Amidst 21st-Century Racial Strife, 20th-Century African American History At Risk of Being Lost Forever

by lisadtinsley

America sits at a critically important crossroads. Racist ideology is on the rise and significant parts of 20th-century African American history and culture are at risk of being lost forever. The HistoryMakers, the nation’s largest African American video oral history archive (, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit headquartered in Chicago, has made preventing this loss its mission. Yet, in 2021, it finds itself in a race against time.

“The challenges facing our country reinforce the need to preserve and elevate the truth about the African American experience. We must work together to massively digitize the personal collections of our HistoryMakers and other African American leaders, making them accessible worldwide. Our need is urgent, as evidenced by the events of last year and so far this year, especially as the next generation of storytellers, changemakers, and stewards of our legacy are now taking the lead,” says Julieanna Richardson, Founder and President of The HistoryMakers. “To date, a fraction of 1% of our HistoryMakers have repositories for their personal collections. We are committed to finding solutions that will more aggressively stem this loss,” adds Richardson, who urges the involvement of everyone, including the federal government, corporations, foundations, organizations, and individuals. For example, in 2019, The HistoryMakers worked with the Library of Congress and Harvard’s Schlesinger Library to ensure the preservation of the papers of their respective HistoryMakers Jessye Norman and Angela Davis.

The HistoryMakers is the digital repository for the black experience, with its archives containing almost 3,400 video oral history interviews (over 11,000 hours) recorded in 413 U.S. cities and towns, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Norway. In December, The HistoryMakers convened 20 days of panels highlighting the magnitude of this problem across various subject matters, professions, and regions, with over 100 of the nation’s African American leadership participating. Participants included former U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Merck CEO Kenneth C. Frazier, activist Angela Davis, NAACP President Derrick Johnson, U.S. Congress leaders James E. Clyburn and Maxine Waters, Four-Star General Vincent Brooks, NAACP-LDF president Sherrilyn Ifill, actor Danny Glover, singer Dionne Warwick, college presidents Johnnetta Betsch Cole and Ruth Simmons, comedian Rickey Smiley, star of ABC’s Shark Tank Daymond John, Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, and The Studio Museum in Harlem’s Thelma Golden, among others.

Howard Dodson, Director Emeritus of NYPL’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, notes: “Our nation’s mainstream institutions have not approached their preservation work equitably to be inclusive of the African American experience, creating a heritage gap. More importantly, there is a funding gap to support and uplift this work. And that needs to change.”

The HistoryMakers is housed permanently at the Library of Congress. The HistoryMakers Digital Archive ( / trial passcode: THM2021) has been licensed by nearly eighty colleges and universities (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Howard, Spelman, Morehouse, Ohio State, University of Oregon, and others), K-12 schools, and public libraries (Chicago, New York, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, etc.).

To learn more, click below:

The Crisis in Black Archives, click here.

The HistoryMakers: Then and Now, click here.

The HistoryMakers Celebrates, click here.

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