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Monica Foster of The Skanner
Published: 24 October 2007

Some of Seattle's most notable African Americans are being interviewed this week to be included in a national archival collection of African American video oral histories.
The HistoryMakers is the nation's largest African American video oral history archive dedicated to recording and preserving the personal histories of well-known and unsung African Americans. Based in Chicago, the nonprofit institution is committed to preserving, developing and providing easy access to thousands of African American video oral histories.
"We haven't been to the Northwest and there are African Americans who have accomplished a great deal there," said Julieanna L. Richardson, founder and executive director of The HistoryMakers.
A video crew from The HistoryMakers are in town interviewing local residents such as Seattle's first and only African American mayor, Norm Rice; Metropolitan King County Council Chair Larry Gossett, retired Washington State Judge Charles Smith, former Seattle Poet Laureate Mona Lake Jones, activist Aaron Dixon, University of Washington professor William Bradford, Professor Emeritus at Western Washington University Violet Malone, resident Gary Gayton, renowned educator Maxine Mimms and president of Jazz Inc., Gloria Burgess.
Richardson said they select individuals by doing research, talking to local newspapers, the local Urban League and the NAACP, and other organizations and historians. People can also submit someone to be nominated though their Web site.
"People often ask us, 'how do we choose the individuals' and I counter with, 'how do we sort?'" Richardson said. "There are so many African Americans with incredible stories of rich history to share."
Each interview is three to four hours long and is videotaped, sent out for transcription, archived and encoded and is then digitized for The HistoryMakers Web site. Richardson said the interviews will be available online in the future through a visual archive they are currently testing out as well as creating a database researchers can use. She has raised about $9 million for the project but needs to raise another $10 million to complete the project. 
"We want to answer the question of what is the legacy of African Americans in this country and we believe that preserving these stories will help answer that question," Richardson said. "There is a tremendous, tremendous need for a project like this."
Richardson said the holdings at Library of Congress and the Smithsonian holdings are generally in one subject only and only a few Black newspapers have archives which are indexed.
The oral history videos will educate and show the depth of American history as told from a first person perspective highlighting accomplishments of African American-led movements and/or organizations.
"We're doing this for future and current generations," Richardson said. "We don't want to see the continued marginalization of Black people by themselves and also by the larger community. When you get around Black History Month there are around 20 names mentioned, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but we want to show that our numbers actually exist in the thousands."
The HistoryMakers has done interviews in over 80 U.S. cities and towns. Last year they went to Norway to interview 94-year old Ann Brown who was the first "Bess" in Porgy and Bess on Broadway.
Richardson says not since the recording of 2,000 former slaves during the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s has there been such a massive, wide-scale attempt to record personal testimonies of African Americans.
"We see ourselves as the modern day Slave Narrative Project but using state-of-the-art technology and combining traditional oral history," Richardson said.
"When we have done interviews in places that are not viewed as typically African American urban centers, then you find a very interesting assortment of people and history that is not mainstream but very, very vibrant but not known much at all. We are essentially trying to change the paradigm of what is viewed as African American achievement in this country."
Since The HistoryMakers started recording oral history in 1999, they have interviewed nearly 1,700 people including artists, civic leaders, entertainers, athletes and noncelebrities. The goal is to create an archive of 5,000 interviews -- 30,000 hours worth -- of professional recorded video within the next five years.
Richardson plans to create a digital archive of the interviews for historically Black colleges and universities as well as national research centers including the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem and the Library of Congress. 
Some of the interviews are sponsored by the Sponsor A HistoryMaker program Campaign 400 which has raised over $450,000 this year and is steadily working towards meeting the goal of raising $1 million to fund 400 additional interviews this year.
The HistoryMakers archive is accessible via their Web site at www.historymakers.com.

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