“Just dealing with prominent blacks is not about history,” said novelist, poet, film producer, and activist Sam Greenlee, “We only hear about those who attracted the attention of white folks …”* Greenlee’s 2001 observation from his interview with Harvard graduate, lawyer, and digital historian Julieanna Richardson is part 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 the control that white society has exerted over the African-American historical narrative, a control that Richardson—who began by recording stories of famous men and women—counteracts by including 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. Richardson set 5,000 interviews as her goal for the HistoryMakers—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.
* Thanks to UVA Librarian Regina Rush for the reference to Sam Greenlee’s interview in The HistoryMakers Digital Archive.