The Power of the Spoken Word

Julieanna Richardson ’76
Courtesy The HistoryMakers
Julieanna Richardson ’76
As a child, Julieanna Richardson ’76 read textbooks that confined black history to stories about slaves and George Washington Carver’s experiments with peanuts. “I didn’t know that black people had done things,” she says today. At 9, she was so eager to have a more “important” background that she told people she was part French.

Then, in her sophomore year at Brandeis, while pursuing an independent study on the Harlem Renaissance, Richardson discovered the richness of African-American history. At New York City’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, she listened to the popular song “I’m Just Wild About Harry” and discovered it had been written by black composers Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle.

This was a eureka moment, which “ignited a passion that wasn’t going to leave me,” Richardson says. “It struck me in a very profound way.” By the time she graduated with a double major in theater arts and American studies, she had developed a deep awareness of the power of African-Americans’ oral histories, an interest that stayed with her as she attended Harvard Law School and went on to careers in corporate law and the cable industry in Chicago.

In 1999, after leaving the cable industry and reflecting on her own legacy, Richardson founded The HistoryMakers, a nonprofit research and educational institution dedicated to creating an archive of the personal stories of African-Americans, from Barack Obama to the oldest living cowboy.

The HistoryMakers focuses on African-Americans who have significantly contributed to American life or culture, or who have been associated with a movement or an organization central to the black community. They include individuals like Reatha Clark King, the daughter of sharecroppers, who earned a PhD in chemistry and became a researcher, college president and board member of numerous corporations, and the Chicago Tribune’s Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Clarence Page.

So far, the organization has recorded about 2,300 video interviews, says Richardson. It plans to record 5,000 interviews — more than double the number of slave narratives recorded between 1936-38 by the Works Progress Administration, created by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

“There is so little known about the black experience. These are wonderfully rich bits of human history,” Richardson says.

Brandeis was key in her wanting to capture them. “The Brandeis experience was a fundamental part of my success on lots of different levels: the questioning, the academic rigor, the tolerance, the pride in Jewish culture and my passion for African-American culture,” she explains.

“We don’t have to fictionalize our history. It’s all there.”

— Jessica Tobacman ’02