Oral historian Julieanna L. Richardson '76 to give Brandeis University Commencement address

Brandeis to award five honorary degrees in the arts, humanities and sciences

From left: Julieanna Richardson, Mildred Dresselhaus, Frank Brandeis Gilbert, Jack Whitten and Agnieszka Holland.

Alumna Julieanna Richardson, the creator of the largest video oral-history archive of the African-American experience, will return to campus to deliver Brandeis University’s Commencement address May 22.

Richardson '76 founded The HistoryMakers, an educational nonprofit dedicated to preserving, developing and showcasing video oral histories of African-Americans. Since its founding 16 years ago, The HistoryMakers has recorded more than 2,700 first-person interviews (9,000 hours) with African-Americans, making it the single largest archival project of its kind in the world. Not since the recording of former slaves during the WPA movement of the 1930s has there been such a methodical and broadscale attempt to capture the testimonies of African-Americans. 

Gen. Colin Powell, children’s advocate Marian Wright Edelman, entertainer and civic activist Harry Belafonte, President Barack Obama when he was an Illinois state senator, and 211 of the nation’s top African-American scientists are all HistoryMakers, as are countless other known and unknown African-Americans who have told their personal stories.

Richardson first experienced the power of oral history at Brandeis as she conducted interviews her sophomore year for an independent research project on the Harlem Renaissance. At Brandeis, she majored in American studies and theater arts. After graduation, she earned a JD from Harvard Law School and launched a successful career in corporate law. In the early 1980s, she entered the cable-television industry as an executive, regulatory administrator and entrepreneur.

Richardson has received numerous awards and honors, including appointment to the Comcast NBCUniversal National African-American Advisory Council, and to the Honors Council of Lawyers for the Creative Arts. In 2014, Black Enterprise magazine awarded Richardson its 2014 Legacy Award, its highest recognition of women’s achievement. 

“By preserving and making accessible thousands of life stories chronicling the African-American experience, alumna Julieanna Richardson is doing nothing less than transforming the historical record into a far more inclusive and rich tapestry,” said Interim President Lisa M. Lynch. “Our graduating students will no doubt find her own personal history an inspiration as they begin the next chapter of their lives.”

Brandeis will confer honorary degrees on Richardson and four other distinguished individuals at Commencement:

  • Renowned MIT physicist and engineer Mildred Dresselhaus is best known for her pioneering work on carbon science and carbon nanostructures, as well as nanoscience and nanotechnology. A prodigious researcher — she is the co-author of more than 1,700 articles and publications — she has also worked throughout her career to increase women’s participation in science and engineering. Dresselhaus’ honors include the National Medal of Science, the Nicholson Medal for Humanitarian Service, the Compton Award, the Fermi Award, the Kavli Prize and the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom.
  • Eminent historic preservationist and attorney Frank Brandeis Gilbert is Justice Louis Brandeis’ grandson and a stalwart supporter of the university since its earliest days. He consulted with more than 100 cities to improve historic-preservation laws across the nation. As secretary and later executive director of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, Gilbert was instrumental in the successful battle to save Grand Central Terminal, and he worked to create historic districts in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and Soho.
  • Agnieszka Holland, one of Europe’s preeminent filmmakers, and the first woman chair of the European Film Academy, has directed dozens of films. Holland has earned three Academy Award nominations in addition to many other awards and honors. Her film “Europa Europa” received an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay and also won a Golden Globe for best foreign-language film. “Angry Harvest” was nominated for best foreign-language film. Her 2012 film “In Darkness” earned an Academy Award nomination for best foreign-language film. Holland has also directed critically acclaimed programs for television, including ”The Wire,” ”Treme,” ”The Killing,” ”House of Cards” and the HBO mini-series “Burning Bush.”  She is currently working on a new feature film, “Game Count.”
  • Abstract artist Jack Whitten’s decades-long career illustrates a brilliant convergence of creativity, experimentation and political activism. His work is represented in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tate Modern and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among many others.

In 1974, Whitten had a landmark solo exhibition at the Whitney. Forty years later, a major retrospective, “Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting,” was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, and later traveled to the Wexner Center for the Arts and the Walker Art Center. A longtime believer in abstract painting’s ability to address political issues, Whitten created a monumental artwork, “9.11.01,” into which he incorporated crushed bone, glass and ash, as a memorial to the lives lost on September 11. 

Brandeis has also announced that Joel Burt-Miller ’16 will be the senior Commencement speaker, while Ahmad Naveed Noormal will deliver the graduate student address.

  • Joel Burt-Miller ’16 grew up in the Bronx, New York and is a double major in biology and Health: Science, Society and Policy. He is also the Joel Friedland ’76 Study Abroad Scholar and a Science Posse Scholar. During his junior year, Burt-Miller traveled to Sandanezwe, South Africa to participate in the Disability Special Project and assist local people with physical disabilities. Burt-Miller plans to one day become a doctor, though he will spend next year in India on a Fulbright Teaching Assistantship.
  • Ahmad Naveed Noormal is a Fulbright scholar from Kabul, Afghanistan. He has worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan. Noormal also served as chairman of the Security and Stability Committee of the Afghan Youth Parliament. He completed his master’s degree in Coexistence and Conflict Resolution with a concentration on Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Management at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management in May 2016. He plans to return to Kabul after Commencement and join the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan as a diplomat.

Commencement exercises will take place Sunday, May 22, at 10:30 a.m. in Gosman Sports and Convocation Center.

Categories: General

Return to the BrandeisNOW homepage