“Just dealing with prominent blacks is not about history … We only hear about those who attracted the attention of white folks …”* So said novelist, poet, film producer, and activist Sam Greenlee in a November 2001 interview with Julieanna Richardson, Harvard graduate, lawyer, digital historian, and founder of The HistoryMakers—the newest digital history resource offered by the Library, and the largest database of oral African-American history in existence.
UVA researchers may now hear the late Sam Greenlee speak about how white society has controlled the African-American historical narrative, which also explains why Julieanna Richardson—who began by recording stories of famous men and women—expanded the archive to include what she calls “America’s Missing Stories.” She was inspired by the example of the little-known “Golden 13″—black men who were commissioned as Naval officers in World War II. She set 5,000 interviews as her goal, more than double the number of interviews that the Works Progress Administration conducted with slavery survivors in the 1930’s.
The HistoryMakers’ interviews, however, are not confined to a single focus such as slavery. They include African Americans’ “contributions in all areas of American life and culture,” in the arts, the military, in business, in the legal and healthcare professions, in architecture and engineering, in education—largely “untold and unrecorded,” but here told without being filtered through a white perspective.
Subjects who agreed to be interviewed range from celebrated figures to “ordinary” people. If you type “oldest voter” in the homepage search box, and choose “Civic Maker” as a category, you get six names. One, Amazon Brooks—born November 26, 1897—remembers voting in 1920, the first year women were allowed to cast a ballot. She died on February 23, 2007, and therefore did not live to see Barack Obama—who was interviewed for the archive in 2001—win the 2008 presidential election as the first African-American U.S. President.
* Thanks to UVA Librarian Regina Rush for the reference to Sam Greenlee’s interview in The HistoryMakers Digital Archive.