood memories. Leo passed away in April 2013 at the age of 91.
We have 15 different interview categories: arts, law, business, education, science, music, entertainment, sports, medical, civics, media, political, religion, military, and style.
Another narrative that sticks out in my mind is of Elaine Jones, formerly head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund. She was born and raised in Norfolk, Virginia, by a Pullman porter father and a mother who worked as a teacher. She spoke of attending Howard University as an undergrad and being in the same class as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) Stokely Carmichael. She had wanted to be a lawyer since she was a young girl and recounted an incident where she was summoned to court because she had visited the dentist without her parents’ permission. She presented her case to the judge, and he ruled in her favor. After graduating from Howard University, she was the first African American female to be admitted to the University of Virginia School of Law, where the environment was hostile from faculty and students on a daily basis. Her sister, Gwendolyn Jones, would then also go on to be the second African American female admitted to attend the university’s law school. It would be Jack Greenberg, then head of the Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), who would hire her, and she was assigned to work on death cases in the South where she received death threats. She went on to work at the Department of Transportation under Bill Coleman, who was the first African American to head up the federal agency. There she learned a lot, but she then returned to LDF to replace its then outgoing LDF head, Julian Chambers. Her favorite food is fish; her favorite colors are blues and browns. Litigation was in her blood.
In addition to Leo Branton and Elaine Jones, we have interviewed more than 130 lawyers, all with their own stories and lessons. We expect that number to continue to grow in the ensuing years.
Eighty percent of the people that we’ve interviewed have never had a long-form interview and often find it cathartic.
How do your interviewees react to being interviewed?
First of all, I believe there’s nothing better than oral history interviews. They are more than just storytelling because they are extensively researched, and ours typically run three to five hours a session. Eighty percent of the people that we’ve interviewed have never had a long-form interview and often find it cathartic. There are certain questions that are common across in interviews and are “mandatory.” For instance, we explore the subject’s family life and history, particularly their childhood memories. One of the questions we always ask is: “What sights, smells, and sounds remind you of your childhood?” It’s a guided exploration. It’s a partnership. It’s magical.
I get chills down my spine just thinking back. I’ll give you an example. It was the first year of The HistoryMakers, and I’m struggling about whether we should focus our interview efforts on the unsung or well-known. Of course, it is the well-known that gives you credibility, so I’m starting with an interview with Colonel Bill Thompson—one of the Tuskegee Airman. He was the chief documentarian of the 99 Squadron—the famous squadron. I got there, and he sat me down and he said, “Have you heard of the Golden Thirteen”? And I said, “No, I’ve never heard of the Golden Thirteen.” He said, “Well, they were the U.S. Navy’s version of the Tuskegee Airmen. There are four living in the country, and one lives upstairs. And he’d like to talk to you.” What a moment. The project has really been one of discovery. You do your research, you go in, you think you know the person or the themes, but when you are there, often it is a more complex story underneath the facts.
How have your audiences reacted to the interviews?
Our audiences love our stories. Both young and old. One time, we were in Atlanta and we had a group of young students, mostly Black. Around 200. There was a documentary series produced using our content. I asked whom they were most like and they said: “The old man, the photographer.” It was Gordon Parks. But not only did the 12-year-old boy state restate what Gordon Parks had said, but he compared him to the rapper business mogul Jay-Z. There is the time that the head of the sculpture department at the Art Institute was listening in the audience at our An Evening with Harry Belafonte PBS-TV taping where he learned for the first time that Belafonte had not only helped to finance the Civil Rights Movement and its leaders, but he financed the college education of Martin Luther King Jr.’s children. He was so moved that he donated a statue for The HistoryMakers to give individual honorees. Our interview of Herbie Hancock at his home found our HistoryMakers statue sitting alongside his Grammy awards. Then there is the story of a teenage boy out of Columbus, Ohio, who was so moved to learn about performer-activists Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee when searching in our archive about Spike Lee that he produced and won an award for his first-time documentary on their lives.
How is your content used?
Our content is used in all kinds of ways. We’ve had everyone from the BBC, CNN, and others in news media to individuals and church programs incorporate our content into reporting or programming. The College of William & Mary actually created a dance composition based on our content. There’s someone now doing work on a theater production on Black Appalachia and delighted in learning that the poet Nikki Giovanni describes herself as Black Appalachian. There were almost 100 others who also did.
Our digital archive, which can be accessed from desktops, laptops, and portable devices, puts all of our content at users’ fingertips. It so exciting to see. It’s easy to use. Everything’s transcribed and separated into three- to five-minute sections.
You do your research, you go in, you think you know the person or the themes, but when you are there, often it is a more complex story underneath the facts.
In fact, one elementary school in North Carolina was using to teach vocabulary in context. Also, the digital archive works wonderfully on Zoom and is well suited for online learning environments. Eighty universities (including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, NYU, Boston University, Ohio State, University of Texas Austin, Emory, University of Michigan, and University of Oregon) are now offering it as an easy-to-use electronic resource for use by faculty and students. The whole state of Alaska has licensed it, plus, in recent years, the public libraries in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Charlotte, Detroit, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Houston, and Salt Lake City. More are starting to come forth. The digital archive actually takes users inside the lives of Black people with its collection of almost 3,400 and growing interviews (11,000 hours of first-person testimony) to educate the world about African American life, history, and culture. The HistoryMakers is a vitally important treasure-trove of insights, career paths, role models, and perspectives. These stories, now and well into the future, will provide a more complete understanding of who we are as Americans, as well as where we have come from and where we are going as a nation. An integral part of the American experience, The HistoryMakers’ stories are stories of success against the odds, of achievement in the face of adversity, and of inspiration.
To learn more about The HistoryMakers, visit www.thehistorymakers.org/.